Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Drought and Surplus: Adventures in Water-Use with Morgan Hopkins

Few people were more excited than me when Morgan Hopkins was hired as Florida Yards and Neighborhoods agent at Miami-Dade County Extension. This program includes the irrigation outfit wherein I learned everything I know about irrigation tech and media work. Ms. Hopkins was eminently qualified and the right person at the right time for that program. Life being what it is, however, she is now following other opportunities west. As a water-use expert working in one of the two high-profile, IFAS-affiliated irrigation rebate programs in Florida, Ms. Hopkins agreed to share exiting insights with IrriGator.
Water-use expert Morgan Hopkins
You joined the irrigation program at Miami-Dade Extension fresh from graduate school. What drew you to Miami-Dade?
MH: I had a really great experience as an undergraduate working with Oklahoma’s Cooperative Extension Service and working with Oklahoma City developing their water conservation program. Having the opportunity to continue in a career where I’m able to educate residents on outdoor water conservation, this was something too good to pass up. I was able to get a taste of how important that was in Oklahoma. I thought it would be great to be able to continue this with the University of Florida. Then realizing how strong the extension network was made it even more attractive.

The only hesitation for me was the intimidation of learning a completely different environment as far as plant material goes, and then actually tackling water conservation in an area that typically gets a surplus of water. The size of Miami didn’t really intimidate me. In my mind I thought “well, great that’s just more people to reach and to educate,” instead of seeing it as more work. For me it was about how am I going to frame water conservation in an area that typically gets plenty of rainfall and has access to quite a bit of water?

What are the challenges of managing a large-scale water program in an urban center like Miami-Dade?
MH: One of the challenges: when we met with homeowners one of the common things we heard is “I’m on a well, I don’t really need to save water.”  That disconnect of the water situation in South Florida was really something that we had to educate more people on. That kind of surprised me. I figured with sea level rise and the Biscayne aquifer and salt-water intrusion that people might be more aware of these things. But again that was just another educational opportunity that we were able to take advantage of when talking with homeowners.

The fact that Miami-Dade is one of the southernmost regions in Florida and having that recognition of UF/IFAS is definitely a challenge for us. People often confuse us with FIU and they aren’t really sure why UF is down here. We don’t have the recognition that a lot of other counties have that are closer, or have a stronger connection, to Gainesville. People kind of favor the hometown universities here and kind of see us as an outsider. That’s a challenge we face in having credibility in some areas.

What are some opportunities that you feel you only scratched the surface on, that the program and your successor can build on?
MH: One of the things that I really wanted to tackle was getting out in the community more and doing more workshops - whether it was with Florida-Friendly Landscaping or irrigation. Irrigation is never sexy but I did want to try to make that effort whether it was with industry or with homeowners – try to make irrigation more digestible on a basic level, for people to understand the relationship of plants and water and the connection to our South Florida ecosystem. Having workshops based on those topics is something I would like to have done more.

Also, I really wanted to strengthen our reporting and our evaluations for the irrigation program and really do more technical work behind those – calculating water saving and sharpening the tools that we already have and the things that we’re already doing to take them to the next level. I know that as it continues on those things will come to life with my successor.

I understand you’re headed west. What are you most excited about or looking forward to in this next chapter of your career?
MH: It’s a bittersweet move because I’ve really enjoyed my time with UF/IFAS; it’s such a great organization and it has an immense amount of resources that other extension services are not fortunate to have. But I am excited. I started my water conservation career in a drought-stricken state. Oklahoma was in a five year drought when I started my masters. I am excited to get back to a region more prone to drought, where people are more in tune with water conservation. Scarcity really seems to make a stronger impact on the way people think about water and the way they use it and how it’s managed and how we educate citizens on water conservation, especially in the landscape. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Saving Water Outdoors with Dr. Eban Bean

Last month I had the opportunity to assist Dr. Eban Bean, UF-ABE assistant professor in urban water resources engineering, during an equipment installation at research sites in Ocala. The residential locations feature cloud-based irrigation controllers (with mainline flow sensors), pressure-regulating spray bodies with multi-stream/multi-trajectory nozzles, and Florida-Friendly Landscaping! I could write an entire article just on how rare it is to see all those devices in one place! But the best part about these sites is what’s going on in the soil. Dr. Bean spoke with IrriGator on location to give us an inside look into this on-going research.

