Master Planned

Saturday, June 30, 2007 in Water Efficiency

By Mark Saunders

What hasa quarter-million sprinkler heads, 8,600 valves, 250 online controllers, and two weather stations; irrigates 750 acres; and saves homeowners $815,000 and 350 million gallons of water per year? If you answered the irrigation system for the Ladera Ranch in unincorporated Orange County, CA, then you’re a winner. Actually, the real winners are the 8,100 or so homeowners in this 4,000-acre master-planned community in south Orange County.

As with any award-winning landscape project, Ladera Ranch’s eye-catching community parks, slopes, trails, and creeks require a great deal of care. In fact, it takes untold man-hours, a high-tech central computer, and almost constant communication between four different organizations to make this slice of southern California’s semi-arid desert bloom.

Ladera Ranch receives between 13 and 14 inches of rain per year, not enough precipitation to sustain this master-planed community that is quickly evolving into its own city. To compound the development’s water concern, all of south Orange County sits atop a shallow groundwater basin that is far from deep-well friendly. According to Santa Margarita Water District Chief Engineer Dan Ferons, south Orange County’s groundwater basin could be described as a slow-flowing underground stream. “It doesn’t really store the water,” says Ferons. “Most of it ends up draining into the ocean.”

This dearth of groundwater storage puts a premium on good sources of domestic water for homeowners and recycled water for landscaping; however, the nearest source of potable water, the Colorado River, is a four-hour drive, with the next closest source of domestic water coming from the San Francisco Bay Delta. In other words, intelligent irrigation design and sophisticated delivery systems were a must.

Ladera Ranch Design
Ladera Ranch’s parent company, Rancho Mission Viejo, contacted the irrigation consultants at Water Concern to design and manage the irrigation system for most of the 750 acres of Ladera Ranch’s common areas, which includes three large village parks, five school parks, 10 neighborhood parks, dozens of pocket parks, a 4-mile walking trail, and a 24-acre sports park. According to Steve Hohl, director of irrigation services at Water Concern, “It was thought out well before the design started: the utilities. For example, all the water and electrical lines, the communications, the radio systems were planned in advance of the construction drawings. Once those started, you just look at your master plan to refocus. We set limitations on flow and water usage on each meter before we started the design. So we knew that when we were starting on a rec center in the middle of town, we’d look at the master plan that indicated a landscape area of 1.25 acres, so we knew that we had 35 gallons per minute to irrigate the site, and we just stayed within those flow limitations.”

The Rain Master System
Water Concern decided the best course of action involved the creation of a comprehensive plan that would allow irrigation of 750 acres where and when needed—like the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. window for recycled water mandated by the Santa Margarita Water District. After careful study, it was determined that 25 gallons per minute per acre was the ideal rate of flow given the topography, soil types, and plant materials. “We really wanted to make sure that by the end of the project build-out we could apply the irrigation demand within local health code standards and the limitations of the infrastructure,” says Hohl.

To achieve that end, two things were needed: a centralized computer system capable of simultaneously handling thousands of computations concerning flow, volume, and piping constraints for all the common areas and an expert/hands-on irrigation specialist to manage the central system. Say hello to Rain Master Evolution and Todd Coward.

The Rain Master Evolution system used at Ladera Ranch comes with two modules: Evolution Advanced ET (evapotranspiration) and AIM (Advanced Irrigation Management). According to Rain Master, the Advanced ET schedules irrigation based on plant needs, soil types, and evapotranspiration rates. The AIM controls the complex flow regulation requirements of the system.

“At the end of the day,” says Hohl, “it helped to balance the flows throughout Ladera by lowering total watering duration by combining valve start times and saved money by reducing infrastructure size. … That’s one of the things we designed for, and that’s where the Rain Master system comes in because it was able to manage it at the same time. And that’s explicitly why it was chosen over some of the other products. That’s what we needed. We designed it so we’re not overtaxing the system, but we wanted to make sure that when the controllers turn on the irrigation is doing exactly what we intended when we designed it.”

Water Concern brought Coward on as central control irrigation manager to run the central system at Ladera Ranch in 2004. Coward’s expertise and the system’s level of complexity were a necessary fit to maximize this labyrinth of pipes and keep the development’s open areas looking like a realtor’s brochure year-round.

“If you had a standalone system, it would almost be impossible [to irrigate the entire area successfully],” explains Coward. “You’d have an Excel spreadsheet 2 miles long trying to manage that. With the central system, we can say which area we are going to irrigate.”

