Proper irrigation has become an art form, but new technology is helping golf course superintendents adapt their water-conservation practices to 21st-century realities.
Water will always be a hot commodity—and topic of conversation—in the golf course maintenance industry. But as the resource continues to command the attention of golf course superintendents across the country, there’s no need for them to be in hot water because of the issue, too. Instead, new normals in irrigation practices are becoming standard in the industry, as superintendents adapt their water conservation efforts to the 21st-century realities of availability.
SUMMING IT UP
• Superintendents can take advantage of technological advances such as state-of- the-art irrigation systems, moisture meters, and newer, more drought-tolerant grasses to conserve water.
• Superintendents should have best-management practices in place to
• The use of effluent water and a greater acceptance of brown turf will influence irrigation practices in some parts of the country.
“There’s a bit of an art to irrigation,” says Dave Kazmierczak, Certified Golf Course Superintendent of Prestwick Golf Club, Woodbury, Minn. “As a superintendent, you know your golf course and how it’s going to react.”
Partnerships and Recognition
While predictability can be a good thing, golf course superintendents are continuing to look for new ways to upgrade their irrigation practices. These efforts can take a variety of forms, and sometimes outside entities are involved in the implementation—and recognition—of the processes.
Prestwick GC teamed up with the local city and county governments in a public-private partnership to enhance its irrigation practices. As part of a government-financed project that doubled the size of an adjacent road, the golf course got a new pond to collect stormwater runoff that can be used for irrigation purposes. Prestwick also got a secondary pumping station through the project, which started in fall 2013 and was completed in spring 2014. The new pond will enable Prestwick to cut groundwater use by a quarter or a third, Kazmierczak estimates.
Lubbock (Texas) Country Club recently converted 20 acres of highly maintained, irrigated turf to native grass, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce named the property a winner of the Water-Smart Business Award, through a program in which the Chamber recognizes members that have implemented water-saving measures each quarter.
“In this area, water is a very hot topic,” explains Golf Course Superintendent Greg Leach. “It’s a valuable resource that is finite in our area.”
Lubbock CC’s conservation efforts actually began about 15 years ago, when the property installed a state-of-the-art irrigation system. The system features computerized valve-in-head programming, allowing complete control of the output and timing of each of its approximately 1,700 sprinklers. “There is so much depth and so many variables to the system, we’re just now seeing how far we can push it and save water,” Leach reports.
Johnathan Doyle, Golf Course Superintendent at Greenbrier Golf & Country Club in Lexington, Ky., will soon get to know a new irrigation system as well. In January, Greenbrier launched a $1.2 million project to install a state-of-the-art irrigation system with 949 sprinklers. The new system will include a satellite-controlled operating system that will give the maintenance staff wireless control of each individual head on the golf course. The project is expected to be complete in May.
“Our old system was a block system. We had to run four to six heads at one time,” explains Doyle. “The good thing about the new system is that we have individual head control on the entire golf course. We can be a lot more efficient with where our water goes. We can get water where it needs to be, without having to waste any. Now I’ll know down to the gallon how much we’ll put out.”
Greenbrier’s existing irrigation system was limited by a six-inch steel intake line, which had corroded and shrunk inside and would allow only 650 gallons per minute to be distributed on the golf course. With a new corrosion-proof, 12-inch, high-density polyethylene intake pipe coming from the lake into the pump house, the new system will allow the station to put out 1,600 gallons per minute, Doyle reports.
The old system also ran off six stand-alone satellite controls, each of which had to be manually adjusted and programmed and turned on and off by hand. The new system will be controlled by 19 linked satellite controls run by a central system in the maintenance facility, and it offers remote access into the computer from anywhere in the country. “The new system can be radio-controlled from a tablet or a smart phone,” says Doyle. “Before, we had to do it by hand.”
Benefits of the new system will also include better water management on greens complexes. The Greenbrier crew will now be able to water the greens surrounds adequately without having to apply excess water to the greens. Better irrigation head control will allow the crew to water places that need it more, such as high, dry, or sunlit areas, and apply less water to low spots, shady areas, or areas with poor surface drainage.
The new system will also cut the water window in half and erase or minimize the need to water the fairways and rough during the day in a drought situation, Doyle says.
Once the new pipes and wires are in the ground, Greenbrier’s crew will be able to fix problem areas with poor drainage. Currently, the club’s maintenance department spends about $20,000 annually on irrigation parts, and $40,000 to $50,000 on labor, to keep the existing system operational. With the new system, however, labor costs for irrigation repairs will be reduced, and the grounds staff will be able to spend more time on golf course projects and attention to detail.
