April 23 2019 12:00 AM

Innovative program teaches high school students sophisticated irrigation concepts.

In the span between 2015 and 2017, the Canyons school district in Draper, Utah, saved 18 million gallons of water thanks to some astute water managers, according to a story in the Draper Journal. These water managers don’t have CWM, CIC, CLIA or any other initials indicating Irrigation Association certifications after their names, though, because they’ve either just graduated from high school or are still attending. Cutting the amount of water the district used was all part of a learning experience they participated in.

Bridger Welch is one of these water managers. He can tell by looking at the spray or the soil if too much or not enough water is being used, if it’s covering the area intended and if the sprinkler head is the best one to be used on a turfed area.

Welch, a recent Hillcrest High graduate, along with about seven other high school juniors and seniors have gained an understanding about the Canyons School Districts’ water usage over the past six years, and have actively been a part of conserving it in the second-driest state in the country.

“People naturally over-consume water in an effort to make sure their grass is green,” Welch says. “I care about Utah and we need to conserve our resources before it’s too late.”

Welch and another high school student spent part of their summer checking sprinklers at District elementary, middle and high schools ensuring that sprinkler heads were correct, recording any broken valves and monitoring spray levels.

“We’d record the rotation of the spray to make sure it was hitting the right area, not the sidewalks, for example. We’d look at the head to make sure it was facing the right way and mark it if it needed adjusting or replacing, if maybe it got broken after being hit by a lawn mower,” he says. “We got so familiar with the sprinklers we could point out which ones were broken or which heads were incorrect.”

The teams would then return to the office and crunch numbers. “We measured the water usage and used an Excel sheet for calculations,” says Welch. “If it was too much, the grass would be marshy. If it wasn’t enough, it would die. We got an idea of how much time per day to water and how much water to use. This effort ended up saving millions and millions of gallons of water.”

The student water manager program was begun by Canyons School District energy specialist Christopher Eppler. “It was actually my wife’s idea,” he says. “I was in landscape irrigation, a contractor for 25 years with a background as a mining geologist. He studied water auditing at Cal Poly, analyzing precipitation rates. When his wife told him that schools could save money on their water usage, he got involved as a private contractor for the Granite schools before he came to Canyons in 2009.

Eppler first concentrated on the district’s energy usage, upgrading heating and cooling systems and placing them in a “saving” mode when the schools are unoccupied, lowering usage by 43 percent.

Eppler created the program, and after a few years, with the administration’s approval and a $15,000 grant from the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Eppler embarked on hiring and training high school students to help survey, monitor and adjust watering schedules for all 370 acres of school grass fields.

The savings, about 20 million gallons’ worth, was immediately noticeable. In July 2014, the District used 16.5 million gallons less than in July 2012 and 9.5 million gallons less than it did in July 2013. From 2015 to 2017, the District saved a combined 18 million gallons of water.

For this effort, Eppler was awarded the 2017 Utah Energy Pioneer Award. He’s shared his unique program in speeches before the Irrigation Association, other school districts and the governor’s water board.

“The money we’re saving is just put right back into the program,” Eppler said. “The savings aren’t as great anymore because we’re watering the way we’re supposed to, so it’s more of a maintenance level.”

But new schools are being built, and the student water manager program continues, insuring that the district’s grass fields will be properly irrigated. This summer, the students will work five hours per day, four days per week, making their way through the District’s schools one sprinkler head at a time, adjusting watering schedules based on root zones, type of grass, shade, soil type and evaporation rate.

“It’s more than they may realize when they’re hired,” Eppler says. “Students learn basic hydraulics and such concepts as evapotranspiration, permanent wilting point and soil moisture depletion.”

“The students are learning to irrigate properly,” continues Eppler. “They spend hours logging the precipitation rate of each sprinkler head. By understanding precipitation rates, root zone and soil type, students can calculate the correct amount of water to give an area over a certain amount of time. They’re gaining the field experience to log equipment and data and bringing that information back to calculate on spreadsheets and be reviewed,” Eppler said.

While Eppler acknowledges what a great learning experience and resume-builder this endeavor is, he says “these students really care about water usage.”

He’s worked with students from several high schools, but currently hires recommended Hillcrest High students who are committed to conserving natural resources even if they may choose to study other fields upon graduation.

“I’ve found these students to be great self-starters, super polite, real thinkers who make the program better,” he said. “They take huge initiatives and understand the commitment involved.”

Welch, who now attends Utah State University, says that he’s considering forestry as a career and would like to work with the conservation corps to restore the Logan River.

This past February, U.S. Representative Suzanne Harrison, who has been quoted as saying her community supports the wise stewardship of water, introduced House Bill 143 which would amend certain water conservation plan requirements. She invited Hillcrest senior Amelia Slama-Catron, a student water manager last summer, to talk to the Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environment Standing House Committee about the internship program.

“When I found out about the actual program and about the amount of water we could save, I instantly wanted to be involved,” Slama-Catron testified. “I want to major in marine biology and environmental science, so obviously water is a huge concern of mine. Water conservation is something that has always been of interest to me. However, fresh water is not only a limited source, but a costly one. It is within everyone’s power to conserve natural resources.”

Don't be surprised if you see some of these students one day at a future IA Show.