Photo: Water Concern

Ladera Ranch’s eye-catching landscape requires extensive care.

Coward elaborates on how the system allows for fine-tuning to meet specific irrigation needs, explaining, “During peak irrigation at night, we’re only going to have 75 gallons per minute go through a certain area. Then we can go to the next area and allot 20 here, and 50 here, and 25 there. The central calculates the run time for each night’s irrigation. I can manage the subtleties of each zone, so if we have a zone that is getting a little drier, I can go ahead and adjust a host of different factors. … If I see something like a tree was cut down and I have a turf zone that was dry because it was in the shade most of the time and now it’s in the sun, I can increase a factor for that zone and it will increase the amount of water that zone receives. It’s not a program-it-and-forget-it system. I don’t think any central is. You’re constantly managing the system, increasing it a little bit or decreasing it a little.”

A highly adjustable central system allows Water Concern to remain flexible with regard to water use and how to work with Santa Margarita Water District with regard to routine maintenance as well as unplanned service interruptions. According to Ferons, a centralized system makes it very easy to coordinate planned maintenance so Water Concern can shut down the portions of the system and eliminate demand.

“From a utility point of view, having it all centralized makes for a more efficient operation,” explains Ferons. “We don’t have go around and lock off all the meters and do all that. Instead, we can work with [Water Concern] and they can shut it down and schedule their irrigation before and after any repair work that we have to do on the local operation reservoirs or the pump stations or anything like that.”

According to Lott Steffey of Mosaic Consultants (the horticultural firm that oversees the irrigation and landscaping of Ladera Ranch), “It’s not just about water savings; it’s about watering correctly. Too many people get focused on their savings, which can be to the detriment of the plants and slopes. It’s all about using the central system to irrigate effectively and efficiently and correctly to what the plants need. … You don’t want to overwater, but you don’t want to underwater either.”

The Case of the Missing Water
One of the most innovative uses of the central computer system—and one that it probably wasn’t designed for—is the ability to track down a closed valve, like the one restricting water flow in a certain sector of Ladera Ranch.

Both Coward and Hohl are at a loss to explain the low-pressure readings and dying vegetation. “We’d turn the system on during the day, and it didn’t seem too bad,” says Hohl. “But at night, when all the other controllers were coming on at the same time and pulling a lot of water, the pressure dropped so much that our [sprinkler] heads weren’t even popping up.”

Through the low-flow alarms generated daily by the central system, Coward and Hohl determined that there had to be a valve shut off on a particular street. “That’s something that, if you didn’t have the flow sensing and the ability to tie all your satellites together, could go unnoticed for a long time,” says Coward.

Thanks to the central’s flow reports and detail GIS maps, Water Concern was able to backtrack and determine it had to be one valve on a certain street. “The water district kept telling us, ‘The valves are all open; they’re all open.’ But when we went out to the street, opened up the valve lid, and started to turn the handle, sure enough, you could hear water start flowing through the line.”

The next day all the low-flow alarms were gone.

Having a smart central system is only half the battle. Staying in constant contact with contractors and walking the property daily is a necessary part of staying on top of the job, as well as detecting problems before they become apparent. As Steffey puts it, “You can manage an irrigation system, or Ladera Ranch for that matter, from China through the computer. But it’s another thing to be out there every day looking at things and working with the contractor.”

Walking the Talk
Southern Orange County, specifically the Mission Viejo area, has been in a constant state of growth for the past 30 years. During this time, chaparral and tree-lined riparian canyons have been turned into master-planned bedroom communitiesFor example, the Santa Margarita Water District had 13,000 connections in 1983; today, it has more than 55,000 (a net gain of over 125, 000 customers). That development footprint has had a huge impact on the land as well as utilities that have risen to meet the demand for gas, electricity, and water. Ladera Ranch is currently about 500 homes away from a final 8,100-home build-out, so the need for domestic water is high: an average of 1.6 million gallons per day. Likewise, the 2 million to 5.5 million gallons of recycled water that Ladera uses on average every day require a sophisticated system of on-the-spot checks and balances—not just a wiz-bang central computer.

Photo: Water Concern

The system allows for fine-tuning to meet the Ladera Ranch Project’s irrigation needs.

This need for daily inspection of the system and the grounds is why Water Concern has Coward stationed onsite at Ladera Ranch. O’Connell Landscape Project Manager, Eric Schaff (along with the 130 employees who work for him) works hand-in-hand with Coward, be it walking the grounds, interacting with employees and contractors, or using the central system to determine the location of a potential problem. Both companies benefit from the synergy of working so closely together.

