Golf course superintendents are finding that despite its salinity, the benefits of using reclaimed water outweigh the challenges.
Golf course superintendents are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. In some places, however, the use of a particular source of water—reclaimed water—is on the rise, and that’s a good thing.
|SUMMING IT UP
• Typically, it is more cost-efficient for golf courses to irrigate with reclaimed water, where it is offered or mandated for use, rather than potable water.
According to the results of a Golf Course Superintendents Association of America study of water use and conservation practices in U.S. golf courses that was released in 2015, usage of all water sources decreased from 2005 to 2013, except for recycled, or reclaimed, water. Reclaimed water—wastewater that has been recycled and treated—was used by 15.3 percent of respondents to that survey, compared to 10.9 percent in 2005. And by all indications, that trend has continued since the study was conducted, as many municipalities have stepped up the pressure for conservation and the use of alternative sources in the wake of extended droughts and increased demand from growing populations.
This increase creates less dependence on other water sources such as open water, rivers, streams, creeks, well water, and municipal, or potable, water. While the use of reclaimed water has been mandatory in some parts of the country, even the superintendents who have no choice but to now rely on it to irrigate their properties have learned that reclaimed water offers benefits as well as drawbacks. Most importantly, they know it’s the right thing to do.
“It helps to conserve our resources,” says Brian Bagwell, Director of Golf Course Maintenance at Golf Summerlin in Las Vegas. “There are challenges with it, but you can work around them.”
The properties at Golf Summerlin, which includes three 18-hole public golf courses— Highland Falls, Palm Valley, and Eagle Crest—have used reclaimed water since 2003. The city of Las Vegas mandated the use of reclaimed water after the Southern Nevada Water Authority launched a drought-response plan to limit golf courses’ annual water budgets. As a result, golf course properties and superintendents had to learn to do more with less—as in less water, less grass, and less landscaping.
Most of the golf courses in the Las Vegas area use reclaimed water, says Bagwell, but properties that have their own wells are exceptions. “If they get their water from the [Las Vegas Valley Water District], it’s reclaimed,” he adds.
That water district now allows golf courses 6.3 acre-feet of water per irrigated acre annually. Courses, however, are exempt from time-of-day and assigned watering-day provisions. “Homeowners can only water on certain days,” says Bagwell. “We’re restricted on how much water we can use, but we don’t come close to using the maximum acre-feet allowed.”
While the use of recycled non-potable water for irrigation does not increase the valley’s available water supply, the practice reduces energy costs and adverse effects on the environment. In addition, treating and delivering recycled water saves the expense of pumping water from Lake Mead.
Better Than Wells
At Morgan Run Club & Resort, which includes a 27-hole championship golf course in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., the golf course maintenance staff uses reclaimed water on its poa annua greens.
A September 1988 ordinance issued by the Board of Directors of the local Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which provides Morgan Run with its reclaimed water, mandated the use of reclaimed and non-potable water on golf courses and other properties where it was available for use. Morgan Run also has two on-site wells, which provide water to irrigate its paspalum fairways and tees and its Bermuda rough.
“We pull water from our underground aqueduct, and the water quality is very poor,” says Golf Course Superintendent Scott McIntosh. “The reclaimed water is better quality than our well water.”
The Morgan Run property is close to the Pacific Ocean, McIntosh explains, and when people did a lot of farming in the area in the 1960s, ocean water got sucked into the system when the aquifer level was lowered.
The local water district has adopted Best Management Practices to ensure that reclaimed water is used safely and responsibly. For example, irrigation with recycled water must take place in the evening or early morning, to avoid the heat and the windy parts of the day. In addition, an inspection and monitoring program ensures that reclaimed water customers comply with all federal, state, and local regulations governing water usage.
Proven Track Record
Encinitas (Calif.) Ranch Golf Course has been using reclaimed water for almost 20 years.
“In the major-use permit when the course was built, one of the requirements was for the golf course to use 100 percent reclaimed water when it became available,” says Golf Course Superintendent Kent Graff. “The infrastructure was part of the master plan of the area. When the streets and roads were developed, the area got access to reclaimed water.”
This 18-hole public course receives its water from the San Dieguito Water District, which owns and operates the San Elijo Joint Powers Authority, the local wastewater-treatment and water-recycling facility. The plant provides 1,400 to 1,600 acre-feet of recycled water annually to golf courses and other customers in the San Diego area, which relies heavily on imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California.