Watching the Weather
To conserve water, superintendents rely on other tools as well. Greenbrier G&CC is getting an on-site weather station in addition to the new irrigation system. The station will be linked to the central control system, to help the crew water turf based on evapotranspiration (ET) rates.
An on-site weather station that determines ET rates also helps Kazmierczak make irrigation decisions at Prestwick GC. He has done a couple of irrigation audits to pinpoint problem areas as well. “A broken nozzle doesn’t sound like much, but over time it adds up,” he notes.
Prestwick’s maintenance staff also hand-waters on a regular basis. While this practice might create more labor costs, notes Kazmierczak, it conserves water. Greenbrier’s crew members also hand-water the greens each morning, and syringe them in the afternoon as needed.
Kazmierczak also relies on moisture sensors, which he says can be “eye openers,” to help conserve water. Prestwick has a few in-ground sensors, but the property relies more heavily on handheld sensors for moisture readings.
For the past three or four years, the Greenbrier staff has also used hand-held soil monitors to probe the greens and determine how much water they need. “They’re easy to use. I can send anybody out with a monitor,” notes Doyle.
At Lubbock CC, maintenance staff members use tools such as wetting agents, surfactants and hand-held moisture meters to enable them to go longer between watering cycles. “We started intensive water-monitoring practices in the past year,” Leach reports. “We check moisture levels with moisture meters, and it’s made a big change in how much water we actually use. Before, if it looked dry, we watered it. Now, with the meters, we can wait a day.”
Several years ago, Lubbock CC installed more than four miles of drainage pipe to help reduce water waste. The water now goes back to the property’s irrigation pond, which helps the crew better manage its surface water.
In addition, Lubbock CC has replaced some water-consuming fescue in heavily shaded areas with newer, shade-tolerant Bermuda grass. The maintenance staff has also installed native ornamental grasses and drought-tolerant yucca plants in landscaped beds on the property, near the tee boxes and out-of-play areas with heavy cart traffic.
“That’s been an ongoing thing for the past five years,” notes Leach. “We try to add a couple areas every year. The areas are low-maintenance, so it actually saves on labor, too.”
Greenbrier G&CC has also added about 10 acres of native grasses for aesthetic purposes, and to reduce mowing time for the grounds crew, over the past several years.
Coming Down the Pipe
Despite their best efforts to be good water stewards, superintendents expect to see future restrictions on water consumption—if they haven’t already. Prestwick GC currently has no restrictions on water usage, but Kazmierczak notes that during a 2013 drought, Minnesota officials pulled 12 permits statewide from golf courses that use surface water. “Even in the land of 10,000 lakes, water is starting to get looked at a lot more thoroughly,” he says. “Golf courses are just a blip when it comes to total water consumption, but for some reason, we can be seen as water wasters.”
To combat that perception, Minnesota course superintendents are trying to take a proactive approach to their water usage. Working with the University of Minnesota, they are developing environmentally friendly best-management practices that can be presented to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. As part of that, courses will pledge to voluntarily cut back on water usage during a drought, but only with the assurance that the state will not pull any of their water permits.
“Regulations will come, and when they do, I want to prove I’m an efficient user of water,” Kazmierczak states. “The important thing is to get out in front of it and make sure as a group that they know what we do.”
Minnesota will regulate surface and subsurface water usage in the next five to 10 years, he predicts, and ultimately efforts may be made to limit courses to a set number of gallons—something Kazmierczak would like to prevent, because he believes “a [blanket] number doesn’t work. Every golf course is different. You need to base it off the type of soil you have.”
At Lubbock CC, Leach knows all about water restrictions. The High Plains Water District, which oversees water usage in his area where properties rely on underground well water, started imposing water restrictions this year. Restrictions are based on acreage, and effective January 1, the allowable production rate per contiguous acre for Lubbock CC was set at 1.75 acre-feet per year. “In 15 years of keeping records, we’ve only come under that number once,” notes Leach. “It was actually during a record-setting year for rainfall.”
Lubbock CC currently has no infrastructure to use effluent water, but Leach believes it could be a future possibility, because the city has plans to build a new water treatment facility on the club’s side of town. He also thinks golfers could become more tolerant of brown turf. In the meantime, he will continue to lead efforts “to really start cutting water” as the native areas at his course become more established. “A lot of our members are in one way or another tied to agriculture,” he notes, “so they have a very good understanding of what we’re trying to do and accomplish.”
While Doyle says Greenbrier G&CC’s membership hasn’t yet offered any opinions in the “green versus brown” conversation, he personally prefers the brown look. “I just think that was the way it was meant to be,” he says.
And the conversion, at top courses like Pinehurst No. 2, of turf to native vegetation may influence other properties, Doyle feels. “With the bigger clubs and resorts going back to old-school, European-style irrigation,” he says, “it might prompt others to do so as well.”