Millions of gallons of water have been saved at San Luis Coastal Unified School District schools with new technology that measures the moisture content of the soil and only waters sports fields when needed.
The technology has saved more than water — it’s also saved the school district money.
So far, the district has spent about $150,000 on the system and saved an estimated $300,000 in water costs in the past year at all of its sites, said Anthony Palazzo, the district’s director of facilities, operations and transportation.
From January to July, five sites saved more than 2.4 million gallons of water as compared with the same use in 2013: Bishop’s Peak, Hawthorne, Pacheco, Teach and Sinsheimer elementary schools.
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Palazzo said the district started researching ways to save water before Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 1 order that mandated a 25 percent reduction in potable urban water use between June 2015 and February 2016.
“It was prompted by the need to save water and money, and we don’t have the staff we used to,” Palazzo said. “We only have one irrigation tech now.”
“When it started raining, for him to drive around to all of the sites and turn off the sprinklers — that’s his whole day,” he added. “He can now do all that in three minutes.”
Data on water savings from the district’s other 13 sites (including district-owned sites that are leased) are still being compiled and were not available this week. But Palazzo estimated the district has saved 8 million to 10 million gallons — or about 500,000 gallons a site — in the first half of the year.
Palazzo said the district’s former irrigation system watered on a regular timetable of Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for 15 minutes. The downside to that, he said, was muddy fields, overwatering and weakened turf.
With the new system, district officials have learned that some of the fields only needed to be watered once a week or less, depending on the type of soil, Palazzo said. The system runs until a certain amount of moisture reaches the sensor, often in about five minutes.
In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the district spent about $960,000 on water. The district’s water costs dropped by $320,000 in the 2014-15 fiscal year, he said, and larger savings are expected this fiscal year, since the new system came online last January, halfway through the fiscal year.
The system includes sensors in the ground to measure soil moisture content that are connected to control panels at each site. The controllers are connected to software on district computers that can also be accessed on iPads, so the irrigation manager can make changes immediately, as needed.
The district purchased the system through San Luis Obispo-based Ewing Irrigation, which also provided a technician and support to set it up.
To pay for it, the district used about $30,000 in fees that youth athletic groups pay to use district fields, $40,000 in grants and the rest in district money.
So far, the system has been put in place only on play fields. The next step is to add other lawn areas and planters to the system, and then put in place master control valves and flow meters that will allow the system to shut down if it measures abnormal water flow, such as a broken sprinkler head.