With all of its water woes, the state of California has become “ground zero” for the necessity to implement smart irrigation tactics. As the state battles both severe drought conditions and an expanding wildfire season, collaboration and innovation are spearheading smart irrigation practices.
For Loren McIrvin, San Francisco-based owner of Allied Landscape, the issue of smart irrigation always starts with the landscaping community.
“Farmers and golf courses have to be accountable for water use because it impacts their profits,” says McIrvin. “That is not true for most landscapers, and they act like it. We have to hold ourselves accountable first, then create the savings in water use and water costs, and we will then have more value to our clients.”
California’s smart irrigation policies as a state come directly from its capital in Sacramento, but it is landscape practices in the field that end up being even more consequential than legislative policy, says Steven Hinkles, irrigation engineer and head of Hinkle Irrigation Service, Sacramento.
“Traditionally ‘smart irrigation’ means irrigating smartly to prevent water waste and to be efficient,” says Hinkles. “It also means to be more knowledgeable about irrigation equipment, plant growth and soil. This includes a medley of topics including uniformity, runoff, infiltration and root-growth.”
Sustainable irrigation policies go hand-in-hand with smart irrigation, and McIrvin has several strategies, tools and resources to put into practice. They include drone technology, smart controllers and working with municipal water districts.
But for McIrvin there is more to sustainability.
“We look at it from a big picture point of view,” says McIrvin. “We are creating pollination stations for bees and butterflies to navigate their way through urban environments. That gets overlooked because we are trying to maintain what we sustain on many levels with a bigger perspective of what we are sustaining.”
Hinkle looks at the issue more from the standpoint of the ability to repeat sustainable practices throughout landscaping for optimal upkeep and to extend flower, plant, tree, shrub and grass life as long as possible.
Dealing with drought conditions in California has been the rule, not the exception, during the past two decades, according to Hinkle.
“In California most people get their water from mountain snow runoff, so drought conditions depend on snowpack,” says Hinkle. “This year, some water providers have asked users to voluntarily reduce water use by 10% due to last winter’s low snowpack. If next year’s snowpack is low, we expect mandatory restrictions like we had a few years ago.”
Collaboration and innovation
Collaborating with municipalities is a must for long-term client success and is the foundation of how Allied Landscape deals with client emergencies. It is a relationship built nearly from day one with new clients.
“We build trust by working with the water district to do a water audit with our new clients and get the water district involved on a site level,” says McIrvin. “That creates a relationship for when there is a prolonged leak or break – we can work with the district on cost issues. We also work with water districts to get exceptions to some practices because we still hit their water goals and they know we are responsive to their regulations.”
The innovation when facing irrigation design obstacles is wide-ranging, from drone technology to the latest in soil moisture sensors.
“We have incorporated drones into our inspection routines,” says McIrvin. “The drones are the size of a small laptop with a lens that can read if an area is too dry or too wet.”
He also uses flow sensors and wireless water meters as operational functions to overcome irrigation design challenges because of their self-correcting smart irrigation capabilities. While both instruments are popular in the landscape and irrigation industries, one technology tool seems underused to McIrvin.
“Soil sensors do not get enough attention. When they are done right, they are just as important as a weather sensor, or more,” says McIrvin. “They take some effort to put in place because of the zoning of the property and taking into consideration factors like sun location, but it is well worth the effort for the long-term benefit.”
McIrvin does caution industry peers that smart controllers can only do the important work of improving water efficiency if set up correctly.
“Smart controllers are good, but they do have to be set up by someone smart, or someone who cares about the situation,” says McIrvin. “There are a lot of ways to fight the drought battle on the smart irrigation front and we are using all resources possible.”