Project shows how homeowners waste water
A demonstration project seeks to show how homeowners waste water – and highlights new ways to stop it.
By PAT BRENNAN
The Orange County Register
IRVINE – The houses are quintessential Orange County, huddled together behind broad sidewalks and well-cut curbs – complete with manicured lawns, neatly trimmed landscaping, driveways, garages, porch lights, the works.
On closer examination, however, things begin to look a little odd. First, the houses are much too small. They are isolated on a broad expanse of dirt. And nobody lives there.
Part experiment, part demonstration project, the three houses are designed to reveal how Orange County homeowners create torrents of contaminated water runoff – and to showcase state-of-the-art technology for controlling it.
"They're designed so people could see what they could implement to improve water quality," said Darren Haver, a water quality adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "'What are a few things I could do around my home?'"
The project, dreamed up by Haver three years ago and recently completed, has become a minor sensation among the landscapers, developers, consultants and master gardener groups who receive firsthand training on the site.
They learn how to control urban runoff which, with its burden of contaminants, pesticides and fertilizer, can pollute beaches when it rolls downstream or prompt unwanted algae blooms in places like Upper Newport Bay.
And while the agricultural research station the houses are placed on is not open to the public, Haver hopes to build a similar set of demonstration plots in a public setting to be viewed, poked and prodded by anyone who is interested.
The three houses go from bad to better to best. House number one, labeled "typical," illustrates the traditional Orange County home: hard concrete surfaces for driveways and walkways, water-slurping plants, wide-open lawns, cockeyed sprinklers.
They mimic the hodge-podge setups around real homes that waste water.
"Usually, less than 50 percent gets to the plants," Haver said. "The rest is evaporation and overspray."
House number two, nicknamed "retrofit," represents a typical home with innovations added to reduce runoff. There is a computer-controlled sprinkler system, rain barrels to collect water from roof gutters, smaller lawns, more drought-tolerant plants.
Number three, called "low impact," was designed from the ground up to eliminate runoff as much as possible. The 24-valve sprinkler system is hooked up to its own weather station; the plants and trees are almost all drought-tolerant natives; the driveway and walkways are made of permeable material, so runoff sinks into the ground instead of flowing down the gutter into storm drains. Lawn space is far smaller, too.
Such a setup, Haver admits, would be a bit pricey for most homeowners, few of whom would feel compelled to install their own weather station.
But the response among landscape professionals to the demo plot idea has been overwhelming, he said – starting even before the project was finished.
Most of the plants were donated by nurseries, and a landscape designer, Clark and Green Associates, provided services at reduced rates; a landscape association donated labor.
Lennar Homes, the developer of Orange County's proposed Great Park, built the curbs and sidewalks for free.
"It's a valuable resource for us," said George Ellis, a Lennar environmental manager. "Those are the kinds of things we're concerned about as we develop communities and turn them over to a homeowners association."
The low-impact house was finished in January. In an odd irony, it is at the moment slurping up more water than the retrofit house – necessary until the delicate, freshly planted natives grow mature and well-established, Haver said.
What can't be seen on the plots is as striking as what's obvious from the outside.
The low-impact house includes electrically powered sensors beneath the ground that measure soil temperature and moisture and feed the data to the sprinkler system.
"Slot drains" on the retrofit plot, hidden in joints in the driveway surface, are almost invisible, but draw water into a pipe beneath, then flow into the landscape plants.
And what looks like a small patch of gravel with a flagstone or two on top – a pleasant accent to the landscaping – is really a 7-foot-deep "well" of gravel that absorbs excess water and allows it to percolate into the ground.
Haver, who advises nurseries and cities on runoff reduction, spends part of his time tweaking the various gizmos and collecting data on the results. Some of the water-control devices will have to be monitored over time to see how well they really work.
The slot drains and gravel well, for example, will likely have to be dug up and cleared once they become clogged with debris. How worthwhile such devices prove to be will depend on how frequently such maintenance is needed.
The project, paid for largely with a $1 million grant from the state Water Resources Control Board, will run at least two years – longer if more funding can be found.
Haver and other scientists also are gathering data about pesticide use – the original reason for building the faux houses, which were later expanded in scope to include runoff-control testing.
The experiment is still in the works, but Haver hopes laboratory analysis of how the pesticides migrate off the home site will provide clues for homeowners to cut down their pesticide runoff, too.
"Does it stay?" he asked. "Or is it moving really easily? We don't know yet."
Telephone surveys, Haver said, reveal a big problem.
"People tend not to identify the pest properly," he said. "Then they reach for something to take care of the problem quickly. They reach for broad-spectrum pesticides."
Simply targeting the right pests and using more environmentally friendly pesticides could greatly reduce the excess runoff, he said.
The same kind of information will be collected on the demonstration plots about fertilizers. These can wreak havoc in native ecosystems, already stressed by too much water flowing through channels that should be dry part of the year.
The water and fertilizer stimulates growth of invasive, non-native species, leading to conversion from arid, native habitats to wet, weed-choked, alien vegetation corridors.
One of the scientists' first acts when the "typical" home was finished was an intentionally sloppy application of fertilizers (that runoff is collected in cisterns, not released into the environment). Results are pending.
Studying homeowner habits using tiny, mock houses isn't as strange an idea as it might at first seem.
With increased regulation of nurseries, golf courses and other commercial sources, homeowners have begun to emerge in recent years as the biggest contributors to contaminated runoff. In some parts of the county, waterfalls composed entirely of excess runoff run year-round.
Other public agencies in Southern California have their demonstration projects, too. The Metropolitan Water District, the regional water wholesaler in Los Angeles, has partnered for years with developers in the Inland Empire to create model homes outfitted with all the latest runoff control appliances, spokesman Bob Muir said.
But with luck, Haver's homegrown Orange County demo plots will yield scientific data that can be used to plan future homes – for example, developing statistical measures of domestic runoff that can be extrapolated to larger homes where people really live.
The more people who see the demonstration plots, it seems, the more the ideas flow on how better to control runoff.
"This thing just kind of blossomed," Haver said.
Contact the writer: Environment editor Pat Brennan at 714-796-7865 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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