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BYU professor prescribes Utahans' most effective plant-watering rates

A Brigham Young University professor who is using scientific formulas, recalculated each week, to prescribe water conservation methods for southern Utah residents has expanded his program to the Wasatch Front.

The information is passed along to Washington Country residents during weekly reports broadcast on a local radio station and a local television station and printed in the St. George newspaper, The Spectrum.

"Most people water their yards too much because they don't know how much water their plants actually need," said Frank Williams, a BYU professor of plant and animal sciences. "In fact, most plants would be better off with less water than they are typically given. The key is knowing how much water the plants are using so that amount can be reapplied."

The "Weekly Water-Saving Tip," combined with other initiatives the Washington County Water Conservancy District is promoting, has led to a 10 percent decrease in water usage in the county during the last year, said Julie Breckenridge, a county water conservation specialist.

Williams writes his weekly tips based on an evapotranspiration rate, or ET rate, for that week. This value, calculated using weather conditions and data from moisture-measuring devices called lysimeters, estimates the amount of water lost to evaporation and transpiration-plant nourishment-during the week. He then translates his findings into useful tips for Washington County residents.

Williams has extended the ET rate program to the Wasatch Front, with lysimeters now collecting moisture data in Spanish Fork, Logan and Salt Lake Valley, as part of a five-year study for the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Williams first became involved after groups of Washington County residents approached Breckenridge wondering how they could lower their water bills. After talking with several residents, Breckenridge enlisted Williams' help. He suggested using a method that gives homeowners a good idea of how much water their plants need.

Breckenridge said that water consumption levels in Washington County are very high compared with the state average. County residents use 335 gallons each day per person, compared with the state average of 293 and the national average of 179 gallons, she said.

The Utah Division of Water Resources estimates that 61 percent of Utah's water goes to landscape, distantly followed by 16 percent used by toilets. Breckenridge said many people over-water their landscape; therefore, this program could help reduce water consumption.

"The people Professor Williams is working with are getting educated and their neighbors can see what they are doing," she said. "It's a ripple effect."

The weekly reports include other suggestions for keeping yards healthy, such as information about optimal times to fertilize and aerate lawns. The reports are carried live at 8:10 a.m. on Mondays on KDXU-AM (890) and are featured daily on local station KCSG-TV. They appear in The Spectrum each Saturday.

In addition to collecting information from the new lysimeters, Williams is also conducting experiments at a Summit County golf course.

"Professor Williams is helping us determine how to provide good quality turf using less water," said Clint Dayley, Park City Golf Course superintendent. "We are trying to find out what combination of watering habits will provide the best turf."

Williams said scientists have been using ET rates, developed first for use with alfalfa and grasses, for more than 30 years, and that the public should use this reliable method to decrease water consumption.

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