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Texas AgriLife Extension Service Texas Water Development Board Texas Nursery and Landscape Association Texas AgriLife Extension Service Texas AgriLife Extension Service
A supplement to the Best Management Practices Manual produced by the Texas Water Conservation Task Force.

Landscape Irrigation Conservation and Incentives

A number of different program approaches can help utilities promote and achieve irrigation efficiency. From setting appropriate water budgets for landscapes to surveying irrigation and dedicated meters, ensuring proper irrigation system design and setting irrigation system standards are addressed below.
Using the Landscape Irrigation Conservation and Incentives BMP 2.9 the utility provides non-residential and residential customers with:

  • Customer support
  • Education
  • Incentives
  • Assistance in improving their landscape water-use efficiency.
Incentives can include rebates for purchase and installation of water-efficient equipment, pricing which discourages water waste outdoors, and recognitions for irrigators and customers who implement desired practices. The BMP includes four basic approaches. The following sections provide conservation or utility staff with a more detailed guide to implementing conservation programs focused on reducing the amount of water used in landscape irrigation.

ETo-Based Water Budgets
Water budget approaches involve assisting customers to use the correct amount of water for the landscape. Landscapes provide aesthetic value to customers but are often over watered. By determining the actual water needs of the landscape, education, incentive or regulatory approaches can help limit watering to the amount of water that plants can use without waste.

Numerous studies have been done on plant water needs, but not all plants have been studied. The Urban Landscape Guide plant database can assist customers and landscape designers in choosing low water use plants and thus a landscape with a lower water budget. A utility can assist in this process by providing incentives and educational material promoting lower water use landscapes.

Ordinance approaches can provide simpler approaches to the water budget. A model landscape with limited turf and use of some non-irrigated materials including mulches and ornamental features can be used to allocate water use outdoors. This approach can be promoted with education and reinforced with water rates or fees. Charging customers higher amounts for water used above the allocation, or an excess use fee can be charged to those who consistently exceed their allocation1. BMP 2.2 Water Conservation Pricing can be met by implementing a water budget rate structure.

Evapotranspiration is the combined amount of the water transpired by plants and the water evaporated from the soil. ETo is defined as the estimate of evapotranspiration that occurs from a standardized reference crop such as clipped grass. The amount of supplemental irrigation water needed is the shortfall between plant water need (which is a fraction of ETo) and natural precipitation.

If the utility chooses the water budget approach, the utility also develops reference evapotranspiration ("ETo")-based water-use budgets equal to no more than 80% of ETo per square foot of irrigated landscape area for customers participating in its Landscape Irrigation Conservation Program. More aggressive landscape conservation programs can utilize stress coefficients lower than 80%.

Educational approaches to water budgets include providing an ETo-based budget to a customer for their landscape with proposed water use by month. This can be compared to the customer's historical use to show them the financial savings in using the budget. (See Austin Case Study). Customers with designated irrigation meters will find it easier to follow a water budget, but those with meters serving indoor and outdoor use can be evaluated using an estimated assigned value for indoor use. Recommended values are 70 qpcd for residential indoor with a non-conserving home and 50 qpcd for a conserving home2 a value of 10.5 qpcd can be used for commercial office and retail customers to estimate water use where the number of employees is known and where there is not a lot of foot traffic or water use is not intrinsic to the business. For commercial customers with intrinsic water uses (i.e. restaurants) or large water using equipment (cooling towers), additional information about non-landscape water use will need to be gathered.

Sources for historical ET data include the statewide
Texas Evapotranspiration Network
and the
Amarillo PET Network
These websites also have useful information for calculating watering budgets and schedules.

In addition to education about watering needs of plants, the water budget is useful when a utility intends to focus on helping customers reduce waste by providing a target water use rate that can be used as a benchmark to compare with the customer's monthly water use patterns. To help a customer increase the efficiency of their irrigation system, water audits (surveys) and dedicated metering are recommended approaches.

Water-Use Surveys, Metering, and Budgeted Water Use
Irrigation surveys3 are designed to determine water use rates of irrigation systems and the steps needed to improve irrigation efficiency through ensuring that water is distributed uniformly over each hydrozone. The primary principle in irrigation efficiency is the same level of irrigation volume applied across landscape materials with similar water needs, and limited to the amount that replenishes soil water in the root zone. (If using reclaim water or water with high TDS an additional volume or"leaching fraction" of water should be applied in order to force salts below the root zone). The Irrigation Association (IA) has detailed BMP and training for irrigation professionals to perform on irrigation system survey. The TAMU turf program also offers irrigation training.

