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California Drought

Smart Sprinkler Systems Could Keep California Lawns Green

California Governor Orders Mandatory Water Cuts As Drought Worsens

A sprinkler waters a lawn at Golden Gate Park on April 1, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The plush, green lawns that dot the cities and suburbs of California are in danger.

New restrictions meant to cut water use by 25 percent amid a four-year drought could force home owners to let their grass go brown — unless new smart sprinkler controllers save the day. These gadgets use Wi-Fi and sensors to cut back water usage on lawns by anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.

"It's a proven technology," said David Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and author of "Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource."

California is taking unprecedented measures to address the prolonged drought. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown held a press conference to issue the executive order. His message was clear: "The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past."

While agriculture uses 80 percent of the water in California, there is still plenty of H20 used in residential areas. And a lot of that is being wasted. Nationally, 50 percent of the water used on lawns disappears thanks to the wind, evaporation and runoff, according to the EPA.

A Reality Check On California's Drought 1:30

Smart sprinkler controllers want to prevent all of that water from disappearing. They work kind of like Nest, the smart thermostat, except that they regulate water use instead of the temperature.

Rachio is already available at Home Depot and will start appearing at Best Buy locations next month. Skydrop will be at every Lowe's in the country starting on May 1 (Both are already available online). They use a Wi-Fi connection to constantly monitor local weather conditions. Combined with data about the lawn (e.g. the slope, soil type, and vegetation), they automatically tell the sprinkler system how much water to release.

"Normal sprinkler controllers are almost like egg timers, and they control a very valuable resource," Chris Klein, co-founder of Rachio, told NBC News.

"They have no concept of the environment around them — they don't know what season it is, they don't know what the weather is like. With the technology that we have today, there is no reason to have these kinds of controllers anymore."

Rachio
Rachio

When lawns do need water, these smart controllers release it in timed bursts so that the water is absorbed completely before the soil gets hit with more. That prevents water from pooling in the sun to evaporate or oversaturating the lawn and running down the driveway.

"When you do water, you are getting the right amount of water," Dave Murray, director of marketing for Skydrop, told NBC News.

Neither device is cheap. Rachio starts at $249 and Skydrop goes for $299. Edyn, based in San Francisco, is taking pre-orders for smart water valves ($59.99) that adjust sprinkler systems according to information gathered by a smart sensor ($99.99) that measures moisture in the soil.

The companies make the case that, by decreasing water bills, the devices eventually pay for themselves. Both Rachio and Skydrop are EPA WaterSense-certified, and Edyn is currently pursuing the certification. That seal of approval from the federal government means that many Californians can get rebates after purchasing the smart controllers — in some counties up to 50 percent of the cost of the device.

Making smart sprinkler systems sexy

Just because someone can buy something that will help conserve water doesn't mean that they will.

It's the people with the biggest lawns, Sedlak points out, that make enough money not to care about rebates or higher water bills.

It being California and all, some wealthy people see replacing their lawn with native plants or landscaping with flora that require no watering (called "xeriscaping") as trendy, like owning a hybrid.

"Other people don't want to own a Prius, they want to drive a Mercedes," he said. "They want to hear that they can still do something good for the environment and keep their lawns."

That is where sexy devices come in. If smart controllers can achieve the same social caché as brands like Nest, they could gain traction with millionaires in Marin County and Beverly Hills who don't give their water bill a second thought.

For everyone else, browning lawns could force the issue. It might not be as big of a deal in dense urban areas like San Francisco, where lawns account for around a third of residential water usage, Sedlak said. But in dry, suburban areas, like Riverside, located two hours east of Los Angeles, that lush green lawn can account for as much as 80 percent of the water used in homes.

Right now, the repercussions for individuals who exceed California's water restrictions haven't been worked out. Higher water prices along with California's typically dry, hot summers, however, almost guarantee that many people will have to choose between sky-high bills or brown lawns.

If fees are the stick approach, the carrot could be contacting people with climbing water bills and offering them information and rebates on smart sprinkler controllers.

Some Californians are discovering the devices by themselves. Despite being based in Colorado, 37 percent of Rachio's customers are in California. Utah-based Skydrop sells 40 percent of its products in the Golden State.

"We will see the brown lawns this summer," Sedlak said, "but I think that folks who use these smart irrigation controllers might be able to reduce their water usage enough to keep a green lawn."