Irrigation technology helps University save water

Cassandra Jaramillo

Heavy rains before spring break filled up the four cisterns behind the Belo Center of New Media, which were nearly empty two weeks ago. Now, the four tanks that hold 7,000 gallons each are full and ready to be used for irrigation. 

The University collects 460,000 gallons of rainwater a year to reuse for irrigation purposes as part of its water conservation efforts. 

“All this rainfall is great,” Markus Hogue, program coordinator for irrigation and water conservation, said. “The irrigation [system] stays off. The tanks get full and when we actually need the water, the system will divvy it up.” 

Before 2011, it took two days for a facilities team to turn on or off each of the 109 irrigation units at the University, and it took 175 million gallons to irrigate campus each year. In the last five years, the University has reduced water usage on irrigation by 60 percent to about 60 million gallons a year because of its new irrigation technology system.

From a flat screen computer in his office, Hogue monitors and generates reports from the data the controllers gather from irrigation zones. The proprietary software uses algorithms to look at the amount of rainfall and the evapotranspiration rate of water in the ground. Hogue said irrigation systems will automatically switch on and off for a certain amount of time, using water that’s also been recycled from rainfall. 

Luis Garza, landscape services assistant manager of irrigation and installation who has worked with facilities for 31 years, said the old irrigation system meant being on call in case of leaks. Now, the department receives alerts when there’s an apparent leak at a site.

“Sometimes we’d get a call in the middle of the night about an irrigation leak and had to go out to the site,” Garza said. “The old system wasn’t efficient. We’d spent days looking for breaks. It was checks every day, but now we are in more control of the work we do and [are] able to be efficient.”

According to irrigation data, during last year’s uncommonly wet month of May, 446,055 gallons of water were used on irrigation. However, in May 2014, a drier month, the system used 4.1 million gallons of water. With the old system, Hogue said the facilities team couldn’t efficiently make changes in real-time.

“They didn’t have time to come back to adjust for sharp temperature changes or unexpected rain. This [technology] does it every single time it runs,” Hogue said.  

Jim Walker, director of the UT Office of Sustainability, said water management became a concern years ago in regards to recycled water for drinking uses and irrigation purposes. Now, the University has a water recovery system that collects condensate from buildings and pipes it back to the utility.

“We live in a part of the world where water is not abundant, so we have a responsibility to practice good stewardship of the water we use, meaning being as efficient as possible to achieve effective outcomes,” Walker said. “This ethic is visible in the utility operation and in our irrigation management, and we’re spreading it into the buildings and labs. This saves the University money and saves the region’s water.”