Utilities should begin by performing irrigation system surveys on municipally-owned and/or other publicly-owned irrigation systems. Customers who could benefit from surveys include golf couse, schools, churches, other commercial facilities with large turf area, and possibly residential customers with large irrigated areas. The water-use surveys, at a minimum, should include:
  • Measurement of the landscape area
  • Measurement of the total irrigable area
  • Irrigation system checks for
    • Leaks
    • Head spacing
    • Pressure
    • Head-to-head coverage
    • Proper design of hydrozones
    • Proper selection of heads per hydrozone
    • Distribution unifornmity
  • Distribution uniformity analysis
  • Review of irrigation schedules or development of schedules as appropriate
  • Provision of a customer survey report and information packet
  • Development of a volumetric water budget
When cost-effective, the utility should offer the following:
  • Landscape water-use analyses and surveys
  • Voluntary water-use budgets
  • Installation of dedicated landscape meters
  • Acceptance of site conservation plans
  • Follow up to water-use analyses and surveys
Due to size of staff or budget contrainsts, some utilities may wish to use an abbreviated form of irrigation survey to gain some savings, while not performing all steps of a uniformity analysis. The list above shows a potential program's elements which can be included from a rudimentary program, all the way through a sophisticated full survey program. The City of Austin Case Study shows on approach to targeting high water use customers, educating them, and providing encouragement to implement survey findings and reduce their water use.

Even well-designed irrigation systems require regular maintenance to perform efficiently. To get the best results from irrigation surveys, they should be peformed at the beginning os the irrigation season. The utility can include notices in bills to remind customers of seasonal maintenance needs. For accounts with water budgets, the utility should provide notices each billing cycle showing the relationship between budgeted water usage and actual consumption. Websites and software improvements allow utilities to provide month-to-month feedback to customers with water budgets. For larger utilities a service can be provided. Simpler comparisons of average water use of all customers or customers in same billing cycle can be used to give a customer a"measuring stick" of their water use. This is useful because many customers do not irrigate or only irrigate fraction of ETo and thus the average use is typically lower than ETo for a larger utility. (Smaller utilities serving suburban customers should use this approach with caution, as per capita suburban use is typically higher than urban or rural water usage.) Soil moisture technology can be used when soil conditions allow, and landscape managers are familiar with their use and maintenance to provide a closer estimate of actual evapotranspiration.3

Dedicated irrigation meters may be required for all commercial and/or industrial accounts with automatic irrigation systems or if for all accounts if the lot is above a minimum size. For municipalities with ordinance-making powers, this can be accomplished by ordinance. Otherwise, dedicated meters may be implemented in utility service rules as a new customer policy. This approach assists customers in evaluating their monthly water use outdoors. It also gives the utility immediate feedback on water use during peak demand periods for outdoor water use and the ability to direct messages regarding the actual amount of water needed to their customers. Cities with dedicated irrigation meters have found that historically, such customers have used peak water at rates higher than ET4.

Irrigation System Design
Two major elements of irrigation system design are readily apparent, and of importance to a utility, the use of hydrozones, and proper spacing of irrigation heads. A third element, pressure regulation, can also result in water waste if the system is not properly designed. Low water use landscape designs, when incorporating irrigation systems, must also make the proper use of hydrozones. Plants with similar water use needs should be on the same zone(s) in order to reduce water use wherever possible. Drip and Microirrigation can be used on zones with mulched beds and shrubs as appropriate. The use of non-irrigated zones is also recommended. Proper controllers must be used which can run separate zones for different times per run.

Texas' licensed irrigator requirement allows a local utility to ensure that properly trained personnel are involved in irrigation system design. The utility should keep a list of licensed irrigators available for its customers, and work with new residential and commercial developers to ensure that properly licensed individuals are involved in designing new irrigation systems. This can be accomplished as an educational effort, providing lists to customers, but can also be enforced using an ordinance or services rules by providing fines for those who do not used licensed irrigators to design irrigation systems. The EPA Water Sense program also offers certification for irrigation designers that have been certified by the IA. If the utility chooses the irrigation design approach, the utility should also provide information on climate-appropriate landscape design and efficient irrigation equipment and management for new customers and change-of-service customer accounts (See Section 3 for more detail).

