Golf course superintendents are learning to keep their heads above water while taking a larger role in helping to manage this precious, but increasingly capricious, commodity—not only for their properties, but also for their communities and regions.
Special Report: Water Management
(First of Two-Part Series)
It’s a given that a golf course cannot function without water. If only the issues surrounding its usage were that simple, though. From access and cost to weather extremes and public perception, the effective use of water management tools is becoming increasingly critical for golf course superintendents. And the tide doesn’t seem to be turning any time soon.
One Extreme to Another
In his two-and-a-half seasons at Omaha (Neb.) Country Club, Director of Green and Grounds Eric McPherson, CGCS, has endured an extremely wet season, followed by a record drought. He has also replaced an outdated pump station that was affecting the delivery of water that the 18-hole course purchases from the city.
|Finding the FixesThe Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), which published a study about golf course water usage in 2009, plans to launch another series of environmental surveys in 2014, starting with a new water survey in the fall to update its first study. While many of the issues surrounding water management undoubtedly will remain the same, GCSAA Environmental Programs Director Greg Lyman anticipates that several changes will have taken place in the years since the initial survey was conducted.
“I expect that we will see a significant rise in the use of technology, particularly in the use of water sensors,” predicts Lyman. “When we conducted the [first] water survey, the use of in-ground water sensors was really just beginning. At that time they were new and rather expensive, and they had a lower influence on decision-making.”
Lyman expects the new survey to also show that irrigation systems now have more electronic controls, which give them greater control and allow them to be applied more precisely to playable areas. He is also interested in seeing whether the amount of irrigated turf on properties has increased or decreased, how costs have changed, and if the number of facilities that use reclaimed or recycled water has grown.
“We couldn’t deliver water uniformly or consistently throughout the property,” reports McPherson. “We pay for our water, so we’re very cognizant of what we use.”
Regardless of their location, golf course operations are always at the mercy of Mother Nature. Patrick Reilly, Director of Agronomy at Maderas Golf Club in Poway, Calif., near San Diego, hopes the weather will cooperate this year.
“We’re hoping to have a wet winter,” says Reilly. “If we don’t, Southern California could increase its drought restrictions next year.”
In case Mother Nature has other ideas, however, Reilly has taken a proactive approach to his water management needs. He was one of several industry stakeholders who participated in the San Diego Golf Industry Water Conservation Task Force, which started meeting in the spring. The group sought to give large landscape areas of three or more acres, or another specified size, the flexibility to use “sound business practices” as an alternative means of compliance with emergency water regulations.
“We’re not under any restrictions now,” notes Reilly. “We did it in advance of potential drought restrictions. Los Angeles went through this previously, but we wanted to stay ahead of the curve in San Diego.”
In conjunction with the development of the course, Maderas Golf Club, which opened in 1999, was issued a conditional-use permit with a number of requirements relating to groundwater production. The property drilled 10 production wells over time, but it had to stop groundwater pumping in August 2011 because of complaints from the city and local residents.
“We have been trying to reword the conditional-use permit with some understanding that the area around the golf course has grown tremendously,” says Reilly. “A lot of other wells have been drilled, and there are a lot of straws in the drink.
“It is a perception of how much water golf courses use,” he adds. “The problem is that many residents are not connected to the city’s potable water, and they depend on well water.”
In November, however, the Poway City Council voted 3-2 to allow the course to resume drawing water from nine of its wells at a rate of 173 acre feet (56.4 million gallons) per year, according to reports in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Extensive testing will also be required, and the city could order Maderas to cease pumping again if neighboring wells start to suffer.
“As part of the resolution, we have offered to turn one of our production wells into a proxy monitoring well, to be able to continue to monitor any impacts that our pumping may have in the future,” reports Reilly.
As an alternative water source, Maderas is connected to a pipeline that comes from the Colorado River, which supplies all of the water for Southern California. As a result, the golf course has an annual budget of $390,000 for water this year.
“It turned our business model on its head,” says Reilly, who has been at Maderas since March 2011.
The property’s parent company has invested in hydrogeological studies and third-party reviews to work within city requirements, he says, and Maderas strives to be a responsible steward of its water resources.
“We spend a lot of time making sure our irrigation system is dialed in, so that we put water where we want it,” Reilly explains.
The ability to start groundwater pumping again will reduce the property’s need to purchase raw water by up to 30 percent, he estimates.
