There Is No Silver Bullet
The City of Bend, OR, uses a variety of methods to promote efficient water management and communitywide conservation.
By Carol Brzozowski
Patrick Griffiths, water resources coordinator for Bend, OR, sees water efficiency and landscaping as part of a continuum. “On one side, there are high requirements in maintenance, water, chemicals, and fertilizers with a lot of input needs,” he says. “On the other end are more native plants, meaning less input, fertilizer, chemicals, water, and maintenance. Everybody is somewhere on that continuum. We are trying to move people towards the less side.”
For six years, it’s been Griffiths’s mission to do so through Bend’s residential, commercial, and new development sectors.
According to the US Geological Survey, irrigation represents 34% of water withdrawals, second only to thermoelectric power, with most withdrawals in the western US.
During the April-October irrigation season, Bend—which like two-thirds of Oregon is high desert land with low annual rainfall—gets less than 5 inches of rainfall.
Bend has a dual source system of 50/50 surface water and groundwater. “We use surface water all year long but add groundwater supply to make up for what we don’t have in surface water,” Griffiths says.
Photo: City of Bend, OR
Oregon's image is evergreen; however, Bend gets less than 5 inches of rainfall during the April/October irrigation season.
With nearly 75,000 residents, Bend is not only one of the fastest-growing cities in the country; it also sits perched atop the list of the 100 fastest growing US counties. The city has added 1,000 residential and commercial metered water connections annually.
The city manages 450 acres of landscaped area and a 15-acre cemetery. More than 125 acres are irrigated. Other large water users are the Bend–La Pine School District and Bend Metro Park & Recreation District. “Both use our water as well as have their own water rights for various parks, depending on their size and location within our region,” Griffiths says. “We grabbed them right away as partners in our larger-framed approach in dealing with the water issue.”
Griffiths was hired in 2000 to manage two programs at a time when Bend was not fully metered. “I was hired under the premise that integrated resource planning was the wave of the future—what we’ve come to call ‘total water management.’ We see a lot of benefits accruing from that: capital improvement, stormwater, energy reduction, trip travel and employee time, and managing landscapes.”
He was the first city official with the word conservation in his title. He also ran the cross connection program.
“[City officials] finally realized water conservation wasn’t just a ‘feel good’ thing anymore—they had to start incorporating it into their overall management processes,” Griffiths says.
Griffiths’s position evolved into the water resources coordinator. Not only does he manage water conservation programs, but he also serves on committees addressing resource planning and growth and, as such, provides input into the water master planning for pipes, pumps, and infrastructure as well as city and state policies on water planning and resource management throughout the Deschutes Basin. Griffiths also is in charge of writing and updating Bend’s water management and conservation plan in accordance with an Oregon law mandating all water purveyors getting new water rights to have one on file.
Bend was fully metered in 2004, which gave city officials a new dataset to predict water use. “My favorite statement is, ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure,’” Griffiths says. “Now we have two seasons of water-use data. We’re continuing to refine our customer information system to reflect the various types of water users in our system.”
The city previously divided water users into commercial or residential categories. Those categories are being broken down to further delineate customer habits.
Griffiths also works with the Water Utility Department in master planning as well as public communications, outreach, and education programs.
After Griffiths was hired, Bend instituted its WaterWise program. Key to the water efficiency program is the use of smart controllers, technologically advanced irrigation systems aimed at attaining peak water efficiency.
With any new approach comes a learning curve. Training is ongoing, Griffiths notes. “We had to turn a very large dinosaur,” Griffiths says. “Not only did we have to train our own engineering staff on why this was important, but [we also had to] justify that extra landscaping cost. We had to show numbers on why it [was important] on the operation side for the next 20 years.
“Then we had to train the landscapers, landscape designers, and landscape architects who drew up plans.”
Griffiths attended a 2001 American Water Works Association conference in Portland, OR, where he encountered some of the earliest software being developed for smart controllers for homeowners. At the time, only golf courses had such technologies, which were highly technologically driven and quite expensive, he notes.
