April 16 2009 12:00 AM

The irrigation industry was completely different than what it is now when David D. Pagano designed his first system in 1957. Smart controllers were years away from being invented, as were sensing devices. If you asked anyone in the industry what a rotary nozzle was, most likely your answer would have been a silent, quizzical look from someone wondering what on earth you were talking about. As for Pagano, the very concept of designing a system was still a mystery to him.

As he puts it, “I wasn’t sure at that time which end of the sprinkler the water came out of. It was all so new to me. But I learned quickly.” His ability to adapt to whatever the situation demands was reared at an early age. Having come from a military family—his father fought as a marine in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam— Pagano spent several of his childhood years in Buffalo, New York, while his father was stationed at Niagra Falls. They were later re-stationed to El Toro, California, where Pagano attended high school.

In 1955, Pagano’s mother was tragically killed in an automobile accident. Around this time, his father was once again transferred— this time to Hawaii—but Pagano stuck around Southern California to finish high school, living with his grandparents. Pagano entered Fullerton College in Fullerton, California, where he studied engineering. He got married and began to raise a family. Still, he had to earn his living some way or another, so he went to work for the Anaheim Parks Department. It was here where he was first exposed to irrigation design.

“The problem back then was that a lot of those manufacturers were lacking certain information in their design plans,” explains Pagano, who is today among the foremost irrigation consultants. “There were all sorts of problems. They wouldn’t tell you where there were trees or shrubs, or if the installation was on a slope or in the shade. They wouldn’t specify whether the system was running off high pressure or low pressure. Sometimes they didn’t even know where the water was coming from. Or they’d offer information on gallons per minute without actually knowing whether that was 100% accurate. It simply didn’t do the industry justice in terms of giving you a viable water management tool.”

Pagano charges his clients a fee, and in exchange, the clients will get a comprehensive, error-free design plan that the contractor can follow while installing the system. Although it may sound crazy to charge clients for design plans when there are still distributors offering these plans for free in some parts of the country, it’s actually a very sound strategy.

Pagano recognized the industry’s shortcomings very early on and decided to do something about it. After spending five years at Pacific Coast Irrigation estimating the costs of irrigation systems, he went into business with Paul Kesterson and started Kesterson/Pagano Associates in 1970. Their goal was to give their clients the information that the distributors’ design plans were lacking. It was an uphill battle. After all, the two businessmen had to convince prospective clients that the plans they were charging money for were better than the ones distributors were offering for free.

During this time, Pagano learned a lot from a fellow irrigation consultant, the late Bob Cloud. “Bob was one of the pioneers of irrigation consulting,” says Pagano. “When I was at Pacific, we would sometimes do estimations for his jobs. I saw very early on, based on his work, that there was a lot more to design than I realized.”

Pagano and Cloud came to be close friends and in 1970, the two banded together with a group of like-minded consultants to form the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC). Unfortunately, the ’70s was a hard time to be in the irrigation consulting business. Few were aware of the benefits behind paying for design plans, and after four years of hard effort, the economic downturn of 1974 forced Pagano and Kesterson out of business and the two went their separate ways.

However, Pagano was far from finished. Later that year he started d.d. Pagano, Inc., and since then, he’s been transforming the company from a small-time, high-risk independent consulting firm into a recognized business known for its design consulting and water management strategies. “I started working out of my home,” recalls Pagano. “I was still working in an unknown market at that time, so I was calling people to get jobs, and working with Cal Poly Pomona, doing lectures and showing students how irrigation design might be a viable career.”

Today, 30 years later, irrigation design has become a major facet of the business. While it still has a long way to go (there are currently only about 100 irrigation consultants in the entire country), states such as California generate a high demand for such professionals. They provide top-notch assistance not only in design plans, but in water management, teaching their clients tricks to conserve water on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the manufacturers who once offered their designs for free are more than happy to let irrigation consultants such as Pagano pick up the slack.

“Free design is still a cost to the manufacturer,” explains Pagano. “They have to pay their employees to do those designs, and from the very start manufacturers wanted to get out from underneath that.”

When not drafting plans and teaching others how to water responsibly, Pagano enjoys playing tennis and golf, adding to his collection of vintage wine, eating out and listening to books on tape. “I can’t get in my car without having a book on tape,” he says. “I never did have an ear for music, and talk radio drives me nuts. So I stick with tapes.”

He tries to spend as much time with his family as possible. He has four grandchildren, ranging in ages from 9 to 14. His son, Mark, once a licensed chiropractor, has now turned to the irrigation industry, under his father’s wing. As vice president of d.d. Pagano, Inc, as well as senior designer, the two share a comfortable business/family relationship. “We’re all a pretty close-knit family,” says Pagano.