Reshaping the Rules
Because golf courses properties often find themselves under intense public scrutiny when it comes to water usage, complying with the rules and regulations of government agencies has become an increasingly important part of the superintendent’s role. And just as Reilly and his colleagues did in the San Diego region, that’s led to more superintendents throughout the country deciding to take the initiative and work with governing bodies by advocating for their positions before any regulatory decisions are made.
This involvement can extend to water-related issues beyond available supply and use. For example, at The Woodmere (N.Y.) Club on Long Island, Certified Golf Course Superintendent Timothy Benedict believes that superintendents in his area need to be involved with local agencies in the monitoring for the presence of certain pesticides in the water aquifer.
“We’re trying to work with agencies to be sure that it’s not just one widespread ban,” notes Benedict. “Some of these are necessary, but they have to offer us an alternative if they’re going to take something away.”
Southern Nevada, which is in its 12th year of an extended drought, now requires golf courses to use reclaimed water if it is accessible. “The area gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and we have had normal precipitation in the Colorado River Basin in only two of the past 12 years,” says Patrick Watson, Conservation Services Administrator for the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas, and a former Certified Golf Course Superintendent. Eighty percent of area golf courses now use reclaimed water, Watson estimates.
In San Diego, notes Reilly, “We will have more reclaimed, effluent use, but the delivery of that seems to be the problem. There have been murmurs about it, but I don’t know of a pipeline that would get it here. It would take a healthy construction job just to deliver the water to us.”
The Lonnie Poole Golf Course at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., will have access to reclaimed water next year. The golf course is already set up for reclaimed water, but the city is in the process of getting a pipeline to the property.
Brian Green, Director of Golf Course Maintenance at Lonnie Poole, says the property plans to use reclaimed water on its fairways and rough, and will continue to use irrigated water from nearby Lake Raleigh, currently its main water source, on the greens. While the property is not required to use reclaimed water, Green adds, “It’s the right thing to do from an environmental standpoint.”
He expects the nutrient level in the reclaimed water to be different from the levels in the irrigated water, so the effluent water might require additional testing. However, he says, the nutrient levels in the irrigated water are low, so the property already monitors the nutrient levels in its water regularly, because “it’s constantly stealing nutrients from our soil.”
The Lonnie Poole crew tries to water the course enough to keep the plants healthy, notes Green, but not to create overly lush conditions. “We try not to overwater,” he adds. “We try to be good stewards of the water.”
Greg Lyman, Environmental Programs Director of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), is another advocate for reclaimed water usage. Access, however, is often limited, Lyman notes.
“We think it’s a very good fit for the golf industry,” he says. “It’s a trend, but it has been held back because it’s an infrastructure issue; it may be in an area, but there’s no infrastructure to deliver it.”
Mother Nature doesn’t always play by the rules, and lately she has been displaying an especially rebellious streak that has put many golf courses on the receiving end of her wrath and dramatically changed their water-related situations.
The Woodmere Club, for example, found itself under water after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy struck the property in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
“After Irene, 70 percent of the property was under salt water,” recalls Benedict. “We overseeded the entire property and flushed the salt water from it.”
A year later, Hurricane Sandy left five feet of ocean water in the maintenance building, and some equipment such as battery chargers and grinders were destroyed by the storm. Fortunately, thanks to a lesson learned from Irene, Woodmere was able to save its major equipment by moving it to the high hills on the golf course before the storm.
After Hurricane Sandy, the crew also rebuilt its maintenance building and placed plywood on top of foam insulation, to provide greater protection from the elements. The maintenance staff has made other adjustments to combat issues of excess water as well. Nine years ago, for instance, the crew rebuilt a bunker on the 17th fairway, which used to flood frequently. “We mounded that bunker and created a dam to keep water off the property,” Benedict explains.
In a normal day, Woodmere, which tries to minimize its water usage, receives its water from two on-site wells. “It’s not pure, clear drinking water that we pull,” notes Benedict. “It has a small salt content to it.”
Inwood (N.Y.) Country Club, on the southern tip of Long Island in the shadow of Kennedy Airport, also felt the fury of Hurricane Sandy. Golf Course Superintendent Kevin Stanya, who has worked at the club for 30 years (since he was 12 years old), says the property got “blasted” by the storm with saltwater from Jamaica Bay. “Every piece of the property and all of our equipment got hit,” he says.