Griffiths says in order to get property owners on board with water efficiency technologies, the city had to put its own house in order. “If we were going to ask the public to do a better job of saving water, we needed to have our act together, too,” he notes.
As technology became more affordable, Bend installed about 75 of the manufacturers’ units to test their effectiveness. Smart controllers rely on weather, site, or soil moisture data to determine watering schedules as opposed to timer-based sprinkler systems that turn water on based on a pre-programmed schedule that doesn’t consider actual weather conditions.
Ric Olson, Bend’s large-landscape coordinator, supervised the controllers’ installation.
Olson identified problem areas and changed standards and specifications throughout the city’s landscapes to ensure the city wasn’t creating more problems than it was attempting to solve. “It’s been an incredible effort of working with our engineers, vendors, and subcontractors who bid on this work to understand what we are asking for,” Griffiths says. “For the last three years, we’ve been revising and refining the process. Now it is really starting to fire on all cylinders.”
Bend takes its cues from Smart Water Application Technologies (SWAT), a national initiative using irrigation technology to achieve outstanding landscape water efficiency. SWAT brings together the Irrigation Association (IA), leading water purveyors, industry professional associations, and irrigation equipment suppliers to identify, research, and promote technological innovations expanding efficient water use principles.
As a result of the city’s smart controller study of the 75 systems installed, Bend noted an average of 41% water savings, with results varying at each site. “Those sites were larger than typical—probably more related to commercial than residential—but our study in combination with other studies done by smart controller manufacturers, government reports, and others who have installed this technology has shown very similar numbers,” Griffiths says.
Photo: City of Bend, OR
The City of Bend maintains 450 acres of landscaped area and a 15-acre cemetery. More than 125 acres are irrigated.
He notes there are millions of dollars at stake with smart controller technology and that Bend doesn’t have the capability to test all systems coming online. “The industry should do that,” he contends. “We waited for the IA test protocol to come out. Any controller passing those tests with certain scores gets on our approved list.”
Smart controllers on the list must demonstrate 100% in irrigation efficiency and 0% irrigation waste. The list includes Toro Intelli-Sense, Rain Bird ET Manager with ESP-TM Controller, WeatherTRAK, and Irritrol Smart Dial.
Unlike some US municipalities that institute temporary water regulations during drought times, Bend’s regulations apply year-round. The rules initially were established to decrease water system demand to enable enough water to be left in storage reservoirs to fight fires during high-water-demand months.
Irrigation hours are from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Even house numbers water on even-numbered days of the month; odd house numbers water on odd days. No watering is allowed on the 31st day of the month.
Residences can get variances from the odd-even regulations when using smart controllers. “When someone is watering on the ‘wrong’ day, we can look at our database to see that person has a smart controller and can water any day of the week they want,” Griffiths says.
Griffiths points out that without an annual weather subscription that feeds the controller data, the system is ineffective. Nevertheless, the service costs provide greater benefits than the cost just on water savings alone, Griffiths contends, adding results vary on water usage and landscape size.
One of the largest groups Griffiths courted for the WaterWise program consisted of area developers. “Certain leaders in our development community have embraced the realization we live in the desert and are focusing on efficient water management,” he adds.
Developers have done market studies among home sellers and buyers to find buyers desire sustainable, efficient, and “green” homes, Griffiths says. Many developers have integrated WaterWise practices such as soil preparation and more native and drought-resistant plants into their plans.
Developers also are driving the local landscaping business by hiring landscapers knowledgeable in such practices. That includes Gretchen Palmer, owner of Palmer Homes, one of the earliest adopters of Bend’s WaterWise practices. “We believe in saving water, especially in this region where how it’s allocated creates demands on the entire aquifer and systems not be seen in other areas,” she says.
