Tuesday, April 18, 2017

From Field Technician to Hydrologist

Last week Eliza Breder successfully defended her MSc thesis on irrigation patterns as influenced by smart irrigation technology. Ms. Breder first joined ABE and the Dukes research group as a field technician in 2013. We worked together on everything from frost protection irrigation, distribution uniformity sprinkler nozzle trials, and the Orange County-based smart irrigation study which would eventually move her out of the field and back into the classroom. As she prepares for the next chapter in her water-use focused career, Ms. Breder agreed to speak with IrriGator about her ABE experience.

Eliza Breder - Master of Science and future Hydrologist
What has been the focus of your research as a Masters student with the Dukes group?
EB: I’ve worked on the OCU (Orange County Utilities) project where we look at smart irrigation technology and the water savings from different technologies and optimized treatments. Specifically what I’ve looked at with that data is the hourly irrigation patterns of each treatment. This means looking at the irrigation applied over the week, in addition to the irrigation applied per event, and the number of events that occur per week on average for each treatment.  
Residential soil moisture sensor

Something else that we look at that ties into these objectives is the comparison homes. These homes have no technology and are not exempt from watering restrictions. They still irrigate once or twice a week depending on the time of the year. That data has been separated by even and odd address and time period to see whether or not they violate watering restrictions. We’ve found that about 20% violate two day restrictions and about 40% violate one day restrictions. What’s interesting about that is they’re supposed to irrigate on specific days of the week, so violation means they may be irrigating more, or just irrigating on the wrong days.

Where all this really ties together is that the smart irrigation technology overall applies less weekly irrigation on average than the comparison homes. However, some of the technologies will irrigate more frequently over the week, this is true for the weather based timers. The soil moisture sensor homes tend to irrigate at the same frequency as comparison, but not as much water is applied.  
Stand alone weather-based irrigation controller

For high irrigators (comparison homes), while some of them do abide by watering restrictions they still apply a lot of irrigation. Maybe there is a better solution for this type of homeowner.

Is water-use research something you were always interested in as an undergrad?
EB: Towards the end of undergrad I was interested in learning more about water use and water conservation. This was a really great opportunity for me, especially for work in Florida. This is an ag-based state, especially in North Florida. We also have a lot of really important water resources here.

My general interest has always been about the environment and water. I went abroad for a year in Brazil and I had a really interesting internship. It wasn’t necessarily about irrigation but it was about water supply. It was under a different context - different country, different issues. But it became important to me to learn about what’s going on with water where I’m from.  

Do you feel your experience as a graduate student has prepared you for the working world?
EB: Yes. Coming across a problem in my data, or in my research, or trying to understand what the objective is - trying to make sure it makes sense, but also answering to someone. Answering to Orange County or Dr. Dukes to make sure it’s in line with their vision and making that work in the statistics and the code I’ve written for the data - so problem solving definitely.

Field days - Eliza Breder calibrates frost protection impact spray heads
Also I can manage data. I can use R and Excel and this was a big selling point. Even if it’s new data that I’m not familiar with, the ability to learn new things and do it on your own was extremely valuable when applying for jobs.

What can you tell us about the next chapter of your water-use research career?
EB: I’ve accepted a job offer to work as a hydrologist with Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD). There are general hydrology and irrigation principles but sometimes it’s helpful to know about specific issues in a specific area – the way groundwater resources work and the way the industry deals with it. It was advantageous for me to stay in the same area given my knowledge.

Maria Zamora and Eliza Breder at strawberry plot in Citra
On a personal level, while I mainly deal with irrigation data, the SRWMD area does have a lot of agriculture. I’m looking forward to learning more about hydrology in that area and going out for field work visits to see how they actually collect the data I’ll be managing. I look at it as an overall learning experience - a place where I can bring the skills that I have to use to get things done.   

You created and maintained a digital presence on Twitter as a graduate student. Can you speak to why and if you’ll continue to develop this as a professional?
EB: It was a great move for getting my name out and learning a little bit about what other people are doing. It was fun even tweeting about some of the challenges I had overcome in my research. It got me some attention. And the people that are looking at you are people you might be interested in learning about, or brands or water management districts. It’s great for getting the word out about yourself and for expressing your professional interests, and also for learning about colleagues, or potential colleagues.

Eliza on catch can detail (image: Gainesville Sun)
I’ll still be active on it to talk about current water resource issues or great things we’re doing at the district or something interesting that happened in the field. It’s definitely a great tool.

The Dukes program consistently develops/prepares top-notch water-use research personnel. What would you attribute this to?
EB: I’ve definitely improved on my skills being here. There is an element where Dr. Dukes has this expectation that you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself, that you’re capable of putting things together on your own. He doesn’t need to hold your hand. You become independent in that way. Sometimes if you can figure one thing out it’s sort of a domino effect. The sky is the limit. For me that was R. When I first started working with R in different classes it was definitely a challenge. But I got over that peak and that was my own motivation. You have to be self-motivated.

Dukes research team 
Of course, there is also taking good classes. And Dr. Dukes making sure you have a solid literature review, and that we have solid objectives, and a solid project behind you. For me, coming in with a project already in progress – there was a huge management side of it, but there was a lot of data there and not a lot of waiting. Ultimately, he expects you to be independent and a go-getter, and in that space I was able to figure a lot out for myself, and what did and did not work, which was a really great learning experience.

