From replacing aging irrigation systems to dealing with Mother Nature’s endless surprises, superintendents are managing water inputs with new technology—and a respect for new realities.
According to reports, more than 70 percent of golf courses are keeping their turfgrass drier than in the past. With their irrigation inputs needing to be made in the face of increasingly volatile weather conditions and greater scrutiny of water usage and costs, golf course superintendents must strike a balance between keeping their turf healthy and giving golfers the playing conditions they expect. And that requires bringing as much precision and control to course maintenance as golfers strive to have in their games.
|Summing It Up
• Golf course properties are taking advantage of technological innovations by installing new irrigation systems that offer greater precision and control.
• One of the best ways to reduce water usage is to reduce the amount of irrigated turf by replacing maintained rough with native areas.
• Increasingly volatile weather conditions are changing the ways that golf course superintendents approach their irrigation inputs.
With all of the new technology that is available, some properties have upgraded their irrigation systems to fine-tune their water usage.
Bayville Golf Club in Virginia Beach, Va., developed a two-year plan in 2013-14 to replace its original irrigation system, which had been in place since the property opened in 1995. The age of the previous system, along with new technology, prompted the facility to make the change.
“The sprinkler heads were at the end of their useful expectant life,” says Director of Golf Course Operations Cutler Robinson, CGCS. “You can change nozzles, but you start to get wear that changing components wouldn’t solve.”
Bayville converted all of its controllers and added a central control system with satellites in the field. The property installed a pump-station control package in 2013 and changed out 1,052 sprinkler heads in 2014. “We knew there were better controls out there,” Robinson states.
Rockland Country Club in Sparkill, N.Y., near New York City, is starting its fourth season with a new, two-wire irrigation system. According to Greens Superintendent Matt Ceplo, CGCS, the property installed it because of inefficiencies with the previous system, such as poor head control and no coverage in some parts of the rough. The property also wanted to increase irrigated turf, improve uniformity, have individual head control, and water specific areas.
For Ceplo, the new system was an easy sell. In fact, he says, Rockland’s finance committee approached him five or six years ago about putting in a new irrigation system, upgrading the pump house, and rebuilding the cart paths.
“The rough wasn’t getting any water,” he recalls. “It was going brown every summer, and we were constantly re-seeding it. We went through trials and tribulations to keep the system going, and it took longer to water.”
Atlanta Athletic Club (AAC) in Johns Creek, Ga., replaced the former block irrigation system on its Highlands Course, one of its two 18-hole layouts, last year. The upgrade to the irrigation system was part of a project to regrass and enhance the entire golf course.
“While the course was closed, we wanted to take the opportunity to upgrade the system with the latest technology and the most efficient irrigation system,” says Director of Agronomy Lukus Harvey.
The property, which also has a nine-hole, par-3 course, has plans to replace the 14-year-old block irrigation system on its Riverside Course in the next three or four years as well. The replacement will be part of a regrassing project that will reduce the amount of irrigated turf on that course.
Back in the Saddle
Two years ago, mandated water restrictions forced Pat Smyth, Golf Course Superintendent of Saddle Creek Resort Golf Club in Copperopolis, Calif., to cut raw water usage on the golf course by 35 percent. The property shut off 450 irrigation heads, limited 350 sprinklers to 180-degree turns, and substituted wetting agents for water whenever possible. Saddle Creek went from irrigating 90-plus acres of turf in 2013 to 40 fewer acres of rough a year later. The property also converted 15 to 20 acres in out-of-play areas on the golf course to unmaintained native fescue.
Now, however, rainy weather has lifted water restrictions, and Smyth hasn’t irrigated the golf course, which has received 38 inches of rain in recent months, since last fall. However, the grounds crew has reseeded about 40 acres of rough, which had died after not being irrigated for 18 months. “It was like growing in a new golf course from scratch,” notes Smyth.
And even though restrictions no longer are in place, Smyth says, “We’re still trying to find ways we can reduce our water usage going forward.”
The property has continued to identify out-of-play areas where the turf no longer needs to be maintained. Saddle Creek has converted an additional 10 to 15 acres to tall, wavy fescue grass and planted wildflowers. “Golfers have embraced it. They love the look,” Smyth reports.
In addition to receiving praise for its water-saving initiatives from golfers, General Manager Rick Morgan says players have spread the word about Saddle Creek’s efforts to the non-golfing community as well. In fact, he adds, local non-golfers have posted positive comments about the efforts on the property’s Facebook page.
“I’m proud of what we established under the circumstances and [how we] made the best of a bad situation,” Morgan says. “Golf courses need to understand their role in how to handle a drought and deliver a product under difficult circumstances, and we certainly are a testament to that.”
When AAC replaced the irrigation system on its Highlands Course, Harvey says the property did not have to replace the pipes. With good infrastructure in place, he explains, a property can save about 60 percent on construction costs. A new irrigation system can also help a property save 20 to 30 percent on irrigation costs—and make the golf course even better, notes Harvey.