The company builds residences with smart irrigation controllers, smart sprinkler heads with built-in pressure compensation and check valves, added soil amendments to retain moisture, improved aeration and drainage, and a planned turf approach that considers new turf blends, drought-tolerant plants, hydrozoning, drip irrigation, mulch, and elimination of overspray and runoff.
“A new smart controller system doesn’t operate the way it will in a year because a newly landscaped yard needs more water than the climate sensors are telling it,” Palmer points out. “You can set it for new landscaping. Over time, homeowners can see what is going on and appreciate the fact we’re embracing it.”
When Palmer Homes first instituted water efficiency measures, it found no landscapers proficient in the program. “They had to learn what plants do better than others and how to set the climate control in a spot where it’s going to be most accurate for that particular yard,” Palmer points out.
In order for WaterWise to be successful, the city’s relationship with the landscape industry was key, Griffiths notes. He became a governor appointee to the Oregon Landscape Contractors Board, which licenses landscape contractors, and also joined the Oregon Landscape Contractors Association and the Irrigation Association. “We needed to have a role to play with the manufacturers because their claims about these smart controllers weren’t always true,” he notes, contending that there have been “serious pushes by the industry to water down the testing. We have to stay as firm as we can.”
Additionally, another national protocol has been developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency through its WaterSense program, a water equivalent to the Energy Star rating, he notes. Such measures promote more water efficiency understanding at the industry and consumer levels. “Right now, we wholeheartedly subscribe to ‘buyer beware,’” says Griffiths. “We’re trying to get as much information out to the public so they don’t get sold a bill of goods by any particular landscaper or controller manufacturer.”
Griffiths points out while licensed landscapers are one small sector in the green industry, they are the only ones regulated by the state. The Oregon Landscape Contractors Board advocates continuing education units for landscapers as a condition of license renewal. “It will be a baseline education tool to get licensed landscapers at the table, bringing them new information,” he says. “This is a business opportunity for landscapers to be ready when developers ask them to install new technologies.”
Matt Long, a landscape architect and president of IREX, has used smart controllers for three years. Like others, he’s tried to sort out differences among all of the market’s smart controllers.
Photo: City of Bend, OR
Bend worked with local landscapers to develop a sustainability plan to improve the city's water efficiency.
Three years ago, the market started embracing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) developed by the US Green Building Council. Water efficiency is one of the credits that applicants can seek through an accreditation review process. “We are looking at any way within the landscaping, the building, or the site to make it more sustainable in order to fit LEED guidelines,” Long says.
Smart controllers assist in those efforts due to central Oregon’s weather variability, particularly in the spring, Long notes. “In the summer to late fall it gets more predictable, but our springs have been all over the board from very cold to very wet to very warm,” Long says. “There can be a lot of water wasted in those early months of establishment, so smart systems are great because anything that can dial in a little bit more accurately to today’s weather will gain water efficiency.”
Long notes older clock systems didn’t have many controls. “There was the right amount of water as an average, but the surface could only hold so much and would start to run off,” he says, adding smart controllers account for soil profile and condition, ensuring everything gets the appropriate amount of water.
Long works primarily in the commercial sector, where he says smart controllers are most effective. He expresses doubts about residential use, saying the complicated clocks may challenge property owners who do not have landscaping companies maintaining the systems, sensing systems, and satellite data. He also shares Griffiths’s concern that property owners may not renew weather data subscriptions.
Landscaping plans are another challenge, Long notes. “We’re still seeing developers who love to have all walnut trees, and they have the highest water use and maintenance you can have,” Long says. “There are those on the opposite end of the spectrum with all desert plants.
“Each has drawbacks and benefits. A native system can be a lot weedier, with lots of debris. It’s a good practice to figure plants a little more closely to the native zone,” he says.
Long advises other landscapers to research devices before specifying them. “We’ve had a lot of new technology where the performance hasn’t lived up to its expectations,” he says. “My advice would be to definitely look for water savings by any means: There’s drip irrigation and rotary speed as well.
