February 9, 2009 By Elaine Rundle
As some states, like Georgia and California, cope with historic droughts, they're turning to technology to aid water conservation - not only for drought recovery, but also to prepare for a future of smaller water supplies.
Climatologists say climate change will worsen dry spells - so the problem isn't likely going away.
As weather patterns change, governments are creating initiatives that save water, time and money. These improvements include automatic water meter readers, satellite-based evapotranspiration monitoring and electronically controlled watering systems.
Healdsburg, Calif., was seeking a more efficient way to water its athletic fields and instead found a solution that overhauled its water conservation initiatives. According to David Mickaelian, the city's community services director, many of Healdsburg's fields used manual water controllers. If a city worker needed to change the watering schedule, he or she had to visit the field to make the updates. Park Superintendent Matthew Thompson told Mickaelian about WeatherTRAK, a climatologically controlled irrigation system.
WeatherTRAK is a remotely managed sprinkler controller that automatically adjusts water schedules based on a landscape's needs - such as how much water specific plants living there require - and the local weather conditions. Mickaelian said the system has a one-day lag, using the previous day's weather information to modify watering times.
"It has a satellite; it tracks the weather patterns," he said. "So what it does, it really tracks the weather for us. On really hot days, it automatically adjusts to irrigate based on the temperature readings from the previous day."
The city installed the technology in 2007 in selected parks to ensure the system worked properly. After comparing the park's water usage between 2006 and 2007, the city calculated water savings in the range of 5.5 percent to 18 percent. "We started to realize this is more than we're looking for as far as the payback because now we're starting to see significant savings, and that correlates with reduced water use," he said.
The system is enabling the city to update its entire water system. By tracking water metrics Healdsburg is finding that some meters are tied together that shouldn't be - such as athletic fields' irrigation systems that are connected to bathrooms. Mickaelian said when the metric doesn't match the expected savings it prompts them to investigate the issue. The technology also reports water leaks in real time, allowing officials to fix problems immediately and reduce the amount of wasted water. Another bonus is that man-hours have decreased because the systems can be remotely controlled.
Healdsburg's water use was down 11 percent in 2007 through a combination of city-led efforts and citizens who voluntarily reduced their water consumption. The city plans to upgrade all athletic fields, parks and pools with the irrigation system technology within the next two years for less than $40,000.
"This WeatherTRAK system, it kind of goes into our toolbox if you will, so it allows us to be a leader in the community saying, 'We're practicing what we preach,'" Mickaelian said.
In fall 2007, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared that most of northern Georgia, including Atlanta, was in a Level 4 drought and he required all water utilities to cut back production by 10 percent. Atlanta had already enacted outdoor watering restrictions, which reduced water use by 14 percent. "We had already taken care of all the low-hanging fruit," said Melinda Langston, director of water conservation for Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management, "and we really had to go to some drastic measures at that point."
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, Level 4 is the most severe drought classification. Atlanta is working on many initiatives to mitigate the drought's impacts.
As part of the city's $3.9 billion Clean Water Atlanta infrastructure improvement program, an initiative was launched in