Grassroots strategy

Balboa Park’s crew used small steps to upgrade to smart irrigation.
municipal departments resources steps
(Photos: Chris Roesink)

Taking on a big job can provide a real adrenaline rush for landscape and irrigation professionals. It’s the challenge of bringing a wide-open space to life and seeing a complicated plan come together.

But for some, especially those working with municipal departments, finding the resources to make a big change can mean taking many small steps. Mario Llanos, district manager of Balboa Park in San Diego, California, used smaller projects and community effort to update the park’s infrastructure with smart irrigation in mind.

The park covers 1,200 acres of ground with open public spaces and landscaped areas. It includes gardens and walking paths and includes landmarks like the San Diego Zoo as well as museums and theaters. It has a long history, stretching back to the first steps toward landscaping just before 1900, and its first water systems installed a little more than 10 years later.

Those water systems had been updated and added onto through the years, leaving mismatched and outdated equipment in use. The irrigation systems saw some replacements and additions around the 1960s, but in some cases it added to the confusion. As water use became more and more scrutinized during California’s recent droughts, updating the park’s irrigation system became a priority, Llanos says.

Public challenges

Several years ago, San Diego created an app that allows the public to submit complaints about water waste. When that started, Llanos saw a heavy influx of email about wasted water on the park grounds, he says.

“It’s great in that it really got us looking at how we irrigate the park,” he says. “Every walker that comes by, and everyone who walks their dog, being able to lob an email really quickly with their smartphone, saying, ‘There’s water waste here, and here are the coordinates.’” The app gave Llanos’ team a continuous eye from the perspective of the public on the park’s water systems, he says. Because the park’s irrigation system is older, it isn’t able to use flow sensors to track problems. The public involvement allowed them to catch issues right away and take care of problems before they got out of hand.

“As we go through capital improvements, we’re adding master valves and flow sensors where we can, to at least shut down valves by sensing an overflow in an area,” Llanos says. “But we don’t have the infrastructure now. We really rely on the public and our grounds maintenance staff who go out there every day and do irrigation checks.”

His visitors are really responsive, especially during times of severe drought, he says. While Balboa Park is exempt from water restrictions as a public space, the team has a responsibility to still be water friendly.

“We’ve got to keep green spaces for tourists and San Diego citizens,” he says. “We’ve really got to lead by example and get in front of it. We really had a rush to shape up this park and get it looking good, but also get it as water-wise as we can given the aging infrastructure.”

Working with a mix of older systems meant doing a lot of careful exploration, since Llanos’ team ran into everything from PVC to copper pipes underground.

“It was just kind of a pain as we kept running into these odds and ends down there,” he says.

Another challenge was that much of the older irrigation hadn’t been effectively mapped out during the last several decades, leaving the team running into lines that shouldn’t have been in those places as they dug. Some of those historical plans just hadn’t been passed down with institutional knowledge.

“You’ve got grounds maintenance workers and folks who are ambitious and some who aren’t,” he says. “So they’re doing things in the field that don’t always make their way to the one trying to do the planning in the park. It’s really just a mishmash.”

As the team worked on the older irrigation system, it led to larger capital improvements, including some to replace the older cast iron, Llanos says.

They’re also slowly updating what they can find and working with the park designer to map a more accurate representation of the irrigation lines.

The team is also always working around the public (on the scale of about 20 million visitors per year), which includes a large transient population, Llanos says. The park is open 24 hours a day, and transient visitors often know the irrigation schedule and stay ahead of it by going to different parts of the park. However, some will just cover a sprinkler head with a bucket or break the head outright.

“You’re wondering, ‘Why is the maintenance person not taking care of this area?’ You look at the dry spots, and the irrigation test is looking good, it looks like it’s getting water. It’s got to be something like the clock,” Llanos says. “Then you come to find out, someone’s put a five-gallon bucket over the sprinkler.”

Another aspect was sharing water resources with other municipal customers, such as local schools and hospitals, causing heavy fluctuation in water pressure and output at usual watering times.

“What we were seeing during the day was different than what was going on at night,” Llanos says.

“We were seeing a lot of dry patterns in our irrigation, with the distribution and uniformity of the water.”

There were brown spots where some areas weren’t receiving water, and overspray when the water pressure was high.