Research sites in Ocala (image E.Bean)
Where are we today?
EB: We’re at the sanctuary model home site within the On Top of the World development. Our study is looking at evaluating soil treatments and amendments to evaluate potential for irrigation reduction for turfgrass.

Can you tell us something about the treatments you’re studying?
EB: There are 10 homes in this model home site. Of those 10 we’re using 9 lots in our study. We divided them into 3 treatments.
  • One is the control – standard compacted soil that you might encounter after typical construction.
  • On another set of three we had the soil tilled down to a depth of about 5 to 6 inches.
  • And then on the last three sites we had the soil tilled but incorporated a compost amendment into the soil – that compost amendment would increase the organic matter which has been shown to increase soil water holding capacity. 

Tilling compost into the soil before adding sod (image E.Bean)
Tillage in agricultural settings has been shown to break up and mitigate compaction which would increase the amount of porosity or storage space in the soil to hold water. It will also allow for greater infiltration and maybe most important to the plant itself, it makes it a lot easier for the turfgrass or plants to put their roots into the soil and drive them deep.

Working with a cloud-based irrigation controller
Irrigation is an important aspect of this project. How are these landscapes being watered?
EB: These landscapes will be using the Hunter Hydrawise irrigation controllers, connected to a weather station that’s right here on the site. It will adjust irrigation based on the rainfall and weather conditions. We’re also putting soil moisture sensors in. Those are not controlling the irrigation. We’re just monitoring to evaluate what the difference in soil moisture is underneath the turfgrass. That should show us that if there’s more water that’s available, or higher soil moisture in the soils, then we wouldn’t need to irrigate as much and could cut back on the amount of irrigation that the turfgrass is receiving.

Text book soil moisture sensor installation 
Who else is collaborating on this study?
EB: Life Soils has provided the compost product – Command, a blend of sand and compost. Academic partners include Allan Bacon, from Soil Water Science, who is overseeing our soil sampling and analysis - looking at particle size distribution, soil organic matter, pH, bulk density and looking at how compact it is. From Environmental Horticulture, Jason Kruse is doing turfgrass evaluation monthly – measuring the level of greenness, doing biomass harvesting and looking at other metrics for turf quality as well. 

Lloyd Singleton prepares a soil sensor data logger
Lloyd Singleton from Sumter County Extension is working on this as part of his Masters in Agroecology. He’s looking at the water-balance and water metrics here. On Top of the World has been a fantastic partner. These model homes won’t be lived in for up to 5 years and our study is going at least 2 years. I can’t speak highly enough about their cooperation and how they’ve helped with coordinating the construction, development and amendments. It’s a great project to be on and part of this is working with such great partners.

What is the big picture impact here? This data can help inform which practices?
EB: This study is a proof of concept to look at the benefits of two practices: tillage just by itself and also the incorporation of a compost amendment. Those could be seen as two different recommendations. We can recommend tillage to some depth. We can also recommend tillage with a compost amendment. The big picture here is looking at ways that we can reduce irrigation. Here we’re in the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the numbers I’m aware of suggest somewhere around 60% of a home’s water use goes to landscape irrigation.  

Soil moisture sensor data logger in action 
On Top of the World is a unique opportunity. When this development received its water permit, it agreed to a water-use rate of 150 gallons per home daily, which is much less than typical usage (around 250 gallons daily). They are really looking at ways that they can reduce water consumption. Everything inside the home is high-efficiency, so the landscape is an opportunity where we can have some cost savings, and it’s also a place where a lot of water is used any way. They’re already using Florida-Friendly Landscaping here which reduces irrigation demand. 
Dr. Bean informs development & water district staff on the study
(image E.Bean)
So we’re looking at ways to further reduce water-use by causing the turfgrass to need less irrigation and potentially have some additional benefits with the compost providing some nutrients and reduce the need for fertilizer. The big picture here is can we give homeowners the same turfgrass experience and use less water. That’s the objective here: the same quality of turfgrass – same look, same feel – but it just doesn’t require as much water. That is a win for everybody: the producers, the water managers, the developers, the consumers. If we can make that more efficient that is a big plus for everybody.