“Each project is specific to its need and the capabilities of the owner and maintenance company. It has to be geared toward the end user within the larger goal of sustainability and water efficiency.”
Bend’s city council has adopted a sustainability goal, but Griffiths contends most people don’t understand what that means. “Water is the best teaching tool to understand sustainability,” he says. “Sustainability is about efficiency. If sustainability is a politically loaded term, call it efficiency. It’s just that sometimes the benefits don’t accrue back to you—they accrue somewhere else.”
Griffiths points out if one sets up a system to save money on the water bill, savings also will be derived through fewer needed chemicals and less pumping, water treatments, or heating. Other benefits include a reduced flow to the wastewater treatment plant as well as reduced water runoff. “Water on the street doesn’t do good for asphalt, so if you eliminate water, a street may last longer,” Griffiths says. “Stormwater and water quality now factor in. Overall, it accrues to the basin and our region.”
Bend is contemplating a water billing program modeled after one in Irvine, CA based on a tiered system. Users exceeding the allocated amount pay higher amounts for increased usage. “That’s absolutely the only way to go in water management,” Griffiths says, adding allocations for commercial areas—where usage can vary widely—may be more difficult to determine.
Photo: City of Bend, OR
Bend's efficiency program has multiple benefits to the city, including an irrigation runoff reduction in the groundwater.
Instituting such a program entails reviewing residential data of the square footage of irrigated areas to produce a billing system, Griffiths says. “That’s going to take several years. You have to plan for conservation even more critically than for a water master plan because you are now dealing with revenue loss,” he says.
The gain is rate stability, Griffiths notes. “Are there sweeter words out in the industry right now than rate stability?” Griffiths says. “On top of lessening capital improvements costs because you are being as efficient as you can based on politically acceptable and technologically acceptable advances, you are doing what the public is asking. That’s why Irvine’s Program has been so successful. That’s where we’re headed and we’re pretty darned excited about it.”
Olson says WaterWise program benefits are numerous, including a reduction in staff time required to manually adjust run times on old standalone irrigation controllers. “Our thinly stretched crews can now direct more time tending to a myriad of other maintenance needs,” he notes.
The elimination of overwatering has been good for the city’s fertilization program. “Our organic fertilizer materials are now more effective, as they are not being leached away,” Olson says. “With a more consistent application of fertilizer and water, turf growth habits have been more predictable. This means a reduction in unscheduled site visits for mowing.”
Olson says the use of smart irrigation controllers that automatically adjust irrigation run times and utilize cycle and soak for sloped areas—which Bend has in older (pre–WaterWise installation standards) raised medians—urban stormwater runoff from right-of-way landscape irrigation has been reduced to the point that the public’s complaint calls have virtually been eliminated. Not only is that a public relations benefit, but the irrigation runoff reduction into catch basins that could potentially send pollutants into the groundwater or the Deschutes River is key.
Another landscape runoff reduction benefit: Mulches in right-of-way landscapes are not being washed out into streets or catch basins, leading to maintenance problems from plugged storm drains.
Still, the WaterWise program has inherent challenges, but none unique to Bend, notes Olson. “A city that continues to grow as rapidly as ours has ongoing challenges finding funds to complete landscape and irrigation rehabilitation projects,” he notes.
He anticipates continued support from the city’s staff and other agencies as the WaterWise benefits continue to manifest themselves. “Relatively small investments in today’s dollars will show long-term savings in maintenance and water costs for years to come,” Olson says.
When it comes to water efficiency initiatives, Griffiths cautions there are no silver bullets. “There are a thousand things you have to do right, but you need to focus on the big things first,” he says. “You need to have numbers to manage and hire and train personnel to do it. You have to make sure you are checking in with everybody from your own internal team to any stakeholder who has a role to play with any of the ideas. Get lots of coffee and get people together to talk, because you get much better solutions in the end.”
Author's bio: Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.