All They’ve Ever Known
At The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Calif., the two 18-hole golf courses—Ocean North and Ocean South—have used only recycled and reclaimed water for irrigation since they were built in the early 1990s. The reclaimed water infrastructure was built into the golf courses in collaboration with the Irvine Ranch Water District, which provides the property with water.
“Pelican Hill Golf Club was built and is owned and operated by the Irvine Company, which was founded as an agricultural company more than 150 years ago,” says Director of Golf Course Maintenance Steve Thomas. “Since that time, our company has conserved and reused water by all means available. The company has a long history as a thoughtful steward of some of the most valuable land anywhere, and is an industry leader in water conservation.”
Pelican Hill uses 40 percent less water than its recycled water allocation from the district annually, Thomas adds.
Cost, Nutrients, and Availability
Even when the use of recycled water—which is distributed through a network of purple pipes to separate it from drinking water systems—is mandated, the practice provides a number of advantages. For example, using reclaimed water is typically less expensive than irrigating with potable water.
Water usage at all three Golf Summerlin courses runs about $1.3 million annually, reports Bagwell—but the price per 1,000 gallons would be double that amount if the properties used potable water, he notes.
Morgan Run pays only for the reclaimed water it uses, and McIntosh says the costs have been consistent. “A lot of people use reclaimed water because of the price,” he says. “It’s expensive to use potable water.”
Potable water is billed in tiers by the local water district, he adds, and the more a property uses, the more it pays for the water.
For its reclaimed water expenses, Encinitas Ranch has a fixed rate of $290,000 annually. “It’s much cheaper than potable water. It’s close to half the cost,” Graff says.
While cost savings when compared to domestic water is a key advantage, Pelican Hill’s Thomas agrees, the opportunity to conserve resources and be good environmental stewards offers another advantage to using reclaimed or recycled water.
The golf course superintendents also have found that the presence of nutrients in reclaimed water—including nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, boron, and magnesium—keeps them from having to fertilize their turf as frequently and provides another source of cost savings for their properties. “We’re essentially getting free fertilizer when we irrigate,” notes Thomas.
For properties that have the infrastructure to use reclaimed water, ample availability is another benefit. “We’re not on any type of restriction when there are restrictions on potable use, such as certain days or amounts,” Graff says.
If the local processing plant was shut down for any reason, he adds, Encinitas Ranch would have access to potable water, but with some possible restrictions.
At Encinitas Ranch, the reclaimed water goes into a holding pond on the property. “When the main lines have had to be serviced, we bumped up our reservoir to the maximum level,” notes Graff.
Morgan Run stores its reclaimed water in an onsite holding tank, and the well water runs into three ponds on the property. At Pelican Hill, each golf course has an irrigation lake that holds about 5 million gallons of the property’s reclaimed water.
Meeting the Challenges
Even though properties that use reclaimed water usually receive economic benefits, it can also be cost-prohibitive in some instances.
“You tend to use more reclaimed water than potable or well water because of the quality, so the cost savings might not be as great as you might anticipate,” says Graff.
The lack of infrastructure makes it expensive for most properties to convert to using reclaimed water, Thomas reports. However, he adds, “In highly populated areas such as Southern California, it just seems like the responsible thing to do. Domestic water should be reserved for human use and consumption, while reclaimed water should be used for turf, landscape, and agriculture.”
The salinity of reclaimed water poses another challenge for superintendents, and it influences maintenance practices as well. “The water quality is not as good because of the salt content,” says Bagwell.
The maintenance staffs at Golf Summerlin’s Las Vegas properties have to bring down the pH levels in the reclaimed water and manage the salt content by adding in chemicals that help the soil accept the water more readily.
When it comes to water usage, the turf also makes a difference. Other than the bentgrass greens on the Palm Valley course, the Golf Summerlin courses have drought-tolerant, warm-season Bermudagrass. “The Bermudagrass does a lot better. It’s more salt-tolerant,” notes Bagwell.
Like other properties that use reclaimed water, Golf Summerlin, which has more than 640 acres of turf on the three golf courses, leaches its golf courses regularly to flush out salts and contaminants that could jeopardize the health of the turf.
Every Monday, Morgan Run shuts down one of its three nine-hole layouts for maintenance. On these days, the grounds crew members flush and needle-tine the greens on the closed holes. They also put out gypsum every three weeks, to get the salt out of the greens.