Eliza Breder and Sara Wynn help us learn irrigation basics

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Flip My Florida Yard: Florida-Friendly Landscaping Gets the Star Treatment

Thanks to alert undergraduate Sienna Turner, late last year I had the opportunity to participate in a shoot for the new reality series Flip My Florida Yard here in Alachua County. The concept: a family dissatisfied with their drab or derelict landscape has an army of landscaping professionals redesign their yard in the course of a work day to reflect the 9 Florida-Friendly principles. Ms. Turner saw a call for volunteers that Sustainable UF published online and off we went to pitch in and see the action.
Start at the Beginning
How exactly does one flip an entire yard in just one day? For starters, you have to rise and shine at the crack of dawn in 40 degree December weather! The Alachua-based Frontrunner’s Chapter of FNGLA was instrumental in gathering contractors, equipment and supplies for the day’s work. What I was told would normally take a crew of 4 workers two days to accomplish, would be tackled by a crew of 20 in 8 hours. 
The yard flipping crew gathers at sunrise in Newberry
Chapter president Stefan Liopiros (of Lawn Enforcement Agency, Inc.) described the day’s mission: “One of the reasons their yard doesn’t look so great is because they don’t like taking care of it so we want to go in and do something and make a change to it so it’s going to look great without a lot of maintenance. One of the objectives with our design today is a very low-maintenance, highly attractive water-saving landscape.”

Look familiar? This landscape is ready to flip 
The Look
Upon initial inspection the existing yard looked simple enough – minimalist, turf-centric, weedy, and with little shade and few ornamentals. You might call this a traditional Florida landscape design. I’ve certainly seen it countless times during irrigation system assessment work around the state. 

A look at the Florida-Friendly design plans 
Stacie Greco, Water Conservation Coordinator with Alachua County Environmental Protection, noted that one of the benefits of the Flip My Florida Yard program is showcasing different aesthetics. “We’re trying to switch, to shift that landscaping paradigm where people start to include more landscapes in what they think is beautiful and acceptable,” Ms. Greco said. “Not just a bright green, plush carpet-like lawn, but something that might have some more diversity and use a little bit less water and chemicals.”

Water on the Brain
Resource efficiency is the bread and butter of an FFL design. And I’ll be honest what I was interested in most was the site’s irrigation - what was already there pre-flip and what would it look like in the end. According to Mr. Lioprios this was one of the challenges of reworking the yard. “The question is: do you rip out the whole existing system and start over, or do you take the existing system and try to hybridize it and turn it into something that’s a low-volume system?”
FMFY host Chad Crawford (right) talks soil health with Stefan Lioprios
Mr. Lioprios continued, “based on the time frame we chose to use as much of the original pipe work as possible and convert it over into a low-volume drip system.” From what I saw the new ornamental–laden front yard was converted to drip and the remaining turf areas on the side of the house and in the backyard stayed the same.

8 Hours Later
As promised, the Frontrunners FNGLA Chapter flipped the yard in one work day. New features included boulders, palm trees, generous use of mulch, a sprouting container-vegetable garden, and an assortment of native and low-maintenance plants. 

Standing ovation for an 8-hour Florida-Friendly yard flip! (image via Frontrunners)
The takeaways for me: professional reality show productions might be fun to watch but are tedious to witness, and a well-designed landscape definitely makes for a more inviting living area. Title sponsor FNGLA funded 4 productions of Flip My Florida Yard in homes across the state. Preview a yard flip in Bradenton here and check your local listings for information on when Flip My Florida Yard broadcasts in your area.

Not bad for a day's work. Find out when Flip My Florida Yard airs in your area!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Two Days of Landscape Talk

Last month marked the 2nd annual Urban LandscapeSummit. For two days researchers, state specialists and graduate students gathered on the UF campus to learn about new findings in landscaping and related topics. The following is a short summary from my perspective.

Big Moods
Day one began on a high note with wetlands and water quality expert Dr. Mark Clark’s expansive presentation on urban stormwater quality. I had never heard of “slab on grade” construction and found the complementing sections of Dr. Clark’s talk to be one revelation after another. Likewise for Dr. Hayk Khachatryan’s investigation of homeowners and alternative residential landscapses, as well as Dr. Gurpal Toor’s look at algal blooms and fertilizer bans in Florida.

Of course no summit would be complete without a look into the future and on day two researchers behind the Water 2070 report provided just that. Attendees got a feel for why Florida continues to attract new residents, how the 2070 report generated its future projections and what practices, including IFAS programs, can offer some sustainable solutions to the challenges ahead.
One welcome change from the previous landscape summit was this year's digital presence on Twitter. At least half a dozen accounts were live-tweeting from the event and IFAS had their new social media manager working in the audience.

IrriGator took advantage of the summit’s draw to interview a number of experts for future blog content. These included a IFAS Water RSAs Drs. Mary Lusk and Charles Barrett, whom actively maintain a presence on Twitter. I knew these agents from their tweet content before meeting them in person. Stay tuned for their insight on how digital presence can be a benefit to research and outreach. 

Graduate students play an important role in the summit event. They have an opportunity to share their research in 5 minute lightning sessions and they also present posters for judging.  
Best posters this year included:
  • PhD candidate Xumin Zhang for Investigating Homeowners' Preferences for Smart Irrigation Technology Features
  • Master student Allison Bechtloff with Producers Value Sterile Cultivar Research for Potentially Invasive Plants for the Horticulture Industry in the southeastern United States 
Looking Ahead
If nothing else, 2017’s Urban Landscape Summit established how salient many of these research areas are to the viability and sustainability of quality of life in Florida. Further, the “New Faculty” session indicates that the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology and IFAS are adding even more experts to work on these issues. See you next year! 

Editor's Note: many of the slide presentations from the summit 
are now available in PDF form here.