Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Newport Rolls Out Robot Sprinklers
Smart systems could mean cleaner oceans, lower water use

By Pat Brennan, The Orange County Register

NEWPORT BEACH - At first it was a little strange for Christy Duss to forget about her sprinklers.

Duss and husband Mark were accustomed to turning them on and off to keep their lawn and landscaping green, one of the many routine chores that are part of running a home with five children.

Now, they mostly ignore the sprinklers. Instead, a kind of cyborg gardener keeps track for them, riffling through a database on soil type, slope, sunshine and plant cover in their yard, and communing with a satellite about the weather.

The Dusses are among the first Newport Beach residents to sign on for a free, satellite-controlled irrigation system that city officials hope will eventually reduce the torrents of water runoff - much of it loaded with pesticides and fertilizer - that flow into the ocean each day.

"Our oldest is doing the junior lifeguard program," Christy Duss said. "We're really concerned with them going in the water. We wanted to do our little part for the environment."

Although the Dusses live in northern Newport Beach, the city's program, funded through a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, will focus on the south: the Newport Coast development, where an estimated 24 million gallons of contaminated runoff are released into protected marine habitat each month.

The city has a small amount of extra funds for a few homes outside Newport Coast. The grant money will cover about 500 installations of new controllers; the voluntary program is first come, first served.

But it's not a case of favoritism for an upper-income neighborhood, said John Kappeler, a Newport Beach code and water-quality enforcement division manager.

The city is under orders from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control board to reduce the runoff that threatens the waters of Crystal Cove, listed by the state as an "area of special biological significance." And almost all that runoff comes from Newport Coast.

While Newport might some- day pass ordinances requiring such systems, the city prefers to encourage homeowners to cut their runoff voluntarily, said assistant city manager Dave Kiff.

And although the water board has not yet set a deadline for stopping runoff from Newport Coast, city officials don't want to wait and allow the runoff to continue unabated.

"We don't have the luxury of time," Kappeler said. "We've got to get going now."

Newport Coast homeowners need only set up a time for their sprinklers to be checked and the systems installed, he said.

Satellite controllers aren't new, but a blanket city program aimed at residential homes is an innovative approach to the runoff problem, said Jerry Thibeault, executive officer of the regional water board.

"We have not seen many (of these programs) yet, but I think we are going to see more and more. It's not only an advantage for runoff; it's a water-saving device in water-short areas."

The system controls individual valves in home sprinkler arrays. Each valve turns water flow on and off for a series of sprinkler heads.

The controller is pre-loaded with all the information it needs about the plants in the yard and adjusts the timing of watering accordingly. Plants growing in a shady part of the yard might receive water once every two weeks, while those in a sunny area might be watered every day.

Plants on a slope might get their water in brief spurts, to allow the soil to soak it up and prevent excess water from flowing down into the gutter, the storm drain and, eventually, the ocean.

The satellite link takes care of the one wild card: weather. With continual updates to the computer system that controls the sprinkler systems, weather satellites warn of conditions to come - allowing them to take some time off if, for instance, the area is hit with several days of rain.

Homeowners can override the system if necessary, but the idea is for them to simply walk away and forget it.

Newport Beach officials, who are contracting with a company called WeatherTRAK to install the systems, base their hopes on tests of satellite sprinklers conducted in Irvine in 2001. They were able to reduce runoff by 71 percent.

The city is hoping for a 40 percent to 60 percent reduction in runoff once the systems are installed throughout Newport Coast. Until the controllers are in, it won't be known how much area will be covered, although homeowners associations can place them in common areas, increasing the potential coverage. More...

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