To serve as a model, the utility should install demonstration landscapes, and use climate-appropriate, water-efficient landscaping at water agency facilities. Demonstration sites should be properly signed, and should include SWAT irrigation controllers (see below), rain and/or soil sensors, drip and micro-irrigation hydrozones to demonstrate efficient irrigation technology. Separate landscape meters on these demonstration landscapes will allow the utility to track water demand, and provide another potential educational tool. Utilities which require landscape irrigation meters can require copies of properly sealed irrigation system designs as part of the meter application and approval process.

Minimum Standards and Upgrades
Irrigation system design and maintenance components and landscape design may be systematically upgraded through use of municipal ordinance-making powers or utility service rules. Minimum water efficient design features can be mandated for new construction, while existing systems or landscapes are offered incentives to upgrade. A standards and upgrades element of an irrigation system approach can include:
  • Rain sensors
  • Soil moisture sensors
  • Irrigation controllers
  • Pipe & Meter specifications
  • Hydrozone specifications
    • Similar plant materials
    • Limits on total irrigated area
    • Limits on placement of heads to prevent watering hardscape
  • Total turf grass areas
  • Buffer zone plant material and irrigation system limits
If the utility chooses the irrigation standards approach, the utility should require new commercial and industrial customers to install separate irrigation meters and consider retrofitting current commercial and industrial customers with irrigation meters. The utility should also consider this requirement for new residential customers installing automatic irrigation systems. For municipalities with ordinance-making powers, this can be accomplished by ordinance. Otherwise, this may be implemented as service rules for new customers.

Irrigation systems

The Smart Water Application Technology (SWAT)
initiative is a nationwide effort by the irrigation industry and water utilities to promote improvements in landscape irrigation controllers. Known as Smart Controllers the current set of controllers are improved over previous technology, but still not meeting all of the goals articulated by project participants. The SWAT Committee is working with utility and irrigation professionals to continually improve the specifications, so this initiative can be expected to elicit more improvements in irrigation technology ove the next few years. As technology improves controllers can be expected to meet a number of goals:
  • Ease of use
  • Ability to change crop co-efficients
  • Ability to define watering day
  • Connections between soil water status and irrigation run times
Use of GIS and databases of customers use has indicated that a significant number of customers use less than ET in irrigation5. The same kinds of comparisons have assisted the City of Austin in identifying customers who irrigate in amounts greater than ET (see case study), and delivering water audits and water budgets to identified customers.

Rain Sensors
A rain sensor captures precipitation and prevents the automatic sprinkler system from operating during the rain. A high quality sensor will retain moisture based upon the quantity of rain, and interrupt sprinkler cycles after rainfall while the sensor is still moist. Sensors should:
  • Automatically break the circuit to the sprinkler system when it has rained;
  • Break the circuit when 1/4" of rain fall;
  • Maintain the circuit break for an extended period of time to account for soil moisture replenished by rain;
  • Be mounted in an unobstructed location, protected from splash, and according to the product's specifications.
Soil Moisture Sensors
Soil moisture sensors (SMS) use a variety of technologies to estimate the water content of soil. The most sophisticated and accurate, neutron probes, are not available for use in typical municipal utility situations due to cost and radioactivity concerns. Others include tensiometers, and various electromagnetic sensors. Tensiometers are tradiitonaly cnsiderd tohe most accurate of these, but also require constant maintenance.
Recent research in Florida
indicates some easier to use SMS are providing reasonably accurate feedback to irrigation systems. This technology has a great deal of promise in reducing water waste through over irrigation, but needs to be monitored by utilities for continued improvements in reliability.

Pipes and meters
Pipe and meter specifications can be used to limit the size of irrigation system piping to 5/8" in order to restrict peak flow capacity of the system. Some cities have found that developments where 1" diameter or larger pipe and meters have been used in residential developments result in transient pressure problems as most residential customers tend to irrigate at the same time of day (evening, or early morning and on weekends)6.


are important for plant health as well as water savings. By grouping plants with simlar water needs together, the irrigation run times can be adjusted properly, and you will neither over water nor underwater specific plants, which can lead to health problems.

