Operation Smart Water


Operation Smart Water aims to find ways to efficiently use water for plant life during time of water droughts, while also studying how watering plants can work with and against environmental factors to provide air cooling effects.

Many areas have already faced drought conditions and intense drought conditions are likely to return in the near future, which will require significant reductions in outdoor water use. Improving our understanding of how plants respond to decreased water conditions needs to happen sooner rather than later. The findings from this research will be beneficial for individual use, as well as for creating more accurate watering budget plans for parks, cities, etc.

This is a community science project that will incorporate people of all ages in science experiments, data collection, and data tracking. These participants (homeowners, students, Master Gardeners, and others) are all local community members. We are also partnering with schools and developing curriculum for future environmental scientist. The team behind this project includes the Chino Basin Water Conservation District; a consortium of scientists from Brooklyn College, Arizona State University, UC Riverside, Earthwatch Institute, the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies; and input from local partners at each project site.

How this will be measured?

Operation Smart Water is using Crepe Myrtles and Orange Trees to gauge resiliency and watering requirements. These tree species were chosen because they are common in the study region. The chosen trees have been graciously offered by homeowners and institutions around the Inland Empire. With the help of community scientist, we will be engaging in various experiments such as water infiltration, water uptake, and soil moisture. We will also be using high tech sensors to continuously measure the soil moisture near the trees roots throughout the study. That data will be shared so together we can track how trees uptake water overtime.

When will this study take place?

This exciting new research is already up and running! If you are looking for volunteer opportunities and are curious about community science, please contact our Mark Chandler at mchandler@earthwatch.org.

All training sessions and volunteer excursions will be posted as soon as dates are selected. A map of the study area is below and various volunteer times will be available to suit your schedule.

Project Objectives

  • Observe how different watering scenarios (optimum and minimum plant needs) affect plant use and transpiration/cooling benefits
  • Find ways to inform water budgets that reduce outdoor water use, sustain landscape vegetation, and maintain air cooling benefits within a desired range
  • Provide guidance on how to adjust water budgets for similar site landscaping goals
  • Provide guidance on how to adjust timing, frequency, and amount of watering when new water restrictions are applied
  • Identify educational opportunities that can be shared with others who set and manage outdoor water use

Optimize outdoor water use to reduce overall demand while enhancing ecosystem service benefits.

Project Background

Green spaces including yards, parks, community gardens, and more provide many benefits that increase the health and wellbeing of urban populations. The economic and social benefits of green space has spurred municipal and private efforts to increase the amount of green space across cities worldwide–including underserved communities where a deficiency of green space is often greatest.

Successful development of green space requires not only the investment to create but also investment in other resources, such as water and maintenance, to ensure key benefits are sustained. Given the subsidized cost of water use in many cities, a number of policies, regulations, and interventions have been developed to manage outdoor water use with mixed success. In Los Angeles, a significant reduction in water demand was achieved through mandatory water restrictions.

Uncertainties in setting accurate watering budgets can result in wasted water (over watering) or loss of vegetation (under watering), with a reduction in the co-benefits derived from well-maintained green space among other impacts. These uncertainties derive from a lack of understanding of how and when to apply watering to meet local vegetation needs and how water availability in the soil leads to environmental benefits (e.g. evaporation and transpiration which cools local air temperature when it is needed most).

Limiting watering to the minimum required to sustain vegetation will likely reduce the functional benefits provided by that green space. In Riverside, CA, water restrictions from 2014 to 2015 were correlated to a 7.8% reduction in evapotranspiration. In some cases, the ability to sustain vegetation under low water conditions becomes an issue of environmental justice when only people with means can sustain green space and their associated benefits or pay to access cooling when temperatures rise.

To address the need to create more accurate watering plans and increase the capabilities of community members and managers to set outdoor watering schedules that balance the diverse societal needs (e.g. cooling, reducing water use), a collaborative of researchers and local partners developed this community science project.

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