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Liquid Assets -- LBWA

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Voyagerix

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Irrigation has been around since Bronze Age Mesopotamians in the “cradle of civilization” in the Tigris-EuphratesRiver system coaxed water through a matrix of small channels formed in the fields.

In that situation, they were directing water to agricultural crops that sustained life. Since then, irrigation has come a long way; modern systems are used not only for crops, but also for lawns, parks, and sports fields.

However, despite the complexity and sophistication of today’s irrigation systems, they share the same roots with Mesopotamian systems because both involve artificial application of water to the land.

A Precious Resource

Today, irrigation, water management, and “green” are terms often juxtaposed when parks and rec maintenance professionals gather around the table to talk business. But all those terms rotate around one of the most precious life-sustaining elements on earth—water.

Let’s face it, water is in high demand. Government officials in several states even argue about the rights to use it. Consumers pay $2 or more for a plastic bottle of it. Waste water is treated so it can be reused for irrigation. In some parts of the world, there simply isn’t enough water to sustain life. Some experts caution that without wise conservation, humans could reach a time when water becomes more precious than gold; actually, it already is—you can’t quench your thirst with an ounce of gold.

So it behooves parks and rec professionals to know the “ins and outs” of irrigation systems, whether for parks, facility grounds, or sports fields. When states must use extreme conservation methods, municipal irrigation systems can be among the first to have restrictions imposed.

“Water and the way municipalities use water is a big issue,” asserts Ron Gelvin, executive director of the Carolina Irrigation Association. The association exists to support education and advance general knowledge of irrigation best-practices across the Carolinas.While various municipalities place a priority on water use and conservation, some officials aren’t willing to engage in more progressive ideas that have developed in recent years.

“We’ve had a big push in previous years with weather stations and control systems, and we’ve actually done some work with the Mecklenburg County-Charlotte area showing we can control and cut water usage even in times of drought by using smart irrigation and short-irrigating when it’s needed, not under-irrigating but not over-irrigating,” says Gelvin.

He has also seen some municipalities and urban areas control water usage through hookup cost.  “They make the cost of backflows and installation hookups so expensive that the hookup itself costs more than the irrigation system,” he explains. “For example, the cost to hook up a system in different areas around North Carolina can vary from $100 in some areas to $4,000 or $5,000 in others.”

Putting A Price Tag On Water

When a municipal or commercial customer wants to hook up an irrigation system to a county or municipal water system, there are generally two associated costs. One is the fee to purchase the water meter and have it hooked up by the local water system so usage can be measured and ongoing fees can be applied. The other cost involves installing a backflow preventer.

Backflow is the undesirable reversal of the flow of water from its intended direction in any pipeline or plumbing system. Backflow is dangerous because it can allow drinking water in plumbing systems to become contaminated and unusable, causing health and safety issues for customers and major problems for the water system.

A properly installed, tested, and maintained backflow preventer at the service entrance to a building or property can reliably prevent the backflow of water.

Real labor, equipment, and materials costs, upwards of several thousand dollars, are associated with meters and backflow preventers. Water systems can charge variable fees above and beyond that.

“Each municipality has its own water board and its own water purveyor, so they make their own rules on these fees, and there is no consistency across the state,” asserts Gelvin, speaking specifically about North Carolina. “We try to get involved in this through education and legislative action, but that’s a long, tough road to make them all be the same.”

Water systems are generally run by the city or county, usually through a component-unit water board or authority. Water is sold in order to maintain the system, pay salaries, improve infrastructure, and absorb other costs.

Photo Courtesy of the Carolina Irrigation Association

“When there’s water, they want to sell all they can, and when there isn’t water, the first thing they want to do is cut off irrigation, which can be very short-sighted,” Gelvin insists. The impact of cutting off or drastically limiting irrigation can often cause problems as pervasive as water shortage. Aside from landowners’ potential loss of investment and the economic implications, inadequately irrigated sports fields can become unsafe as thatch is worn down and ruts develop. In addition, loss of grass in sports fields, parks, and common areas leads to greater erosion of topsoil around places such as roadways, water-quality basins, or storm-water systems.

