The city's new 'smart' irrigation technology is saving water around Ron Tonkin Field.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Parks maintenance workers use smart technology to gage the level of saturation in the soil, and can dial in how much water the grass needs to stay green.With water rates on the rise across the region, Hillsboro parks maintenance workers are turning to technology in hopes of finding a balance between keeping the grass green and the budget in the black.

For months, the city has been studying ways to use so-called 'smart technology' across town, including smart street lights that notify workers when the bulbs are nearly burnt out, and prospective projects extending wireless Internet beyond the downtown area.

But in Hillsboro's parks, the smart system has already been switched on. Juan Vera, part of the grounds maintenance team at Gordon Faber Recreation Complex, 4460 N.E. Century Blvd., can carry the future of parks irrigation in one hand.

The device looks a bit like a maroon pogo stick with a small digital display on top and two sharp prongs on the bottom. The prongs measure how much water is in the ground, and the device sends info to a smartphone.

"Once you stick the prongs in the ground, the phone uses GPS and shows green, yellow or red so you can see on a map where you're at," Vera said. "If it's green, you move on. Yellow, take note. Red are areas of concern, where we might go out and hand-water."

The information is fed to computers in the city's parks department, where irrigation can be fine-tuned remotely. Now, instead of guessing at the water needs for a given area, workers have data to give grass only as much water as it needs, said Mike Peterson, another maintenance worker.

The new tool, something commonly used in the golf industry, has allowed parks workers to keep to city standards on water usage without losing quality in the playing surfaces at the 90-acre facility, which boasts five baseball fields and a softball field, in addition to artificial turf surfaces at Hillsboro Stadium and Ron Tonkin Field.

"With water rates going up, we were trying to find ways to conserve," Peterson said. "We were having to do it the old-fashioned way — the eyeball test. We cut back and we were able to save quite a bit."

But when workers cut back on water usage, they came across another problem: dry spots on the field.

"Because these are rentable spaces, (quality) is absolutely key," said Mary Loftin, a parks department spokesperson. "These are revenue generators, and this is where it's a priority to be at the top of their game. We're competing with Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation and other groups."

Safety, in addition to playability, is a priority as well, she said. The fields at Gordon Faber are heavily used throughout the summer for softball and baseball leagues, both by youth and adult.

Peterson said Vera spent time hand-watering dry spots with a fire hose, but the smart system should allow city staff to predict problem areas and take a proactive approach.

Workers have also limited water in the spectator areas between fields, and on the islands in the parking lots.

"We want the whole place to look immaculate even though we've backed off the watering," Peterson said. "We use different mow heights, and we're trying to evolve instead of the old way — mow, blow and go, and if it's dry — water, water, water."

If the system continues to be successful, Loftin said, department officials plan to begin using smart watering in other parks, such as 53rd Avenue Community Park near Baseline Road.

Hillsboro Parks and Recreation also maintains competition surfaces at several Hillsboro schools, Loftin said, another possible future for smart watering strategies.

"The more we use this, the more we find our problem areas and adjust our (sprinkler) heads," Vera said. "Hopefully, there will come a time where we won't have to use this as much and we can pass it off to a different site, or we can share it once a week."

John William Howard
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