High Water Marks

By | July 17th, 2018

While irrigation inputs are weather-dependent, golf course superintendents have a number of tools at their disposal to keep their systems running smoothly and their properties in top condition, no matter what conditions Mother Nature may impose.

“In Arizona, irrigation efficiency is the lifeblood of what we do.”
—Andy Huber,
Director of Agronomy, Pine Canyon Club


Superintendents constantly need to adapt to the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature, especially when it comes to irrigation inputs. From conducting audits of their irrigation systems to replacing them altogether, superintendents rely on ever-increasingly sophisticated data to weather the onset of wet or dry conditions, so they can keep their turf in top form. Tools such as moisture meters or the installation of native vegetation help them keep their turf needs afloat as well.

New and Improved

Pine Canyon Club in Flagstaff , Ariz., is in the process of upgrading its irrigation system. Eff orts got underway at the property, which was built in 2004, in August 2017.

“In Arizona, whether you’re at 7,000 feet, like we are, or in the desert, irrigation efficiency is the lifeblood of what we do,” says Director of Agronomy Andy Huber.

The Troon Privé-managed property, where Huber arrived in August of 2017, has undergone an audit of its irrigation system to develop a game plan and a timeline to upgrade the system.

“We want to make sure that what we have in the field matches what’s in the central computer,” Huber reports.

The original irrigation design has been in place for a while, Huber says. However, since the golf course opened, it has undergone changes, such as adding extra elevation at the back of a tee or adding forward tees to accommodate female players and junior golfers. Developers have also cut a new street through the property, which affected the golf course, and the addition of a kids’ camp encroached on the practice facility.

“Over time, things get added [and] things get deleted in the field,” notes Huber.

“The central computer and wall maps don’t always keep pace with projects.”

Huber expects the irrigation upgrades to be carried out in three phases. During the first phase of the project, Pine Canyon conducted an audit of the irrigation system in July and August of 2017. “We had to make sure what we have had been brought up to speed,” Huber explains.

The property has raised and leveled sprinkler heads around the greens, collars, fairways, and rough so that they can function to their full potential. The maintenance staff has also blown out the irrigation system head and lines in the field to protect them from freezing in the winter. And Pine Canyon updated its pump station by replacing the variable-frequency drive, which is critical to keeping the station running smoothly. Huber has also done irrigation mapping with the system designer, and he anticipates the process will continue into next year.

Currently, Huber is conducting the second phase of the project by confirming that the watering nozzles match the data that is entered into the central computer, which controls the irrigation system. He also is monitoring the quality of the turf from the middle of the fairway to the outer edge of the rough. “The heads on the edge throw [water] in, and the next series of heads throw it back out to the edge, so they have to work together,” he explains.

When the spacing or degree of a sprinkler head is off, he adds, irrigation can be affected.

Huber also plans to look at the remaining life expectancy of the individual irrigation control clock in the building, and he expects the pipes, heads, and pump station to last for another five to eight years.


– Superintendents should audit their irrigation systems on a regular basis to ensure they are running smoothly.

– Superintendents can supplement irrigation tactics with a number of resources such as moisture meters, the installation of native vegetation in naturalized areas, hand watering, soil surfactants, threshold-based pesticide applications, rebate programs, and recognition from environmental organizations.

– To maximize irrigation efforts, superintendents need to work with their irrigation technicians and industry stakeholders, and also communicate with the general public about their efforts.

Staying Up to Speed

In the third phase of the Pine Canyon project, advanced technology will play a greater role in the system. “At this point, we’re focusing on the basics and our foundation and the hardware,” says Huber. “When we get it in place, then we’ll move more to phones, iPads, and off-site controls, “That will be the fun part,” he adds.

“We’ll reap the rewards of the hard work we’ve put in place in the first one or two years.” The Pine Canyon property will relocate components of the system with the new design, Huber says.

“You take a new job at a new property with a game plan in mind,” he states. “Once you dig in, you understand the irrigation system and the culture of the crew. You have to be flexible, but you need to make sure you have the fundamentals covered first.”

He has also discovered that bringing the irrigation system up to speed will take longer than he anticipated. He originally thought he could accomplish his goals in 12 to 18 months, but now he is working under a three-year plan.

“You can’t always throw an unlimited amount of dollars at things,” he reports. “Other departments are competing for dollars as well. You have to be a team player.”

Constant Vigil

At Cochecho Country Club in Dover, N.H., the maintenance staff places a premium on auditing its irrigation system as well. The irrigation system on the front nine of the Cocheco golf course has been in place since 1979, but the system on the back nine was replaced in 2008.

“Auditing our irrigation system is a continuous practice,” says Golf Course Superintendent Tony Perra. “We’re always checking and monitoring our pressure maintenance pump.”

The company that built the pump station for Cochecho CC still maintains it, and once a year performs preventive maintenance on the station, Perra reports.