Lloyd Singleton, urban horticulture agent with Sumter County Extension, presents on this research during day one of this week's Urban Landscape Summit.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Urban Landscape Summit 2017

Next week UF/IFAS state specialists, researchers, and graduate students are converging on the UF campus in Gainesville for the 2nd Urban Landscape Summit. The summit promises two days of presentations on new landscape-related research from both faculty and students. There will also be plenty of opportunities to meet presenters and think about how new findings might be applicable to your local program. IrriGator spoke with Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology Director Michael Dukes for an insider perspective on the event. We end with a closer look at several of the many presentations slated for March 16th & 17th.

IG: This is the second year for the Urban Landscape Summit. How is this year different?

MD: This year is different because people now know what it’s about. Thematically, we have quite a bit of water topics this year. Part of the reason for that is because we’ve invited our new water cohort faculty – Drs. Bean and Barrera - to present at the summit, as well as the new regional specialized agents in water, most of them will be there presenting.  In landscapes it’s always a heavy water focus, whether it be water quality or water quantity. So while some things are the same, the new faces that we’ll have there this year, that will be a difference.

IG: Is there some aspect of the summit you’re most looking forward to this year?

MD: I’m excited about our two keynotes. First we have Dr. Mark Clark, who is a water quality specialist and he’ll be talking about urban water quality. He’s a really good speaker and he has a strong background in water quality. On the second day we have a keynote group – the Water 2070 team. They are going to be talking about the report that was released last year on projected water consumption and the impact of land development on water resources in Florida.

The new faculty session is also noteworthy. These are four new faculty. Three are on board and we’re in the final stages of negotiating with the fourth. Dr. Eban Bean is an urban water resources engineer. Dr. Basil Iannone is a geospatial analytics specialist. And Dr. Jorge Barrera is a utility analytics specialist. The fourth is an urban water quality person. We wanted them at the summit because they are going to get a really great chance to network with a lot of our other specialists and county faculty working in these areas. Both groups need to know each other.

IG: For anyone on the fence, why attend the summit?

MD: The primary purpose of the landscape summit right now is to facilitate communication with our own organization. We’re big. There are a lot of people going in different directions doing great things in Florida, but you just don’t really learn what people are doing unless you attend an event like this. It’s not the same to get an email update on something or read a newsletter. You’ll have a chance to interact with experts in different areas personally. Ask questions. I think that is the unique part about the summit. We will have stakeholders there as well. Our advisory board is composed of external stakeholders. Why should you attend? To learn. To learn who is who and who is doing what.

Stuart, FL: What are the nutrient drivers of algae blooms? (via AP
Summit Highlights
  • When addressing water quality issues in Florida urban water bodies, is there a mismatch between policy and science? Dr. Gurpal Toor presents on data looking at the sources, origin, and speciation of nitrogen (N) to better understand the science of N transport from urban land to water bodies. 3/16 @ 1PM EST 
  • Expectations are high about the potential benefits of using data sciences (especially on big data sets) to solve or at least help in the solution of complex environmental issues. Dr. Jorge Barrera presents on the definition of Big Data and ongoing projects that address environmental problems from a data sciences perspective. 3/16 @ 3PM EST 
The Summit features talks on efficient water-use, smart irrigation, and pressure-regulated sprinklers!
  • How do you save 6 million gallons of water in Miami-Dade County? Easy! Develop a water conservation program that attracts high profile, high water-users looking to benefit from water efficient recommendations based on UF/IFAS research and free EPA WaterSense-certified smart irrigation controllers. Laura Vasquez presents the success story on 3/17 @ 11AM EST 
  • Is knowledge gained an adequate indicator of behavior change? PhD candidate Taylor Clem presents a study applying Paul Stern’s Values-Beliefs-Norms (VBN) theory as an evaluation model to better anticipate behavior change and other long-term changes from extension programs. 3/16 @ 10:45AM EST 
You can register for the Urban Landscape Summit here

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

CLCE Director: An Educated Public is the Most Direct Path to Positive Change

The 2nd Urban Landscape Summit is just around the corner. To highlight this informative occasion, for the next three weeks we’ll be posting related topics, including a Summit preview and an interview featuring one of UF ABE’s newest faculty whom will be presenting during the summit. We begin with a recent article by Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology Director Dr. Michael Dukes on the valuable role IFAS plays in a state where water is at once controversial, plentiful, and in high demand.