To prepare for the storm, the crew at Inwood filled up all of its gas tanks and put its generators four feet off the ground. However, the entire maintenance barn, along with the attached quarters for some of the maintenance workers, was under five feet of water after the storm, and Inwood had to replace its entire $1.2 million equipment fleet. The irrigation system was damaged to the tune of $135,000 as well. While the maintenance barn, equipment, and irrigation system were insured, Stanya adds, the residential quarters were not.
The grounds crew also rebuilt the berms around the property after Sandy. “They will stop basic flooding, but not Sandy,” notes Stanya.
Pumping 20 million gallons a year, Inwood gets its water from a well. “This close to sea level, I can pump forever,” reports Stanya. “The only thing I have to pay for is power.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I don’t like to water a lot. I don’t use water unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Shaping the Public’s Perception
Golf courses also frequently find themselves in the eye of the storm when it comes to public perception of their water usage.
“I think we’re a visible target,” states McPherson. “A private club is a luxury item, and to provide the conditions that we do can seem excessive to some. But we have a story to tell. The areas we provide have a big impact on our communities.”
The benefits of golf courses to their communities range from the preservation of green spaces and wildlife corridors to job creation and economic impact.
“Golf courses are always going to be viewed as large consumers of water, despite some movement in the industry along the lines of ‘fast and firm,’ ” Reilly notes. “Most golfers still want to see nice, green grass, and green turf needs a certain amount of water.”
Until recent years, the golf industry could do little to defend itself, but that changed in the mid-2000s. At that time, GCSAA members met with scientists, golf industry representatives, superintendents, and environmental advocacy groups to conduct five surveys—including one about water usage and conservation—designed to help measure environmental issues as they related to U.S. golf courses.
“We realized we didn’t have good data on how the industry was operating overall,” says Lyman. “We didn’t have data that answered questions or enabled us to discuss issues. In the absence of data, there were a lot of conjecture and allegations about the golf industry, frankly, that we couldn’t respond to.”
The intensive water usage survey, which was published in 2009, took several years to complete. More than 2,500 golf course superintendents participated in the study, which was reviewed and accepted by the Applied Turfgrass Science journal, through a year-long process.
“We were able to compare regions and gain a national perspective on how water is used,” explains Lyman. “We were pleased with the response rate, and it gave us the ability to analyze the information the way we wanted to.”
Applied Turfgrass Science’s acceptance of the survey gave it “integrity and defensibility,” notes Lyman, that helped its impact be “recognized by regulators and legislators. We received a lot of positive feedback from people outside the industry.”
The survey revealed several eye-opening findings to Lyman. He was surprised by the variability in the cost and use of water across the United States, as well as by the use of reclaimed water and of municipal or potable water.
“I was surprised that use [of reclaimed water] was 12 percent of the golf courses, and nearly 40 percent in the Southwest; I thought it would be lower,” reports Lyman. “Fourteen percent of golf courses identified that they used municipal or potable water as an irrigation source, and I thought that would be higher.”
Drought cycles tend to ebb and flow, according to Lyman. During the time of the survey, a drought in the Southeast was just beginning. Now, however, lakes in the Atlanta area have come up 20 feet, while Texas and the Central Plains are battling drought.
“The pressure to deliver water and the responsibility to conserve water continue to add pressure to a business that depends on irrigation,” Lyman explains. “The population has grown, infrastructure has aged, and technology in irrigation has advanced, so we have the ability to irrigate more. With new irrigation systems, the trend is to irrigate more acreage. The demand for conditioning by golfers is directly related to the use of irrigation.”
Water issues have been escalating for the past 20 years, Lyman believes, and when the GCSAA conducts another water survey beginning in the fall of 2014 (see box, this page), he expects to see some newly relevant results.
“Many of the issues that we faced when this survey was conducted in 2006 remain the same, but they have intensified,” Lyman says. “Access, predictability, cost, and public policy around water use continue to escalate.”
Water management issues are getting more critical for the golf industry as well, Reilly believes. “It’s very simple,” he says. “There’s only a certain amount of water, and it’s a precious commodity. I don’t see it getting any better before it gets worse. It’s a difficult issue for golf courses, especially in the desert Southwest. It’s a hypersensitive issue in the [lower left] quadrant of the country.
“The saddest part will be facilities closing,” Reilly continues. “We’re overbuilt as an industry statistically anyhow. Attracting the next generation of golfers is a challenge. The closing of facilities to get back to equilibrium would be a consequence of a lack of water.”
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