Precision and Control
Robinson, who has been a superintendent for 35 years and at Bayville GC since it opened in 1995, has enjoyed several advantages from the club’s new irrigation system. He appreciates the level of control it gives him, and finds the software easy to program. In addition, he explains, “I can access a map of the irrigation system out in the field with my phone and make changes to individual sprinklers in the field quickly and easily, instead of having to write them down and go back to the computer. I like the idea of being able to communicate with the pump station remotely.”
Robinson tours the golf course at the end of the day to check water needs, and says the turf has been healthier, drier, and firmer since the new irrigation system was installed. “We want dry turf; it’s less susceptible to disease,” he says.
Bayville’s new system has also let Robinson decrease run times and meet the water needs of the various undulations on the golf course. “With the new levels of control, we can minimize the wasting of any water and pinpoint our water needs,” he says. “We don’t water en masse anymore. The sprinkler heads are grouped, but each one is programmed individually.”
At Rockland CC, the previous irrigation system, which was 20 years old, watered the rough and fairways, along with the tees and greens, at the same time. Now, however, the property has individual head control, so it can water areas specifically.
“We’re able to water where we want to, without watering areas that might not need it,” says Ceplo. “The heads are so specific. We can shoot water where it’s supposed to go. Every head is its own little controller. That’s what gives you individual head control. It’s easy to diagnose problems, and easy to program to water dry spots, greens, or tees.”
Ceplo can monitor the pumps from a computer with the radio-controlled irrigation system. “I can log onto the computer from a remote location,” he explains. “If it starts raining, I can shut it down. I can tell if a head is stuck on. Troubleshooting is really easy with this system.”
Rockland’s irrigation system also shuts down automatically during lightning storms, Ceplo notes.
Under the old block system at AAC’s Highlands Course, Harvey says, the heads were tied together. As a result, two to four heads ran at the same time when the maintenance staff ran water at a station.
With the new irrigation system, however, Harvey can put water exactly where he wants it, because he has the right nozzles and each sprinkler head is controlled individually. “It’s all hard-wired to the building,” he explains. “I can run the system from my phone, my tablet, or my desktop. We get constant feedback.”
Developing New Senses
The golf course maintenance staffs at Bayville and Rockland also rely on moisture sensors to monitor water needs. Bayville installed a total of six moisture meters in three different greens. The meters record the temperature, moisture, and salinity of the soil every 15 minutes.
The Rockland grounds crew uses portable and permanent soil-moisture meters. The permanent moisture meters give the maintenance staff benchmarks, measuring temperature and moisture at depths of three inches and seven to eight inches. While the meters also measure salinity, Ceplo says that is not an issue at the property.
Rockland’s permanent moisture meters are located in nine greens, three fairways, and five tees. They were put in those areas, Ceplo says, because they have electricity as well as “dry, wet, and medium” moisture content. The sensors work off a battery and send out signals that are picked up by a repeater. While the staff uses the portable sensors primarily in the summer and mainly on the greens, they are sometimes used in the fairways as well.
The moisture sensors communicate their findings to a computer, giving Ceplo a record to track results. “We can see how the soil reacts with irrigation and temperature-wise,” he says.
Rockland CC also put an addition on its pump house and covered the entire structure with a green roof. “It’s a great conversation starter,” says Ceplo. “We put drip irrigation on it, just in case, but we haven’t had to use it except to get the seed started. And we mow it once a year.”
In addition, the Rockland maintenance staff tries to put “the right plant in the right spot” and uses wetting agents and growth regulators.
“We try to use the best agronomic practices possible,” Ceplo states. “Healthy turf is the best defense against weeds and insects.”
Rockland is certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, and is one of three New York golf courses that is a member of e-parUSA, a web-based, online environmental management system. In fact, notes Ceplo, e-parUSA used Rockland’s irrigation system for a case study.
AAC’s Harvey also says golf courses need to follow the best agronomic practices possible, such as maintaining plants with healthy root zones that can be treated with deep, infrequent watering, rather than light, frequent watering.
Atlanta Athletic Club is also prototyping a GPS sprayer that enables the grounds crew to reduce its fertilizer and pesticide usage. “If you only want to spray fairways or tee boxes, then it only turns the nozzles on for identified areas,” explains Harvey. “I don’t know how I would ever live without one now.”
Harvey, who has been in the business for 23 years, believes technology will continue to change the golf course maintenance industry. “Cloud-based technology is great,” he states. “When we’re driving around the golf course, we can make changes on the fly. Our staff members can check their next jobs on their phones. Technology is helping us become more efficient and better stewards of our members’ dollars.”
Going to the Source
At Bayville GC, which also has a small well that it hasn’t needed to use in years, 95 percent of its water drains back into its six irrigation lakes, which act as a best management practice for stormwater and irrigation, Robinson says.
The lakes are designed to capture rainwater, he explains, and the rainwater, which slowly runs off into adjacent waterways, gets recycled for irrigation use. The water is discharged through two 12-inch pipes into the nearby Lynnhaven River. However, notes Robinson, water in the lakes can come up three or four feet in a rain event in a matter of hours, and it takes several weeks for the water to recede.