Protecting the water we'll need for the 15 million additional residents projected to live here in 50 years calls for us to start right now by getting today's 20 million Floridians on board with a conservation ethic.
The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has a special responsibility as the state's leading public institution providing the science to make this happen. After decades of work and significant accomplishments, we can see that so much still needs to be done.
Dr. Michael Dukes and Bernard Cardenas in turfgrass research plots
That's why we believe the gifted nature photographer and defender of springs John Moran performs an important public service in highlighting the importance of water in Florida (see article).
We need people with his passion and his talent for communicating, whether through his images or his contributions to The Sun. Although UF/IFAS leads the way on water science in Florida, we do not have a monopoly on the topic.
UF/IFAS is on the cutting edge of water-saving science with technologies such as phone apps and high tech irrigation controllers that tap into soil moisture data and weather forecasts to tell people when to water and, equally importantly, when not to. They can cut your water usage by 20 percent without browning your lawn.
Dr. Kati Migliaccio and the smartirrigation turf app
We have UF/IFAS Extension agents in every county to familiarize homeowners and growers with these kinds of tools. These agents also work with builders and developers, a number of whom are building these technologies into their new communities. And they work with homeowners' associations to educate them about water-conserving practices and to encourage them to adopt new ideas. If all new homes followed suit, we estimate that we'd save 1.8 billion gallons a year — enough to provide 30,000 homes in Florida with water for a year of indoor consumption.
The UF/IFAS Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology, which I lead, provides easy-to-understand information on wise water use through its Florida-Friendly Landscaping program that serves all Floridians. Some, like Moran, choose no water or fertilizer for their landscapes. Others are obligated to maintain their landscapes by the rules of homeowners' associations.
Florida-Friendly signage at the UF/IFAS Landscape Unit
We're not in the business of telling people to have a lawn or not. Instead, using the best available science, we inform all kinds of property owners who want to know how much to water and to fertilize. It's powerful information because it can demonstrate how natural resource protection and financial savings often go hand in hand.
UF/IFAS has recently invested in making further progress in Florida by hiring five regional specialized water extension agents, each based in one of the five state water management districts. These agents will communicate science to water users of all kinds. In addition, UF/IFAS is hiring four faculty to join a team in what we call environmentally resilient, resource-efficient land use. This team will focus on further understanding patterns of water use and water quality threats from development and seek ways to address those threats.

Stand-alone weather-based irrigation controllers at a commercial property in Orange County
The public hungers — dare I say "thirsts?" — for such information. A recent UF/IFAS survey indicated that residents would like more information on how to conserve water and that they would respond to incentives such as rebates to adopt new technologies such as smart irrigation controllers.
Getting this information out will be critical to protecting the natural resources that make Florida such a special place.
Moran's opinion is that "we'd do just fine without lawn sprinklers and fertilizer. And Florida would be a better place." Yet many others enjoy gardening that requires irrigated landscapes. Much of the development in recent decades has occurred through subdivisions with homeowners' associations where landscaping is required.
Presenting to growers during Field Day at SVAEC in Live Oak
UF/IFAS does not make public policy. We believe an educated public is the most direct path to positive change. We appreciate the efforts of Moran and other activists who seek to influence public policy, because their efforts can give our science a boost by raising awareness about a resource that can go unnoticed until a crisis such as an algae bloom.
We at UF/IFAS are proud of our work on water quality and conservation. For example, UF/IFAS work on developing guidelines for agricultural practices has contributed to a 79 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus — a main element in fertilizer — in farm water flowing into the Everglades.
But we must do more — a lot more — together. UF/IFAS and its Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology will continue to provide the unbiased science that has made us the first place that Floridians — whether they're homeowners, farmers, water district managers, or legislators — look for solutions to our water challenges.