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NMSU receives NSF grant to work on adaptive landscape irrigation using saline water


New Mexico State University’s Extension Turfgrass Specialist Bernd Leinauer and his team in cooperation with the Colorado School of Mines have received a grant of $750,000 from the National Science Foundation to work on making landscape irrigation scheduling technology more user friendly, particularly when it comes to using it in conjunction with saline, non-portable water. 

Leinauer explained that the grant is to investigate promising technology already in existence that hasn’t been accepted or used by industry or the end user. Environmental and computer engineers from the Colorado School of Mines and turfgrass specialists from NMSU have partnered with the Toro Company, a major company in landscape irrigation and maintenance equipment. They will determine how to incorporate soil sensors that measure both salinity and moisture into existing irrigation scheduling technology. 

“Soil salinity and soil moisture are two measurements needed when non-potable, saline water is used as a water source,” Leinauer said. “In our project we are using a market available salinity and moisture sensor and developing a model that uses these data for irrigation scheduling.” 

Preliminary research has shown that as much as 40 percent of water can be saved or conserved if a soil moisture sensor is used to determine irrigation needs when using potable water. Users tend to overestimate the actual amount of water needed by a landscape area. Unfortunately, soil moisture technology is not widely used, which Leinauer finds odd. He questioned why simple technology that saves 40 percent of the water used to irrigate a landscape wouldn’t be something that is used more often. The problem seems to go beyond just homeowners, though; lack of acceptance is on the professional side as well. 

“The other issue that complicates irrigation is that in the Southwest, particularly on larger turf areas, managers don’t use potable water, but rather alternative water sources like recycled water or other non-potable sources,” Leinauer said. “These waters are higher in salinity and salts that will accumulate in the soil, which affects the accuracy of the sensors. Moreover, salinity can affect plant growth and accumulation in the soil needs to be avoided.”

The team’s project will develop the algorithms needed to use soil sensors that measure salinity and moisture for irrigation technology using non-potable water. They will also be working with the Toro Company to help this technology gain a wider acceptance when saline or non-portable water is used. 

“We are working with Dr. Munakata-Marr and Dr. Qi Han from the Colorado School of Mines and Dr. Josh Friell, Senior Research Scientist at the Toro Company,” Leinauer said. The grant was awarded from the NSF program Partnership for Innovation and requires that academia join forces with industry. “Our plan is to develop an irrigation algorithm at the Colorado School of Mines that can be used in irrigation controllers by Toro. The technology will be tested in the laboratory and in the field here at NMSU at our Turfgrass Research Station.”

The turfgrass industry in New Mexico and in the Southwest rely heavily on irrigation water. Leinauer said this project could really help with the region’s water conservation programs. 

“Without water we aren’t growing anything, but water conservation is equally important because every time we go through a drought we learn that we are using more water than we should. So any approach we can take to help with conservation is important,” Leinauer said.

Information from NMSU