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School district saved 18 million gallons of water from 2015 to 2017

Apr 22, 2019 02:48PM ● By Julie Slama

Student water managers check sprinklers on Canyons School District’s properties as an educational learning experience that saves the District millions of gallons of water. (Photo courtesy of Canyons School District)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Bridger Welch turns on sprinklers, he doesn’t just see a stream of water spraying over the lawn. 

Welch can tell from the spray and the soil if enough or too much water is used, if it’s covering the area intended and if the sprinkler head is the best one to be used for the grassy area.

That’s because Welch, a Hillcrest High graduate, and about seven other high school juniors and seniors each year for the past six years, have gained an understanding about the Canyons School District water usage and have actively been a part of conserving the natural resource in the second driest state in the country.

“People naturally overconsume water in an effort to make sure their grass is green,” Welch said. “I care about Utah and we need to conserve our resources before it’s too late.”

For the past two summers, Welch would buddy up with another high school student and check the sprinklers at the elementary, middle and high schools to ensure the sprinkler heads were correct, record any broken heads and monitor the spray levels.

“We’d record the rotation of the spray to make sure it was hitting the right area, not the sidewalks, for example. We’d look at the head to make sure it was facing the right way and mark it if it needed adjusting or replacing, if maybe it broke after being hit by a lawn mower,” he said. “We got so familiar with the sprinklers, we could point out which ones were broken or which heads were incorrect.”

Then the teams would return to the office and crunch numbers.

“We measured the water usage and used an Excel sheet for calculations. If it was too much, the grass would be marshy. If it wasn’t enough, it would die. We got an idea of how much time per day to water and how much water to use. It ended up saving millions and millions of gallons of water,” Welch said.

The student water manager program began by District energy specialist Christopher Eppler.

“It was actually my wife’s idea,” Eppler said. “I was in landscape irrigation, a contractor for 25 years with my background as a mining geologist. I studied about auditing water at Cal Poly analyzing precipitation rates. When my wife said that schools could save money with their water usage, I got involved as a private contractor for Granite schools before I came to Canyons in 2009.”

At Canyons, Eppler first concentrated on energy usage, upgrading heating and cooling systems and placing them in a “saving” mode when schools are unoccupied, lowering the usage by 43 percent. 

After a few years, with the administration’s approval, and a $15,000 grant from the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Eppler created the program where he hired and trained high school students to help survey, monitor and adjust school water schedules of the 370 acres of grass.

The savings was immediately noticeable — about 20 million gallons, he said.

In July 2014, the District used 16.5 million gallons less than in July 2012 and 9.5 million gallons less than in July 2013. From 2015 to 2017, the District saved a combined 18 million gallons of water.

For that, Eppler was awarded the 2017 Utah Energy Pioneer Award and has spoken to the national Irrigation Association as well as other school districts and the Governor’s water board, sharing his program.

“The money we’re saving is just put right back into the program,” Eppler said. “The savings aren’t as great anymore because we’re watering the way we’re supposed to, so it’s more of a maintenance level.”

However, with new schools being built, the student manager program continues so those fields will be properly managed. In the summer, students work five hours per day, four days per week, making their way through the District one sprinkler head at a time to adjust water schedules based on the root zone, type of grass, shade, soil type and evaporation rate.

“It’s more than they may realize when they’re hired. Students learn basic hydraulics, and such concepts as, ‘evapotranspiration, permanent wilting point, and soil moisture depletion.’ Students are learning to irrigate properly. They spend hours logging the precipitation rate of each sprinkler head at schools throughout the District. By understanding precipitation rates, root zone and soil type, students can calculate the correct amount of water to give an area over a certain amount of time. They’re gaining the field experience to log equipment and data and bringing that info back to calculate on spreadsheets and be reviewed,” Eppler said.

While Eppler said it is great learning experience and resume-builder, he said “these students really care about water usage.” 

Eppler has worked with students from several high schools, but currently hires recommended Hillcrest High students who are committed to conserving natural resources even if they may choose to study math, computer software or other fields upon graduation.

“I’ve found these students to be great self-starters, super polite, real thinkers who make the program better,” he said. “They take huge initiatives and understand the commitment involved.”

Welch, who graduated and now is studying at Utah State University, said that he is considering forestry as a career and would also like to work with the conservation corps to restore Logan River.

In February, Rep. Suzanne Harrison (House District 32), who said that her community supports wise stewards of water, introduced House Bill 143, amending water conservation plan requirements, and invited Hillcrest senior Amelia Slama-Catron, who was a student water manager last summer, to talk to the Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environment Standing House Committee about Canyons internship program. 

“When I found out about the actual program and about the amount of water we could save, I instantly wanted to be involved,” Slama-Catron testified. “I want to major in marine biology and environmental science, so obviously water is a huge concern of mine. Water conservation is something that has always been of interest to me. However, fresh water is not only a limited source, but a costly one. It is within everyone’s power to conserve natural resources.”

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