California highway

Smart irrigation saves Caltrans water and money

In dealing with the worst drought in its history, California has been forced to take extreme measures. Residents are limiting showers, washing their cars less and even replacing the grass on their lawns with decomposed granite (a fancy term for dirt).

When the drought pushed Gov. Jerry Brown to mandate that state agencies reduce the amount of water they use by 20 percent by 2020, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) knew it had a tough task ahead. Caltrans owns and manages more than 30,000 acres of irrigated landscape in the state, and 75 percent of the water it uses goes to irrigating highway plants that help filter pollutants and heavy metals from rain runoff.

Clearly, the highway plants needed watering, but the key would be applying technology to make the most efficient use of the least amount of water. Caltrans teamed up with Hydropoint, a California-based company that provides smart irrigation and water management solutions to help increase water efficiency, water risk reduction and sustainability.

“We took a very non-traditional approach to irrigation,” said Chris Spain, Hydropoint president and CEO. “People talk about savings, but saving depends on how stupid your site is. What’s really key is the conservation potential,” he said, figuring out exactly how much water the landscape needs, day in and day out, and using only that much water.

With that information, technology can help reduce water use by up to 50 percent, according to Hydropoint. It’s WeatherTRAK smart irrigation system uses 19 different parameters -- including filtration rate, soil and plant type – to create an irrigation schedule that calculates how much water needs to be used to keep different plants and soil types healthy.

Using a proprietary scheduling engine and access to daily wireless weather data,  Hydropoint believed it could vastly improve Caltrans’ irrigation efficiency. A 2013 pilot project began in Caltrans District 12, which includes Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, and Huntington Beach, and is the largest consumer of water in the state.

Within the first four months of implementation, Caltrans saved 53 million gallons of water, a decrease of 81 percent from the same period a year earlier, Hydropoint said. The savings continued through the end of the year resulting in a total annual reduction of 33 percent in water use in District 12 and saved the state $676,000. Overall the system has recovered more than $1.4 million in combined first year costs. A full release of WeatherTRAK began in 2014.

 Besides reducing water use, the smart irrigation system delivered secondary benefits to Caltrans. With the remote automated system, staff no longer needed to make visits to highways to change programs or settings.  The system’s automatic alerts and notifications also contributed to fewer site visits and quicker problem resolution.  In addition, the ability to make global changes to all 342 controllers quickly and efficiently helped improve overall water savings and drought compliance, and scheduling irrigation for each individual zone on every controller helped mitigate runoff.  

Phase two of the project is now underway, said Ben Slick Hydropoint’s senior vice president of business development. Hydropoint and Caltrans are putting in flow system sensing technology “that will allow us to detect any kind of abnormal flow condition or leak and not only alert us but shut it off automatically so the proper repairs can be made.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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