According to Schaff, regular communication is the key to why Ladera Ranch’s landscaping looks the way it does. “It’s all been about communication on this job. You need someone of Water Concern’s status because this is a very complex system. It’s been a great experience working with them, partly because Todd Coward is such a hands-on guy—he’s not just good in the office. Contractors who are office people, when you get them out working with the guys who maintain things in the field, it’s different. Todd is certainly the right guy to have out here.”

The Results Speak for Themselves
Feron’s experience of working with multiple planned communities in the Santa Margarita Water District’s service area gives him a unique perspective to evaluate the effectiveness of Ladera Ranch’s total systems approach to maintaining the property.

“If you don’t dedicate the staff like [Water Concern] has to operate the system and keep up with it, then you lose the ability to take advantage of it,” says Feron.

Feron’s believes inconsistency often stands in the way of success. “Other areas have similar systems,” he says, “[but] some of them have changed their landscape company several times, so the continuity is lost and the current guys don’t really know how to operate the system entirely—or all the functionality of it. So what they tend to do is override it and operate it like an old time clock.

“The difference we see between Ladera and some of these other areas,” he continues, “is that they have really taken ownership of it and really wanted to operate it and continue to operate it. … We’re going back in and trying to help some of the other guys retrain themselves on how to operate their system because it’s in our best interest too for them to be able to operate smart and minimize their use of water.”

Todd Beebe, executive director of the Ladera Ranch Maintenance Corporation (LARMAC), which oversees the entire community, believes teamwork is at the center of maintaining Ladera’s aesthetic appeal.

“I keep likening it back to family, but that’s what it is essentially,” says Beebe. “We are trusted with a process and a whole presentation, so we have to work together in that respect. And they are doing a fantastic job. If it was just me managing O’Connell and Water Concern, without Mosaic involved, there might be some disconnect. But it works because Water Concern, Mosaic, and O’Connell all work together for the common good.”

Whether the different factions that spend half their waking hours beautifying Ladera Ranch could be considered a family is up for debate; however, as with any close-knit group of workers pulling together on a long-term project, there are bound to be some bumps in the road—especially when the introduction of new technology radically redefines job descriptions and creates a different protocol for doing the same job that most of the workers had been doing for the past decade.

“In the beginning, there was the language barrier, and it took a while for the guys to figure out how a central control worked and how things change when you’re working with ET and matching precipitation rates with heads,” remembers Schaff. “It was a whole new experience for our guys and a big adjustment.

Photo: Water Concern

The Ladera Ranch Project includes 750 acres of common area and landscaping.

“There was some bickering, like brother and sister stuff, and a lot of finger pointing, and it took time for the relationship to grow. There was a lot more to it than just irrigation. You had two cultures clashing. When you do something a certain way for 10 to 15 years, there’s a big learning curve involved in learning how to do that same thing differently. And a system is only as good as the people who work with it.

“For example,” he continues, “on a typical job, irrigators will fix a sprinkler with whatever head they happen to have on the truck and you might not notice it. Here, you do that and it could set off an alarm for high or low flows because all the flows have been established beforehand by Water Concern so they get everything done in our watering window every night—and it really works well.

“Now that our Lead Irrigator Homero Pedraza understands the system and how it works together with the weather satellite, he is completely on board and can relay that information to the irrigators who work under him.”

It Takes a Village
To prioritize, organize, coordinate, delegate, run the high- and low-flow reports, walk the property, and double and triple check to make sure the work was done right, it takes a host of employees, contractors, and managers. To this end, Ladera Ranch homeowners’ association contracts with Merit Property Management to provide management services for LARMAC. Merit Property Management in turn contracts with Mosaic Consulting to act as the horticultural and landscape managers for all those activities. Water Concern works directly with Mosaic Consulting, and O’Connell does the actual landscape work as directed by Water Concern and Mosaic. If it sounds like a lot of managerial layers for an irrigation and landscaping operation, consider the number of daily tasks involved with keeping 750 acres of an award-winning development looking like a photograph on a Web site.

“We communicate daily on the phone with each other, three, four, five times a day,” says Steffey. “If Todd [Coward] is just at his computer scheduling irrigation all day, without communicating with the others, then there’s going to be a lot of schedules that will be broken. We’ve got a mow schedule, a sports field schedule, and we’re walking the slopes literally daily. It’s definitely a team event.”