Smart Irrigation

Several manufacturers provide smart irrigation systems that are controlled by weather stations and computers.

These stations measure temperature, humidity, rainfall, and other factors to determine how much water is needed to sufficiently maintain an irrigated area. The data are fed into a software package which then controls irrigation mechanisms.

“So instead of the manual method where you might have the system set up for specific time periods that will irrigate, whether it’s raining or not, the smart system adjusts the controller to come on only as it is needed,” Gelvin explains.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines these devices as “Weather-Based Irrigation Controllers” or WBIC’s. The EPA’s WaterSense program labels WBIC’s that have been certified by a third party to meet efficiency and performance criteria detailed in the WaterSense Specification for Weather-Based Irrigation Controllers .

There are three basic types of WBIC’s:

  • Stand-alone controllers

  • Add-on devices

  • Plug-in devices.

All three types are available in a variety of sizes appropriate for small residential to large commercial applications. Add-on and plug-in devices connect to standard clock-timer controllers and modify the irrigation schedule. Light commercial products often have the same features as the residential products, but with greater station capacity.

WaterSense-labeled controllers must adequately meet the watering needs of a landscape without overwatering. All labeled controllers have an irrigation-adequacy greater than 80 percent in each irrigation zone and an irrigation-excess less than 5 percent averaged across all of the zones. The controller applies sufficient water to meet plant needs (adequacy) without watering beyond those needs and thereby generating runoff (excess).

See http://www.epa.gov/watersense/docs/irrigation_controller_rpt_minireport_508.pdf for more information on this program.

A Brief Lesson

Adam Hales, President of the Carolina Irrigation Association, was closely involved with the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County project, with the title “Liquid Assets.”

“It started out for commercial users,” he says. “Basically, if they went to an ET controller on their irrigation systems, there were some monetary benefits they would experience on their water bill.”

When he says “ET,” he’s not talking about an extraterrestrial system, but one that is based on “evapotranspiration” of plant material. “It’s a satellite signal and a weather report that a system gets daily, and the system figures out how much water the plant material needs that day,” he explains.

Evapotranspiration, an important part of the water cycle, is the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from plants back into the atmosphere. Factors that can affect ET include the plant’s growth stage or maturity level, percentage of soil coverage, solar radiation, humidity, temperature, and wind.

Hales says the program started in 2011 and eventually was offered to single-family home owners as well as other water customers.

“If you had your system evaluated by a licensed irrigation contractor and met certain criteria, the utility department would install a separate irrigation meter at a low price and essentially finance the installation over 12 months in the water bill,” he explains. “The Charlotte-Mechlenburg Utilities has been very kind to the irrigation industry around here.”

The Carolina Green Industry Council actually got the ball rolling on the original commercial application of the Liquid Assets program. The Irrigation Association became involved when it expanded the program to residential and other customers.

It is interesting to note that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department no longer maintains its own list of approved Smart Controllers (Weather-Based Irrigation Controllers). The website notes, “Consistent with our position of supporting EPA “Water Sense” Labeling for weather-based irrigation controllers, we will only be accepting EPA Water Sense-approved controllers for meeting requirements of the Smart Irrigation Rate Incentive Program after July 1,2013.”

One cautionary note that Hales emphasizes is to ensure that anyone moving into a smart irrigation arena should work with a certified and licensed irrigation company. “In North Carolina we work with the state licensing board because to us it’s good to ensure that we have quality contractors out there doing the work,” says Hale, whose association represents any contractor working in the that area of operations.

Indeed, irrigation has leapt light-years from the use of Bronze Age tools to space-age technology. As water becomes more scarce—and regulated—modern-day parks and rec maintenance professionals will need to become more tuned in to smart ways of conserving water while still protecting their assets.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net .

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