Turfgrass area limits are used to decrease the overall water budget of a landscape, and the limit the use of spray irrigation, since turfgrass landscapes do not do well with drip irrigation. An alternative approach to limiting the location and types of irrigation heads, the limit on turfgrass area can sometimes be applied to specific landscape areas such as, industrial, commercial, and institutional landscapes that are not likely to be used for recreation, or such limits may be applied to buffer areas or median strips. Areas which are not typically regulated in this fashion include common areas which could be used for recreation at schools, churches, playgrounds or apartment buildings, and residential back yards.

Buffers, medians and entrances
Buffer or median areas represent additional savings when all landscaped areas less than five feet in any dimension are restricted to drip or other surface or subsurface (non-spray) irrigation system or no irrigation system.

Evapotranspiration (ET) is the term used to describe the combined loss of water from plant and soil surfaces through evaporation and transpiration. Transpiration serves two basic functions for plants:
  • to help move nutrients from the roots to the leaves of the plant, and
  • to help keep the plant cool.
Actual water flux through ET is measured by tracking the change in water balance in soil and plant tissues over time. In practical terms, actual ET (ETa) is measured change in soil water balance after irrigation and precipitation are accounted. ETa = I + P - deltaS - Q - D; where I = irrigation, P = precipitation, deltaS = change in soil water, Q = runoff and D = drainage. Since changes in water lost to drainage or runoff and soil water status are difficult to measure a number of simpler relationships have been determined.

The measurements for ETa parameters require a level of equipment and destruction of plant material so as to be impractical in all but research applications. As a result several decades ago equations were developed to express the relationship between environmental factors, such as temperature, wind, solar radiation, relative humidity, and precipitation to the flux of water through ET. These equations of which there are several are collectively referred to as reference or potential ET. A more thorough discussion of the ET equations can be found at the University of Idaho's Kimberly R&E Center. This manual introduces enough information to understand the basic limits and attributes of ET so that water conservation personnel can better understand how it can be used in planning for and implementing a water conservation program.

In order to apply reference or potential ET (ETo or PET) to a lawn or specific plants a crop coefficient which has been empirically determined is used. This coefficient is used to ensure that the water replaced by irrigation does not exceed that used by the plant since the last irrigation event. Rainfall occurring between irrigation events can be used to offset some of the irrigation as long as it is measured. The original research to evaluate these coefficients assured that the soil water reservoir would be refilled to 100% of its capacity at each irrigation event. Subsequent research and simple observation over the years since the original coefficients were developed have determined that landscape plants can survive and even thrive with less than 100% replacement of soil water. This is due to mechanisms in the plant itself which reduce the transpiration rate in response to less water availability in the root zone.

Researchers who have quantified these reductions in water use refer to these approaches as "deficit irrigation", and calculate the water savings by introducing an additional coefficient into the equation. The resulting equation for calculating irrigation amounts is:
I = (Kc x PET x Dc) - R
Where I = irrigation amount (in.)
Kc = Crop coefficient
Pet = Potential evapotranspiration
Dc = deficit irrigation coefficient
R = rainfall
The ET equation above can be used, when irrigated area is known to develop water budgets in terms of volume of water to be applied. Water budges can be used to develop rate structure, which increase dramatically when a customer exceeds the amount of water budgeted for their landscape. Water budgets can also be used to determine a demand forecast based upon service area size, total irrigated landscape area, and a "typical" landscape palette from which an "average" crop coefficient can be estimated. Smart Water Application Technology (S.W.A.T.) has been developing irrigation controllers which can mechanically use ET information to limit the amount of water applied. Irrigation controller technology has been improving over the past several years with controllers using both historical ET and some using satellite feeds of current ET measurements. Not all controllers can be adjusted to meet irrigation schedules or deficit irrigation goals but continued improvement in technology can be anticipated in future years.


1The Geographic regions of Los Angeles are grouped by zip codes, with different budgets for each grouping, the link for the charts showing regional water budgets can be found at http://www.ladwp.com/ladwp/cms/ladwp001152.pdf'. Irvine Ranch Water District uses a water budget tailored to each customer.

2Residential End Use Study, 1999 data / WCITF Report to Legislature, 2004

3The use of the terms "irrigation audit" and "irrigation survey" are used interchangeably in this manual. Some Texas cities have found that the word "survey" has a more positive association with their customers than "audit."

4City of Waco Conservation Plan, 2003; SAWS (ask Dana) Outdoor Conservation (Stage IV)

5SAWS and EPWU representatives, personal communication, 5/31/06

6Rick Garret, Manager City of Waco Water Utility, personal conversation, 2003.