The city of San Diego has begun offering $350 rebates to anyone who purchases a smart irrigation controller, a subsidy that in some cases could cover the cost of the meter.

The irrigation controllers are designed to reduce outdoor water use by 15 to 20 percent, by watering lawns in response to weather conditions, using sensors and historical data to determine whether irrigation is needed. Other basic controllers are simply operated on timers.

But in a region where about half of the water consumed is used outdoors, the smart controllers are viewed as a significant way to boost conservation efforts.

Water conservation began in earnest in the San Diego region as it endured a drought from 1987 to 1992 that threatened the city with mandatory water rationing. Early efforts focused on installing low-flow showerheads and low-flow toilets. That’s helped cut indoor water use and shifted the conservation focus outside — a tougher challenge.

“We have to convince them to change their behaviors. That’s why it’s a little more complicated,” said John Liarakos, spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority. “Even with a smart controller, you have to make sure it’s programmed right and track what it’s doing. It’s not like a toilet, that if it flushes it’s fine.”

The city has begun a smart-meter pilot study, aiming to subsidize the installation of 300 meters, which can cost between $200 and $400 (plus $100 to install). Participants have to go through the city’s residential water-use surveying program, which assesses consumption inside and outside, said Luis Generoso, the city’s water conservation program manager.

Three agencies are contributing to the subsidy: The water authority ($150), the Metropolitan Water District ($80) and the city ($120).

Update: The original version of this post misstated the water authority’s contribution. We regret the error.

ROB DAVIS

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