“There are lower spots on all of the greens that get a lot of stress from the salts, so we have to pay extra attention to those areas,” says McIntosh. “By flushing every three weeks, the greens survive.”
The maintenance staff at Morgan Run also uses wetting agents to minimize its water inputs every three weeks, following the spray schedule.
To offset the high salt content of its reclaimed water, the Encinitas Ranch maintenance staff also leaches the greens to flush out the sodium from the root zone. This leaching is typically done to the greens every two weeks during the summer. For the rest of the year, the leaching schedule depends on the amount of rainfall in the area.
“When we have a good amount of rain, there’s no need for it,” says Graff. “In the winter with little rainfall, we might do it once a month.”
Because sodium is so toxic to turf, Graff reports, “We use large amounts of calcium, because it helps deflect the sodium in the soil.”
Encinitas Ranch has Bermudagrass on its tees, fairways, and rough. The greens are poa annua. “Both grasses enjoy the nutrients, but the Bermudagrass is more salt-tolerant,” notes Graff.
The quality of the Bermudagrass on the Encinitas Ranch green surrounds and approaches occasionally suffers from the high sodium levels, so Graff has replaced these declining areas with salt-tolerant paspalum grass. “I started using it 15 years ago, to incorporate it into the turf [and] build up problem areas,” he says.
Mother Nature does her part to keep the turf healthy as well. “Rain provides us with better quality of water. It helps us control sodium in the soil,” Graff states. “It’s a neutral water source with no toxic components to the turf. It provides a good drink of good, clean water, and the plant responds.”
Pelican Hill, which has Tifway 2 hybrid Bermudagrass on its fairways, tees, and rough, and annual bluegrass on its greens, uses reclaimed water across all 400 acres of its two courses and 100-plus acres of resort landscape.
“We test it twice annually with the standard water analysis, which measures nutrients, sodium, pH, bicarbonates, chlorine, et cetera,” Thomas says.
To mitigate the sodium levels and chlorine in its reclaimed water, the grounds crew at Pelican Hill use certain products, along with cultivation programs such as greens aerification and sand topdressing.
“Compared to our greens, the Bermudagrass areas are much more tolerant against sodium and other harsh elements that come along with using reclaimed water,” reports Thomas. “The greens are shallow-rooted and very sensitive, so they require an intense program, particularly in the summer months.
“When we go through long stretches with no rainfall, the salt level in our soils builds up considerably, which has a negative effect on the root system and overall plant health,” Thomas adds.
Advice for Others
While all water-conservation inputs benefit golf properties and the environment, any superintendents who might start using reclaimed water—whether it is mandated or not—should be aware of the pros and cons of its usage.
Bagwell recommends that any superintendents who are considering the use of reclaimed water plant grass that can handle the salinity.
“The turf sometimes doesn’t like the salts,” he says. “They should have a plan to manage the salts and to flush the turf. The Bermudagrass does really well. In an arid climate, it works.”
Graff also advises superintendents to think about the hidden aspects of using reclaimed water. “Typically speaking, you end up having to use more,” he explains. “There are variations to reclaimed water, depending on what part of the world you’re in. We have a lot of salt in our reclaimed water, so it’s good to know what’s in [it].”
A little foresight never hurts, either. Graff says it is better for new developments to install purple pipes for reclaimed water when they are under construction. “It’s so much more expensive to come back and install the pipes after the roads are in place,” he adds.
The environmental stewardship of using reclaimed water can also generate positive public relations for the golf industry in general, and for golf courses in particular.
“We’re all in an environment where, if we can get away from using any type of potable water or water for human consumption, it’s beneficial to the community and the environment,” says Graff. “It’s easier for me to have a conversation about what I’m doing to keep the golf course green when I’m not taking water for human consumption from the community.”
Beyond Reclaimed Water
Many golf courses do not have access to reclaimed water, but they can employ other water-conserving inputs. Even properties that use reclaimed water can follow other water-saving measures as well.
To conserve water usage, Golf Summerlin, which earned a Las Vegas Water Hero Award in 2015 from the Water Conservation Coalition of the Southern Nevada Water Authority for its water-conservation initiatives, has reduced its overseeding practices on its three courses.
Originally, the Las Vegas property overseeded the entirety of its courses, but in the early 2000s management made the decision to overseed only the areas that are in play. After another year or two, the property eliminated the overseeding of the fairways on par-3 holes where most golfers should be able to reach the greens, or get their balls close, with their tee shots.
