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From left: Andy Martinez and Rick Oliva, senior maintenance workers and irrigation specialists for the City of Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks Department, work on repairs to make the city's reclaimed water irrigation system more efficient to control runoff. “Zero runoff and/or over spray is our goal,” says Parks Superintendent Lisa Grant. Photo: Jennifer Tuell

Residential outdoor water use in the United States accounts for more than 7 billion gallons a day —that's more than 2.5 trillion gallons in a year — mainly for landscape irrigation. Yet experts say as much as half of that water is wasted. It is lost to evaporation, wind, or runoff due in part to inefficient watering methods and irrigation systems.

In addition to public awareness programs and restricting outdoor residential water use, the best place to start promoting water conservation may be in your municipality's own backyard — the parks, sports fields, and other public spaces that can demonstrate the beauty and low maintenance of water-efficient landscapes.

One way to do this is by joining U.S. EPA's WaterSense program, which serves as both a partnership program to help you promote water-saving behaviors, and as a trusted label for identifying water-efficient products and services.

Set the example — and save money

The national average cost of water has increased by about 6.5% each year for the past two years. Smart irrigation techniques and technologies, however, can provide innovative cost-saving solutions.

Lisa Grant, park maintenance superintendent for Santa Rosa, Calif., agrees: “With water rates going up and our inability to stretch the budget, the need for decreased outdoor water use at our parks was automatic for our city.” To save both money and water, city officials:

  • Replaced old sprinkler heads at municipal parks
  • Limited aboveground outdoor watering to turf grass
  • Watered playing fields to be “playable, not lush”
  • Used drip irrigation for park trees and shrubs. The low-volume, micro-irrigation method saves water by slowly trickling water directly to plants' roots.

Santa Rosa residents aren't the only ones who can see firsthand how their city saves water. Drivers in Riverside, Calif., are exposed to drip irrigation examples every time they pass a median. In 2010, WaterSense partner Sweeney + Associates Design and Consulting in Orange, Calif., proposed a drip irrigation plan for a portion of the city's medians that would save 1 million gallons of water per year and reduce runoff. The city later installed drip irrigation systems in all medians.

The firm also helped the San Diego Park & Recreation Department acquire a rotor system that uses recycled water and a central control system to water one of its parks and sports fields. The project is expected to save the city up to 3 million gallons of water/year on just 10 acres of turf.

Less costly ways to tune up public watering systems include:

  • Auditing existing irrigation practices and systems
  • Requiring or offering professional certification programs that cover water-efficient techniques for irrigation designers, installers, and auditors. Look for the WaterSense label to easily identify reputable programs.

Your grounds maintenance staff should also get certified. “A well-trained staff actually monitors park irrigation so that they're able to recognize water patterns from the night before and note whether there's too much drift on hard surfaces,” explains Grant.

A water-conscious seal of approval

Many public irrigation systems still rely on manually programmed clock timers to schedule watering. They water a specified amount on a preset schedule programmed by the user. The problem: Maintenance personnel often set irrigation systems to water according to the hottest, driest month of the year — usually July — and don't adjust them with the seasons. This leads to periods of extreme overwatering.

Unless a clock timer is reset to reflect current weather patterns such as rain, it's not uncommon to see a sprinkler hard at work in the middle of a storm. Such overwatering can lead to weed growth, fungus, shallow roots, and runoff, in addition to unnecessary water costs.

To help avoid overwatering, WaterSense recently developed a specification for weather-based irrigation controllers. Eligible devices tailor irrigation schedules to actual site conditions by electronically accessing real-time, local weather data.

Weather-based irrigation controllers, including stand-alone controllers, add-on devices, and plug-in devices, are the first outdoor products to earn the WaterSense label. They join the more than 4,800 indoor products (showerheads, toilets, faucets, etc.) that are certified by an independent third party to meet WaterSense standards, which means they use about 20% less water and perform as well or better than standard models.

The controllers are independently certified and are tested to measure how well they help irrigation systems meet plant water needs without overwatering. They must also be able to be adjusted to accommodate local watering restrictions.

EPA also recommends using a professional who has successfully completed a WaterSense-labeled certification program to design, install, maintain, or audit public irrigation systems, and to install and program controllers for optimal efficiency.

The potential savings of using WaterSense-labeled controllers for residences alone is impressive; nearly one out of every five American single-family detached homes has automatic irrigation systems. If all of these systems installed and properly operated WaterSense-labeled irrigation controllers, it could potentially save about 110 billion gallons of water each year, or the amount of water it takes to supply 1.2 million homes.

Virginia D. Lee (lee.virginiad@epa.gov) is the lead marketing and communications specialist with the U.S. EPA.

WEB EXTRA

For more information about water-efficient landscaping, WaterSense-labeled irrigation controllers, or wise watering tips to share with consumers, visit the WaterSense website.

A list of WaterSense-labeled programs across the country is available here.

WaterSense - water conservation's seal of approval
A voluntary partnership program sponsored by U.S. EPA, WaterSense offers people simple ways to use less water by promoting water-efficient products, services, and even industry professionals. It is both a label for products that perform well and a means to promote water-saving behaviors.

The WaterSense label is now found on more than 4,800 models of tank-type toilets, showerheads, flushing urinals, and faucets or faucet accessories. Since the program's inception in 2006, WaterSense-labeled products and partners have helped consumers save:

  • Nearly 125 billion gallons of water
  • 16.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity
  • More than $2 billion in water and energy bills

Rewarding irrigation savings
The program's promotional partners, including water utilities, local government agencies, and water and sewer districts that support water-efficiency programs, promote WaterSense-labeled products and educate consumers about how to save water.

Many utility partners provide incentives such as rebates for WaterSense-labeled products. The following are just a few examples of rebates for residents or businesses that upgrade with weather-based irrigation controllers:

  • City of Corona (Calif.) Department of Water & Power works with the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California to rebate a total of $160 to residents irrigating less than 1 acre. Additionally, MWD rebates $25/controller for residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional customers who are irrigating 1 acre or more of landscape.
  • Hendersonville, N.C., rebates 50% of the controller cost, excluding taxes, to commercial and residential customers.
  • Santa Barbara (Calif.) rebates 50% of the controller cost to commercial and residential customers.

Rebates offered by WaterSense partners are listed on the WaterSense website. To learn how to become a WaterSense partner, visit here. PW

Weather-based irrigation controllers cut water bills by up to 68%
Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., began working with WaterSense partner Ewing Irrigation Products to upgrade its clock timer controllers to weather-based models in January.

Before the switch, the clock timer systems would sometimes water campus grounds continuously. “We were paying for gallons of water we didn't need,” says Clarence Canada, Valencia's grounds supervisor. “Now, we get e-mails or texts from the system telling us that a line has been shut down or needs to be shut down. It's nice to have that alert system at your fingertips.”

According to Ewing's Tom Allen, other customers have seen a 20% to 30% reduction in water use by switching to weather-based controllers. Judy Benson, president of Clear Water Products & Services Inc., which installs commercial and athletic irrigation systems in central Florida, also says that her clients have significantly decreased their water bills.

“Once the controllers are implemented and fine-tuned, clients have saved upwards of 68%,” says Benson. PW