“This is the forefront of golf design,” he adds. “If we get heavy rains, the water doesn’t rush out of the property. It refills the lake.”
The future of golf, Robinson feels, is for golf courses to be a BMP (best-management practice) for subdivisions. Water can drain into irrigation ponds on golf courses to protect waterways and to act as a water source, he reveals, but a property must have the right climate conditions for this to work.
“Anywhere that you have population growth, you have to have ways to get rid of that product,” says Harvey. “At golf courses, plants soak up nutrients, and water goes out even cleaner than it comes in.”
The most effective irrigation BMP, Ceplo feels, is to use water as efficiently as possible. Rockland gets its water from a three-acre, spring-fed pond, and the property tries to capture as much runoff as it can.
“We’re always trying to reduce water usage,” he explains. “We’re on the edge all the time, but it gets to a point that you can’t keep reducing it.”
If a particular part of the course is wet or dry, he adds, then he knows that other areas that react similarly are in the same condition.
Rainfall also makes it hard to measure water usage, he notes. The property might use 30 percent less water for a period of time, he continues, because the area received 30 percent more rainfall.
Atlanta Athletic Club gets about 40 percent of its water from the Chattahoochee River. Another 40 percent is reclaimed from Fulton County, which is in the midst of an 18-month project to upgrade its reclaimed water services.
“It’s driven by population growth,” Harvey says of the upgrade. “It will get us our water more efficiently and in more timely fashion.” He calls the reclaimed water a “more sustainable source” that enables the property to be a good environmental steward and to lessen its reliance on river water.
Atlanta Athletic Club receives the remaining 20 percent of its water from rainwater runoff.
Golf courses use other sustainable inputs to control water usage as well. One of the most effective ways to conserve water is to decrease the areas that need water.
“We are constantly expanding our low-input natural areas,” says Robinson.
To continue to increase these areas, Robinson, along with the golf course’s architect and the Bayville greens committee, identifies new areas where golfers rarely hit balls every year. “We’re constantly looking at new tools to help us identify areas where we can expand native grasses,” Robinson says. “We’re working with the USGA to identify areas to expand native grasses.”
The native areas decrease water, fertilizer, and pesticide requirements, and provide wildlife habitat. “Native areas do a better job of soaking in stormwater runoff,” Robinson adds. “They also look cool.”
The native grasses are part of Bayville’s identity and give the property a Scottish, natural look, and golfers are accepting of the natural turf. “They have been inherent in the design of the golf course from the beginning,” says Robinson.
Rockland CC also has a lot of environmental areas that the grounds crew does not water, including 13.5 acres of prairie meadows that include native grasses and perennial flowers. The property also has drip irrigation in its flowerbeds.
Rockland CC has had native areas for 10 to 15 years, and Ceplo says the property constantly tweaks them by expanding them and planting them with different plant varieties. The property also plans to build a 6,000-sq. ft. butterfly garden next to the 13th tee, where the championship tee has been enlarged, this year.
“With construction, we always think environmentally,” notes Ceplo. “We look at it as an opportunity to enhance the property.”
When the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club was renovated, the property also converted about 10 acres of maintained rough to pine straw or fescue beds that do not have to be maintained. The property will do the same with the renovation of its Riverside Course, Harvey says.
Under the Weather
One thing that technology cannot change, however, is extreme weather conditions—and golf courses are having to adjust their watering practices to the whims of Mother Nature.
“Climate change is real,” notes Robinson,” but it’s hard to say if certain weather events are related to climate change.”
Bayville GC has had “crazy weather” in the last five years, he says, experiencing both record heat and record rainfall. The property has had two or three wet years when it didn’t use much water. On one occasion in 2016, which was a wet year, says Robinson, the golf course got more than six inches of rain in two hours.
While the new irrigation system has helped him control his resources better and increase water efficiency, Robinson says he needs more years of data to see how irrigation inputs have changed.
Robinson closely follows data from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It helps us plan for extreme weather,” he reports.
Weather forecasting and available data has improved during his years in the business, he notes. Other advances he has seen include GPS data, which maps irrigation heads, and greater precision and control of sprinkler heads.
In 2015-16, the property also rebuilt its bunkers so they would be better able to handle heavy rains. “Because of heavy rainstorms, we had the expense of constantly repairing our bunkers after extreme weather,” says Robinson.
Since rebuilding the bunkers, however, the property has reduced the time and labor costs of constantly repairing them.
Other than a brief stage II drought last year, when rainfall was 36 percent below average from March through June, Ceplo says Rockland CC hasn’t had to deal with severe weather issues. The property had to reduce its water usage by 20 percent during the drought. However, the water restrictions, which were imposed in July, were lifted in September because of moderate rainfall, coupled with declining water use because of cooler temperatures.
The Atlanta area has been in a phase II drought since late last summer, Harvey reports. “In a phase II drought, golf courses are not affected in Georgia,” notes Harvey. “But we try to be good stewards.”
With the installation of the new irrigation system, he says the Highlands Course is using about 30 percent less water. In addition, he continues, the new system has enabled the property to use about 15 percent less water overall.