Three Emerging Technologies Could Help Improve Water Conservation

The sprinklers at John Koeller's Yorba Linda home seem to have a life of their own.

Oct. 8—The sprinklers at John Koeller's Yorba Linda home seem to have a life of their own.

Some mornings, the automated system sprinkles for five minutes. Other mornings, it turns on for three minutes, shuts off for five minutes and then turns on again for three more minutes. And on particularly damp days, it doesn't turn on at all.

His lawn is a thirsty Kentucky bluegrass, planted before water consultant Koeller learned that overwatered lawns are a leading cause of ocean pollution. For two years, Koeller has let the sprinklers figure out when to turn on, with help from a control system that downloads weather data each night from a satellite. The envirotranspiration controller, dubbed an ET controller, adjusts watering time based on wind, humidity and other weather conditions to keep water usage and urban runoff to a minimum.

"The only way I can tell there's a difference is my water bill," said Koeller, whose bills have been cut in half.

In Orange County, overwatering is a leading contributor to urban runoff, the excess water that drains into the ocean often after collecting animal waste, insecticide and other pollutants. Such runoff results in ocean contamination, which was a big factor in 309 pollution warnings at local beaches last year. With average annual rainfall below normal the past three years, Orange County could be facing a future of drought and water shortages.

But now, advances in technology offer new ways for businesses, local governments and homeowners to control the problem.

Last month, the Municipal Water District of Orange County launched a rebate program for ET controllers, targeting the biggest residential water users in the county. San Diego is taking satellite images of the city to determine which areas have extensive vegetation and so need more water — and which ones don't. And in Fullerton, a local professor just invented a new sprinkler head that can be adjusted so it sprays to the edge of a lawn and no farther.

"Outdoor landscaping constitutes 50 to 80 percent of water use. Anything we do to conserve a little bit is a lot in the overall scheme," said Meena Westford, a water resources management specialist at the U.S. Department of the Interior, a sponsor of all of these water-conservation programs.

"Right now in Southern California, we're in a drought. With population growth, where are we going to get the water? These are the technologies that are going to help us," she said.

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