CalTrans Irrigation Shutoffs a Sketchy Situation

Rainy periods still see sprinkler use

With rain again in the forecast and a drought dragging into its third year, San Diegans are being asked to stop watering their lawns and landscaping.

Public agencies also are expected to stop irrigating for a spell.

But they don't always come through.

The day before the first real storms of the year hit, freeway sprinklers along State Route 56 in Carmel Valley were seen going full blast.

More than two inches of rain fell in that area before the skies cleared a few days later.

Who knows how much water was needlessly applied to the roadside landscaping?

Most of CalTrans' freeway sprinkler systems don't have irrigation controls that could turn them off from a centralized computer.

The agency's use of reclaimed water is just a fraction of the potable water used for landscaping on the freeway shoulders -- which totaled 635 million gallons last year, or 1 percent of San Diego's drinking water supply.

A lot of the sprinklers are manually programmed to irrigate once a week in the winter, so they have to be turned off one-by-one.

And with freeway safety being CalTrans' prime concern during rainstorms, some sprinklers just don't get a timely shutoff.

The installation of more drought-resistant plants and ground cover would require less water.

"San Diego's an arid environment, and we probably should go to natural landscaping or rip out the grass altogether," said Clairemont resident Bill Schwegel in an interview Thursday.

Schwegel suggested planting succulents and cactus along he freeway: "That's what was here originally."

But there's a necessary evil to a lot of what's there now.

"You have to have something to hold the water back long enough to soak into the soil," said Ocean Beach resident John Whelan. "Otherwise, you're just going to have to put in massive runoff channels all along the freeway.

"And it would be ugly. And it would cost billions to do the whole freeway system, probably just in San Diego County."

As all this plays out, the imminent prospect of mandatory water rationing may hasten moves such as requiring or providing incentives for CalTrans to use more reclaimed water, and allocating money for systemwide upgrades that would centralize control of the landscaping sprinklers.

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