Paradise Valley (Ariz.) Country Club installed a new irrigation system in 2008 to increase its watering consistency. The following year, led by Assistant Golf Course Superintendent Jason Jesty, the property initiated efforts to pursue Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) certification. “[Jason] did the heavy lifting for the entire Audubon program,” states Golf Course Superintendent Rob Collins. “His effort has been outstanding.”

At the time that Paradise Valley CC began pursuing ACSP certification, which it achieved in January 2016, the maintenance staff had already started to decrease its water usage. “We were the first golf course in the United States to ever negotiate a performance standard for the new irrigation system we were installing,” Collins reports.

To measure its water-usage performance, the maintenance staff shifted its focus from distribution uniformity, which measures how uniformly water is applied to an area, to moisture uniformity, which focuses on groundwater.

Paradise Valley CC has audited its irrigation system through distribution-uniformity studies and ultimately renovated the system to retain greater efficiency.

“When golf courses get new irrigation systems, they’ll make those decisions on distribution-uniformity studies,” notes Collins. “The moisture content in soil due to slope, sun exposure, and shade all influence how land receives and uses water.”

Enhancing Efficiencies

To maintain optimum golf course conditions, properties rely on a number of tools to enhance their irrigation inputs.

For example, Huber says that personnel from multiple Troon properties have undergone joint, more formalized training in the use of irrigation system software. He is also a “huge fan” of hand watering.

“In my opinion, you cannot beat hand watering,” he says. “You can spot-water only the areas that need it. Hand-watering is most important on the greens for playability and evenness.”

Huber’s goals include increasing hand watering to try to maintain the golf course at a slightly drier level—while making sure it is still green—and to create drier, firmer conditions. “Each time a superintendent gets involved with a new property, the culture changes,” says Huber, who has worked in the golf course maintenance business for 25 years.

Superintendents in the West have two different philosophies when it comes to irrigation, he believes. Some prefer off-color, firm, fast, and dry conditions, while others have a different mindset.

“People travel here from all over the country. They don’t come out West to see brown grass. They come out here to see lush, green grass,” Huber says. “If you’re selling real estate, people want to see a green golf course. Superintendents have to develop their own philosophy, driven by real estate, visitors, and resort guests.”

The Pine Canyon maintenance staff also uses soil surfactants to improve water penetration and distribution uniformity, moisture retention, water-use efficiency, and drainage. “[The surfactants] retain moisture in dry areas and move it away from wet areas,” notes Huber.

The property has added drain lines aggressively—about 7,000 feet in total—in problematic areas as well. “It has been a great tool to allow us to water as needed and move it away from the surface,” Huber explains.

The Native Advantage

Pine Canyon Club has added drain lines aggressively—about 7,000 feet in total—to address problematic areas on its golf course. “It has been a great tool to allow us to water as needed and move it away from the surface,” says Director of Agronomy Andy Huber.

Pine Canyon Club has about 25 to 30 acres of native-grass areas, primarily under its ponderosa pine trees, on the golf course.

“The irrigation is still in place, but sitting dormant,” says Huber.

Cochecho CC, which has a mix of bentgrass and poa on its greens, tees and fairways and a bluegrass/fescue/rye grass mix in the rough, has increased its native areas as well. “We do more of it now than we did five years ago,” says Perra.

As part of its water-conservation initiatives, Paradise Valley CC converted 30 acres of maintained areas to native landscape with drip-irrigation desert vegetation in the last 10 to 12 years. The property removed hundreds of trees to reduce the amount of irrigated turfgrass on the golf course as well.

Along with the turf and tree removal and the installation of desert landscape, the Paradise Valley CC maintenance staff curbs its water usage by updating its irrigation system on an ongoing basis. Collins says the maintenance department updates its assets at their prescribed useful life, replacing dozens and dozens of sprinklers each year. In addition, he reports, “Nozzle replacement is a key component to water savings. Sprinkler performance erodes as the nozzles wear.”

The Paradise Valley maintenance staff also uses more natural pesticides and herbicides as well as organic fertilizers, and pesticide treatments are based on thresholds. “We don’t make unnecessary applications,” notes Collins. “We can maintain the standards that everybody expects without putting out pesticides.”
With the construction of a new golf course maintenance building in 2010, Paradise Valley also has a closed-loop system for washing equipment, mixing chemicals, and filling up equipment with fuel.

In addition, the Paradise Valley CC grounds crew uses hand-held moisture meters to measure and evaluate soil moisture and make day-to-day judgments about water needs. The golf course also uses a subsurface drip system in which a tube is placed underground adjacent to a bunker edge. “Water is not exposed to the atmosphere, so the evaporative loss is decreased,” explains Collins.

Weathering the Storms

Of course, weather conditions are a major factor in irrigation practices as well. Huber looks forward to Arizona’s monsoon season, which lasts from the first part of July until early to mid-September.

“We struggle with wind and dry conditions in May and June, when it is hot and dry and we have no humidity,” notes Huber. “If we can get to the monsoon season, the pH of the natural rainfall does wonders.”