The job of orchestrating all the different arms and legs together into one cohesive, forward-moving organism requires communication. In addition to the daily phone calls from Beebe to Steffey or Coward to Steffey or Schaff to Coward, there are weekly meetings between Mosaic, Water Concern, and O’Connell concerning the day-to-day details and a monthly meeting where all parties sit in with Beebe for a bigger picture overview.

In addition to these meetings, Coward is in almost daily contact with the Santa Margarita Water District to coordinate how much recycled water Ladera Ranch needs based on reports from the weather stations, soil samples, ET, and the local weather forecast. Based on that information, the operator at the Chiquita Water Reclamation Plant, which provides Ladera with its recycled water for irrigation, predicts how much water to produce on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. When recycled water runs $757 per acre-foot ($1.74 per 100 cubic feet), regular communication like this keeps costs down—savings that are passed on to the homeowners. Considering Ladera Ranch’s daily consumption of irrigation water is between 2 and 5.5 million gallons, those savings add up fast.

“When I know rain is coming, I’ll shut the system down a day or two before and save 2 million to 3 million gallons a day,” says Coward. “When the rain comes, it’s useful rain that soaks in instead of running off.”

Recycled Water
Ladera Ranch was designed with a dual-distribution irrigation system, so the conversion to recycled water in 2005 when the Chiquita Water Reclamation Plant went online was seamless.

Obviously, using recycled water is the right thing to do from an environmental standpoint; however, recycled water still costs the same as domestic, which is counterintuitive.

According to Ferons, the biggest advantage to using recycled water is consistency. For example, when the Santa Margarita Water District shut its domestic water system down for a week in March 2007, the first customers it took off were the central irrigation systems because the water district was living off its storage for a week.

“From an emergency point of view or a reliability point of view, [Ladera Ranch] is fairly drought resistant,” says Ferons.

Using recycled water on such a large scale also benefits the Santa Margarita Water District, and therefore Ladera Ranch and its homeowners because it flattens the overall demand curve for domestic water, which helps the district keep costs down.

“It’s kind of a weird business in that you’re trying to encourage your customers not to use the product as much as possible,” says Ferons.

The principle drawback to Ladera Ranch’s use of reclaimed water for irrigation is that the Santa Margarita Water District currently doesn’t have a separate reservoir for storing recycled water (the proposed Ortega Seasonal Storage Reservoir is four or five years away from completion). “Once that’s built, we’ll be able to maximize the use of the reclaimed water and eliminate the need for supplemental flows during the summer when the peak demands can exceed capacity of the treatment plant,” explains Ferons. “It’s really important to use the local sources of recycled water as much as possible; otherwise, we’re importing water from over 200 miles away only to dump it on the ground—doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Another potential disadvantage of using recycled water is the accumulation of salts in the soil and chlorine burning the turf. With heavy soils that have a high clay content, like those at Ladera, overwatering to push the salts below the root zone doesn’t work—you just end up with more runoff. According to Coward, however, neither chlorine nor soil salt content is a problem at Ladera, although he does have some reservations about salt buildup over time.

The Circle of Life
One of the most interesting uses of recycled water at Ladera Ranch is the Sienna Botanica riverine watershed system that runs through the middle of the development. Once a low-flowing creek, “The Botanica” now collects some of the storm drain water from the community. This water is then “cleaned” by cattails, bulrushes, and local vegetation that line the streambed that eventually runs into the Horne Basin at the southern end of the development. There is even an overflow system built into the creek. When the flow gets too high, water is diverted into pipes that carry the overflow water beneath the creek down to the Horne Basin.

The Santa Margarita Water District has constructed a system by which Horne Basin water will be pumped back to where it merges with the recycled water from the Chiquita facility, thus providing another source of irrigation water that previously would have been lost to the ocean. This additional reusable water resource will be up and running by summer 2007.

Not surprisingly, the level of recycling efficiency at Ladera Ranch extends beyond water to include a mulching program that transforms the more than 80 cubic yards of greenwaste generated daily into ground cover used back under the plants where it originated.

However, the most entrepreneurial recycling program in use at Ladera Ranch actually involves the employees at Mosaic Consulting. Virtually everyone who works for Mosaic knew each other when they all worked for the landscape department at Disneyland. Over the past eight years, Steffey and his partner Devin Sanders have lured their old coworkers away from Disneyland to join them at Mosaic. “We have basically hired some of our employees from Disneyland,” Steffey says. “So when people tell us, ‘Make it look like Disneyland,’ we quickly say, ‘No, we’re going to make it look better.’”


Author’s Bio: Guest author Mark Saunders is a newspaper and magazine journalist based in Boulder, CO.

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