Weekly assessments help make adjustments to landscape management

SANTA ROSA - Under a deadline this fall to cut irrigation by 50 percent, owners and operators of commercial properties around Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County Airport have nearly reached that goal.

Owners of 54 properties in an owners association of Airport Business Center, a 469-acre business park, have agreed to be assessed about $10 a month per meter to have usage readings taken every week so that adjustments to landscape management can be made.

Amid the hot spell in August, water usage was 44 percent lower than in 2004 for properties in use at that time, the baseline set by state regulators, according to Carolyn Wasem of Airport Business Center. Savings in July were 47 percent.

The few buildings still owned by the operators of 87-acre Westwind Business Park have reduced water use by 55 percent from usage in past years, according to Chief Financial Officer Jenifer Strobel. Other buildings in that park are under various ownerships.

"This indicates that there are an awful lot of savings out there if we can accept that we have to use water in a different way than we're used to," she said.

[caption id="attachment_14758" align="alignleft" width="230" caption="Airport businesses cut irrigation 44%"][/caption]

he State Water Resources Control Board in April decided Windsor, which supplies water to the airport area, and other cities that buy Russian River water from Sonoma County Water Agency must submit proof that they are meeting an overall 25 percent reduction in irrigation use between June 15 and Oct. 2.

"They're taking this head on," said water agency spokeswoman Amy Bolten of the airport-area efforts.

The water agency is compiling irrigation usage data to report progress to the state water board later in the fall.

Landscaping contractors have pulled back water consumption in the airport area and in other cities served by the water agency through a combination of strategies.

"Primarily, there's a lot of distressed turf out there," said Darryl Orr, co-owner of Pacific Landscapes of Sebastopol.

Beyond just cutting back watering of grass, landscapers have been catching significant water leaks via the regular meter reading, according to Mr. Orr. This year the company has found at least a half-dozen main line leaks, with loss rates ranging from a half-gallon a minute to several gallons a minute.

"It really adds up when the water is running 24/7," he said.

So far this year in Marin and Sonoma counties, the company has installed 20 new "smart" irrigation controllers, which adjust watering to weather conditions; removed two acres of turf; tweaked settings on certain controllers every few days; replaced 250 sprinkler heads at four sites; and conducted 17 water audits in conjunction with officials from Marin Municipal Water district and Santa Rosa.

"The low-hanging fruit is to fix a sprinkler the very day you see one broken," Mr. Orr said. "It's not the sexiest thing, but we're hitting the road and making a difference."

For example, Simons & Woodard, which manages commercial buildings in west and southwest Santa Rosa, has instructed night security staff to report broken sprinkler heads.

Also, this spring Pacific Landscapes switched to using organic fertilizer on all but two sites, of more than 300 managed, to control release of nitrogen. In June the company started tests of liquid composts, or "teas," from Sonoma Biologics at 20 sites to see if it can encourage deeper root growth and manage pest infestations.

Now that commercial property owners have figured out ways to meet the immediate water crisis, they're going to have to make these lessons "the new normal" operating procedure, since the water agency last week decided to drop plans to expand delivery capacity, according to Ms. Wasem.

"We demonstrated that it can be done with minimal amount of pain, especially with jurisdictions offering turf removal incentives and structuring water rates for those making huge strides in changing water use," she said.