Typically, the Pine Canyon maintenance staff irrigates the greens once or twice a week, supplementing with hand watering when necessary to create firm, fast conditions. The staff relies on weather-station readings and measuring the evapotranspiration rate (ET) to determine the irrigation needs for the rest of the golf course.

“It’s all weather-dependent,” Cochecho CC’s Perra says of irrigation. “During a dry stretch, we water every day, and we hand water as needed.

“They’re so subtle in the short term,” Perra adds about weather changes. “Ten or twenty years ago, you didn’t even notice them.”

Water usage is not as much of an issue in New England as it is in other parts of the country. However, notes Perra, “It’s a valuable resource from a management standpoint. The more we conserve, the more we save. Pumping water costs money.”

During his 26 years in the golf course maintenance business, Perra says superintendents have started doing a much better job of watering and have more tools at their disposal. “We have better weather forecasting,” he notes. “The ease of getting better weather forecasts leads to better decisions.”

Measuring the effects of changing weather conditions is a challenge for superintendents, says Paradise Valley’s Collins. “We all have become much more aware of water usage,” he adds. “In Arizona, we evaluate it a lot.”

While the Paradise Valley CC golf course receives year round play, the watering practices at the property vary from season to season. The grounds crew might not water for a week after a rain event in the winter, but the staff will water every night during the summer, when the thermometer can climb to 110 degrees.

“Water is a precious resource. Use it wisely. You don’t want to waste it,” says Collins. “Environmentally, it’s the right thing to do.”

Working with Others

Pine Canyon Club has about 25 to 30 acres of native-grass areas, primarily under its ponderosa pine trees, on its golf course, allowing irrigation to stay dormant. Another Arizona property, Paradise Valley CC, has converted 30 acres of maintained areas to native landscape with drip-irrigation desert vegetation in the last 10 to 12 years, and has also removed hundreds of trees to reduce the amount of irrigated turfgrass on its course.

Superintendents also depend on other valuable resources—in particular, strong relationships with their staff members and industry peers—to maximize their efforts.

“As the vision becomes clear, you can plan long-term,” says Huber. “You have to be diligent in making sure that everyone—including project managers and property managers—is on the same page.”

Huber’s efforts to work with others extend into the community as well. Pine Canyon uses 100 percent reclaimed water from the city of Flagstaff, and Huber is trying to work with local officals to improve irrigation practices at the golf course. “We’re trying to build great relationships with the city of Flagstaff wastewater-treatment personnel,” he explains.

Huber says he will work with the city twice a day to see how much water is flowing into the property’s eight ponds, based on demand. Many of the ponds are connected to streams, and lake liners were installed in all of them during construction. In addition, the property tests its water quality monthly, quarterly and annually, and submits reports to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Huber also plans to contact Arizona Power Service representatives about pursuing incentives and rebates under its Business Solutions program. “It’s another nice tool to see the efficiencies you can do,” he says. “Not everyone is a candidate, but we will invite them out to develop a plan.”

To keep Cochecho CC’s irrigation system in top form, Perra relies on support from his suppliers. “The company that built the pump station still maintains it,” he notes. And if he needs to ask someone a question, order parts, or solve a problem, help is just a phone call away.

A trusted irrigation technician is essential to effective watering practices as well. Collins calls the job a “skilled position.” At Paradise Valley CC, running the irrigation system is a team effort between the irrigation technician, Collins, and his two assistants, Jesty and Josh Tucker.

“A lot of time is spent in training,” Collins notes. “The software that runs the irrigation system is very involved.”
Public Perception

Industry stakeholders are not the only ones noticing water usage by golf courses. “The general public watches golf,” notes Huber. “We have to be very diligent with our water usage.”

Local residents pay particular attention to the use of groundwater and Colorado River water, he notes. “The good news is we’re using water that’s been through treatment,” Huber says.

Arizona superintendents are also conscientious about environmental stewardship, particularly when it comes to water usage, Huber says—and data backs him up.

In 2014 the University of Arizona, in conjunction with the Cactus & Pine Golf Course Superintendents Association, did a study of the effect of the golf industry’s contribution to the state economy and its influence on the environment. The findings, which were published in 2016, revealed that the Arizona golf industry had a total economic contribution of $3.9 billion in sales in 2014, and that golf used 1.9 percent of Arizona’s total freshwater withdrawals in 2010.

“It corrects the perception of golf courses using so much water,” Huber says of the findings. “The percentage of using groundwater or freshwater is extremely low.”

Paradise Valley CC’s ACSP certification efforts help to cast a favorable light on the property within the community and provide ongoing awareness about the need to protect the environment. The club reinforces its commitment through its annual Audubon Day (“Letting Nature Take the Course,” C&RB, June 2018).

“We talk about it several times during the year,” Collins says, “It keeps us focused on managing pesticides and water. “It’s always on our minds,” he adds. “We have an eye on the environment to create and maintain healthy habitats for animals and for all of us.”

The golf industry, Collins notes, makes a larger financial investment than agriculture or other industries to achieve responsible water usage. “We’re visible in our communities,” he says, “and we want to be good stewards and good neighbors.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *