This past spring California landscapes exploded with magnificent blooms of color everywhere due to the much needed, unseasonably wet season early on in the year. Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order in April lifting California’s drought emergency which had been in place since 2014 in all but four counties but reinforced the notion that conservation must remain a way of life.

Caltrans has worked hard at managing resources even before the most recent drought by implementing RICS or Remote Irrigation Control Systems for many years. These are computerized irrigation control systems that provide a means for Caltrans staff members to program and control irrigation remotely from a desktop or laptop computer. Representatives from District 3’s Construction, Maintenance and Design department in the Sacramento area reviewed several different manufacturers systems for irrigation control over 16 years ago and selected Calsense to be the main RICS used throughout the District. Since that time the system has grown with Calsense and incorporated over 150 irrigation controllers that are SMART controllers that dynamically adjust water applied to landscape plants based upon current weather conditions. This approach ensures healthy plant life while conserving precious water resources. The technology also responds automatically to sprinkler head, lateral and mainline breaks shutting off water with detailed daily reports pinpointing the problem areas.

Janet Sager, Caltrans Resident Engineer for District 3 was involved in the decision making process back then and has been involved with Calsense since. One of her favorite things working with the company has been the customer service. She appreciates the responsiveness of the Calsense Field Service Rep, Scott Daugs and other Calsense staff members who are valuable resources for the District. “Since 2002 there have been many changes with the Calsense system such as controller models, software and communication options,” states Ms. Sager and “Calsense has always encouraged user input to help make the system work better for our needs. They value our input and feedback. In short, the District has invested in something that works for us.”

What works for the District’s success is having the after-sale, factory-direct field support and software upgrades included in the cost of the controllers, without additional cost to the District. “This makes it easier for maintenance personnel and construction contractors get the direct assistance from Calsense with the controllers so that the system is installed correctly and people are properly trained,” states Ms. Sager. Asked how she would describe Calsense to a peer in the industry Ms Sager responds, “Calsense is an industry leader with a user-friendly system that is always improving. The software and communication tools allow us to track water usage resulting in better water management. With the past drought California has been experiencing, there have been substantial water savings.” 

Other practices Caltrans employ on highway planting projects to conserve the state’s limited water resources include:

  • Selecting regionally appropriate, drought tolerant or native plant material
  • Preserving established exiting vegetation to the maximum extent possible
  • Incorporating compost in the soil to reduce water runoff, and to hold water in the root zone
  • Spreading wood mulch or inert ground covers such as gravel to conserve soil moisture

To demonstrate Caltrans’ commitment to conserving California’s precious potable water resources, Director Malcolm Dougherty has directed Caltrans to convert 100% of landscape irrigation to non-potable (recycled or other non-drinkable) water sources by 2036. Whenever fiscally feasible, designers should attempt to bring recycled water transmission lines to the highway right-of-way, and modify associated existing irrigation systems to operate properly with recycled versus potable water.

Other Caltrans’ districts utilizing the Calsense Resource Management System or SMART technology to conserve water and manage time, labor and taxpayer dollars are District 5, District 8, District 10 and District 11.