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Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, but could it also result in water savings?

Granada Park

That’s the question being asked by a group of ASU Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives researchers who are the recent recipients of a $50,000 Innovative Conservation Program (ICP) grant. The team, led by Professor Enrique Vivoni of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, will be evaluating the water savings potential of compost applications as opposed to fertilizer in multi-use turf grass areas in four City of Phoenix parks.

ICP is a partnership of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Central Arizona Project, Southern California Gas Company, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Western Resource Advocates. The program is aimed at evaluating the water savings potential and reliability of innovative water saving devices, technologies and strategies.

A total of $570,000 was awarded to grant recipients that demonstrated new ways to potentially reduce water use. The 12 awardees were chosen from among 55 proposals evaluated through a competitive review process based on project innovation, research plan, market impact potential and project preparedness.

Other winning proposals included a drone that uses thermal imagery to detect leaks in water distribution pipelines, technology to reuse brewery wastewater for irrigation, a device to monitor real-time household water use and a water-efficient commercial dishwasher. The ICP program encourages innovation and provides a venue for the development of new water conservation tools, methods and applications of current technology. ICP complements other conservation programs in which CAP participates.

ICP funds awarded to ASU will go toward evaluating the water savings potential of compost applications in city parks. The study will continue to build on the results of a three-year study of the environmental, economic and operational impacts of managing multiuse turf grass areas using compost made from green waste collected from City of Phoenix residents, as opposed to using traditional fertilizer. The green waste is collected  by the City of PhoenixPublic Works Department and converted to compost as part of the Reimagine Phoenix Initiative, which aims to increase the City’s waste diversion to 40% by 2020.

ASU’s initial research indicates that compost can be applied in such a way that it increases the soil’s water-holding capacity. Given that park irrigation is a significant percentage of the City’s water demands, this research could have broad implications for solid waste, parks and water management strategies at the City of Phoenix and consequently as a model for other municipalities. Ultimately, more water voluntarily saved can make a big difference in terms of overall conservation efforts during a time of drought and impending shortage of Colorado River water supplies.

If successful, this project could support the concept of a Circular Economy – in which Parks consumes compost generated from residential yard waste while improving soil conditions, retaining soil water and reducing overall irrigation needs. That’s just the type of innovative conservation program these grants were meant to support and that can ultimately result in more tools in the tool box to support using less water and adapting to a changing climate.

Since ICP was launched in 2001, the program has awarded 67 grants totaling $2.4 million during six two-year funding cycles. Over the course of the program, projects selected for ICP participation have represented five states across the country – Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Texas.

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