Building momentum

Balboa Park Conservancy and Friends of Balboa Park, two organizations that work to develop the park, assisted in projects updating the irrigation systems and retrofitting sprinkler heads.

Volunteers from the Friends of Balboa Park, along with some city leaders and park staff, formed a committee to watch water use at the park, as well as create outreach to local companies to form partnerships in about 2012. Working with those companies got things moving in terms of finding the right product choices for swapping sprinkler heads and replacing valves throughout the park. When Llanos was approved to start swapping nozzles for newer, more efficient models, he ran events with groups like the California Landscape Contractors Association and others. Working together, they developed updated plans and hosted “nozzle swap” parties, where volunteers would join in to do the work of changing out nozzle heads.

“For me, I’m taking advantage of all this labor because I don’t have the staffing to do all this,” Llanos says. His frontline staff was inspired by the passion they saw in those volunteers and started looking for small installation and update projects throughout the park to improve water usage.

“It’s really got them motivated to start doing smaller areas around the park,” he says.

It also led to finding funding through philanthropic partners and the local water authority to do landscape conversions to install drip irrigation in the park. The project removed turf and managed soil levels while maintaining the roots of existing fully mature trees, then worked with an in-house tailored landscape plan to improve water efficiency in the gardens throughout the park. It also included choosing a plant palette that was more water-conscious in the landscaped spaces. Llanos and others have worked together over time to replace about 95% of the manual and battery-operated valves with smart controllers.

“At the time, our project manager estimated a 500-gallon-per-year savings in water,” Llanos says.

Llanos’ team also maintains a set of medians with plants and trees along Park Boulevard, which surrounds Balboa Park. The traffic around those medians caused a lot of drift with its previous sprinklers, as watering was done when locals were driving to work.

“It was causing a lot of drift and runoff, and not much was making it onto the plants,” Llanos says.

Moving the watering time back wasn’t an option because the park had to operate in a tight watering window, so the team had to get creative. Changing sprinkler heads in the medians from spray to Hunter’s MP Rotators allowed them to run multiple valves simultaneously to fit in the water window, Llanos says. The retrofit also helped with fluctuating water pressure by setting a lower rate of application over a longer period of time. Testing the newer heads in the medians showed an estimated water savings of about 20% compared to the traditional spray nozzles.

“That’s really improved the dry spots and watering issues we’ve had,” he says.

Balboa Park’s irrigation didn’t get set up with a smart controller until the last few years, with the help of some of the park’s philanthropic partners and donations, Llanos says. That led to upgrading to a computerized smart controller that uses information from a weather station to water more responsibly.

“Everything that we have programmed is run off of plant factor, crop coefficient or real-time weather station. That’s how we irrigate Balboa Park,” Llanos says.

Maintaining motion

The funding projects have continued to build as the previous projects show results, he says. Balboa Park has even started an adoption program, where local landscapers adopt areas and come up with designs working with the horticulturalist to implement new landscaping in the park while keeping things historically accurate.

“It’s really created a level of community involvement in the local landscape industry,” Llanos says. “It’s been a really cool process watching it unfold organically.”

Building that involvement throughout the committee and wider community has allowed Llanos’ team to achieve higher water savings and finish projects he wouldn’t have expected to accomplish otherwise, he says.

“That’s really hard to do in a municipality,” he says. “You’ve got to have some pretty ambitious upper management and support, not to mention a really good base of nonprofits supporting the park.”

The park is continuing to work on new improvements and projects going forward, Llanos says.

“We’ve never stopped. As much as we’ve done, there’s still a lot to do,” he says.

One of the principles he’s focused on throughout the updates is setting small goals that are able to be accomplished. Especially as a municipal landscape management team, having smaller goals that are attainable not only kept him moving but helped him build momentum among volunteers and committees.

“When you have little wins, people get excited, especially the people involved in it,” he says. “If you can get the word out, people get more excited and it just snowballs from there.”

As those small victories start getting more attention, it’s easier for municipal landscapers to get local committees and authorities behind larger projects and to convince local donors to support future goals.

“It’s really good to have a good base of support, either by nonprofits or local businesses,” he says. “We don’t have the resources to just do it ourselves, but we know we can be more efficient.”

This article originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Kyle Brown is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at

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