Next year, the grounds crew for Golf Summerlin’s Palm Valley course plans to overseed only the tees, with the ultimate goal of eliminating overseeding on the golf course entirely.
Golf Summerlin has also converted 3.1 million sq. ft. of manicured turf to desert landscaping on all three golf courses, saving 172 million gallons of water annually. The xeriscape landscaping includes oleander, Texas sage, cactus, and other succulent plants.
“We’re limited to the types of plants that grow well here,” notes Director of Golf Course Maintenance Brian Bagwell. “We have maxed out the areas where we can remove turf. We’ve taken most of it out of non-playable areas.”
In addition, Bagwell says, the property, which has a flood channel that goes through all three golf courses in multiple places, has to keep grass in some areas because it is in a flood zone.
While the desert landscaping reduces the amount of mowing and water usage required, the plants can be more labor-intensive. However, Bagwell believes the water savings offset the heavier workload.
Morgan Run Club & Resort in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., has few native areas on its 27-hole championship golf course. However, Golf Course Superintendent Scott McIntosh says, “I have talked to my assistant about picking areas to stop mowing and maintaining and to put in native plants. The no-mow areas make the course easier to maintain, and we don’t have to water these out-of-play areas as much.”
The two oceanfront 18-hole golf courses at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, Calif., have more than 90 acres of protected habitat called Coastal Sage Scrub (CSS). “Within the CSS palette, there are 15 to 20 different plants that are all native,” says Director of Golf Course Maintenance Steve Thomas.
The property’s ornamental plants were selected for their minimal water requirements, and Mediterranean plants and succulents in particular are used for outdoor landscaping and for indoor design.
From 2005 to 2007, Pelican Hill also underwent renovations to design and install a water-management system based on conservation and recycling to protect the area’s most vital asset—the Pacific Ocean.
The water-management system includes five underground rainwater runoff collection cisterns, allowing the property to use only the amount of water necessary by monitoring how much water the vegetation needs and how much moisture the soil can hold. The cisterns, which collectively hold 1.2 million gallons of water, are emptied within 10 days following each storm.
Pelican Hill also rebuilt two irrigation lakes to hold an additional 5.4 million gallons of rainwater and runoff, which can be pumped in from the cisterns and then used to irrigate the golf courses and landscape.
A full-time water-quality manager monitors and maintains the system, which accomplishes three objectives—conserving more than 50 million gallons of water annually, reducing debris and contaminants in the water, and capturing and recycling runoff.
Throughout Pelican Hill, catch basin inserts have been installed and maintained along cart paths to filter runoff water and capture organic debris before it enters the storm-drain system. The inserts contain a blend of polymers specifically aimed at removing oil derivatives and hydrocarbons from water.
Two bio-filtration/bio-retention basins, built into the Ocean South course’s 10th and 15th holes, treat runoff from the adjacent golf maintenance facility. Acting as filtration devices, the basins remove pollutants through various physical and biological treatment processes.
Pelican Point Lift Station, located on Ocean South’s 12th hole, takes dry-season runoff flows from the golf course, a portion of Pacific Coast Highway and two adjacent neighborhoods, and pumps it to the Orange County Sanitation District’s sewer system. This prevents wastewater, debris, and contamination from entering the ocean at Crystal Cove State Park, a designated Area of Special Biological Significance by the State of Water Resources Control Board. Before the installation of this system, runoff reached the ocean year-round. While a majority of the runoff came from the adjacent neighborhoods, some of it came from natural groundwater sources.
At Pelican Hill, the high-efficiency irrigation systems reduce water consumption through the use of smart irrigation controllers, drip and low-flow irrigation, and master valves with flow sensors. The smart irrigation controllers determine how much water is used to irrigate the landscape based on plant or soil type and weather conditions. “The system uses real-time weather satellite data that, for instance, shuts off the irrigation system during rainy or cold conditions,” notes Thomas.
The drip and low-flow irrigation practice allows water to be dripped slowly into the soil, drastically reducing water usage and the overspray onto non-landscaped areas caused by traditional sprinklers. The master valves enable the maintenance staff to shut off the water automatically when the flow sensor detects a leak.
The Pelican Hill maintenance staff also relies on weather satellites, computers, smart phone apps, and 11,000 sprinkler heads — 6,000 of which are individually controlled — to pinpoint irrigation only to needed areas. C&RB