Superintendents nationwide have scaled back water usage while showing that the playability and conditioning of their golf courses can still thrive.
Under some circumstances, stinginess isn’t exactly an appealing quality. When it comes to water conservation, however, thriftiness pays big dividends at golf courses. And superintendents are making a real effort to cash in on the water-saving practices at their disposal.
According to the 2014 Water Use and Conservation Practices on U.S. Golf Courses study, conducted by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) through the Environmental Institute for Golf and funded by the United States Golf Association, the industry has made great progress since its first water-use study was conducted in 2006. The 2014 study found that U.S. golf courses used an estimated 1.859 million acre-feet of water in 2013, a 21.8% decrease from 2.379 million acre-feet in 2005. Golf courses used 1.44% of all irrigation water in the U.S. in 2013, versus 1.66% in 2005. While there had been some falloff in the total number of courses between the two studies, better water-conservation practices and reductions of irrigated areas also contributed to the decreases.
|SUMMING IT UP
• Technological advances ranging from computerized irrigation systems to new turf varieties that require less water help golf course superintendents reduce their water usage.
• The less water that is applied to a golf course, the healthier the turf will be.
• Validation from outside entities can help change public perception about water usage at golf courses.
“[The studies] show that the golf course industry is being proactive,” Rick Slattery, Golf Course Superintendent of Locust Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., says. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it shows we’re headed in the right direction. The golf course industry is taking the bull by the horns and trying to help. Most industries aren’t taking that approach.”
Keeping It Simple
At his 18-hole private golf course, Slattery follows the philosophy that simple things make a big difference in water management. “The first thing we do every spring is a complete audit of the irrigation system,” he reports. “We test for leaks and make sure the heads are directed properly. During the season, we scout the golf course constantly. We look for areas that are getting too much or too little water, and we do not water until the last possible minute. We try to go from rainfall to rainfall.”
It must be working: Locust Hill has reduced its water output by 75% in the last 20 years, Slattery reports. While a high-end golf course in the Northeast can use 20 million to 25 million gallons of water a year, he says, Locust Hill CC uses 5 million to 7 million gallons of water annually.
A key to achieving these goals is to “know your golf course,” Slattery emphasizes. In addition, the longtime superintendent, who has been at Locust Hill for 20-plus years, still recalls something he was told in the 1970s: “The best-looking golf courses year-round are the ones that held off watering as long as possible in the spring.”
Slattery relies on other tactics to reduce water usage as well. He watches weather radar closely, looks at rainfall amounts, and pays attention to long-and short-term weather reports. “Irrigating around the weather, rather than the calendar, is key,” he stresses.
At Locust Hill CC, maintenance tasks such as topdressing are timed around weather reports and performed before a rainfall, eliminating the need to water products into the turf. Slattery relies on the property’s on-site weather station as well. “You can monitor evapotranspiration [ET] so you know how much water you’ve lost during the day and how much you need to water to replace it,” he explains.
Beating the Drought
While most golf course superintendents make every effort to conserve water because it’s the right thing to do, others are abiding by mandates as well.
In April 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown, in response to a record drought, issued an executive order to slash water use in all cities and towns by 25% compared with 2013. But properties like TPC Stonebrae in Hayward, Calif., which had already formalized its drought-mitigation plan about three years ago, were better prepared to respond to the requirement.
“Originally, [the plan] was a philosophical blueprint for how we wanted to manage things, but then it became mandated,” says Dave Davies, CGCS, Director of Golf Course Maintenance Operations. “We’ve identified key areas for water use and those areas where strategically we could reduce water usage.”
The Tiara Rado and Lincoln Park golf courses in Grand Junction, Colo., have been under conservation mandates only during drought conditions. When the city was in the midst of a drought two years ago, the city golf courses got water only 3½ days a week. Storage ponds, which were built or enlarged when Tiara Rado replaced its irrigation system five years ago, helped the property cope with the arid conditions.
However, the Grand Junction golf courses do not have a specific drought-mitigation plan. “I think adapting is better than having a written plan,” says Doug Jones, CGCS, who has been in the golf course maintenance business for 52 years and at the Grand Junction properties for 38 years. “It’s important to be flexible.”
Under drought conditions, the golf courses would water the greens first, then the tees and fairways. “Greens are expensive to build, so you don’t want to lose those,” Jones states.
If drought conditions become more severe, the property would forego watering the driving range and rough. Native areas would be left on their own as well. In more extreme conditions, the property would not water ornamental beds, and golf cars would not be allowed on the courses.
Properties in other parts of the country, such as Locust Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., have not had to deal with drought conditions. Nevertheless, Golf Course Superintendent Rick Slattery has to file a water withdrawal report each year with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which collects information about the ways water is being used. Otherwise, water usage at the golf course is not mandated.
Still, Slattery notes, “I think supplemental water for recreational use is becoming more and more scrutinized.”
Doug Jones, Certified Golf Course Superintendent for the Tiara Rado and Lincoln Park golf courses in Grand Junction, Colo., also knows how important weather is to water-management practices. “Most of the time it depends on what kind of snow year we have and how many good or bad snow years we have in a row,” he says of water usage at his properties.
Going With the Flow
Dave Davies, CGCS, Director of Golf Course Maintenance Operations at TPC Stonebrae in Hayward, Calif., evaluates maintenance inputs on several factors. They include the length of time it takes to perform a task, its benefits and if the property meets its goals by performing the applications.
“We’re always looking at the ever-changing environment we have,” says Davies. “Our maintenance programs have evolved with the property, based on grass types and soil conditions.”
TPC Stonebrae uses 100% potable water from the city of Hayward. That water’s cost, Davies says, has increased 15% to 20% every year except one since the course opened in 2008. As a result, the property tracks water usage rather than water costs.
“With the exception of one year, we have decreased our water use every year from the previous year,” says Davies. “In our first five years, we averaged a 7% to 10% decrease in water use each year.”
High-Tech, Low-Water Usage
Technology also plays a key role in the advancement of water-conservation efforts, and computerized irrigation systems represent one of the biggest technology improvements in golf course maintenance.
Locust Hill CC installed a new computerized irrigation system in 2006. “The industry finally got the technology right for irrigation systems then,” Slattery says. “Our coverage is excellent. We have individual head control. The technology for irrigation-system operation and design has come a long way in improving uniformity and selectivity about where to apply water.”
But like other clubs, Slattery notes, Locust Hill installed its new irrigation system to use less—not more—water.
The 18-hole Tiara Rado and nine-hole Lincoln Park golf courses replaced their irrigation systems about five and 10 years ago, respectively, because the previous block systems, in which one valve ran four heads, were worn out.
“The new system runs off evapotranspiration,” states Jones. “What the plants lose from ET gets replaced. Our whole irrigation system is computerized, with variable-speed pumps.”
The new system is much more efficient, he adds, and all of the heads are equipped with GPS technology. “Each area is controlled by one head,” he says. “With the block system we had to try to balance between wet and dry spots. Now we control all of that individually, and it’s relatively consistent.”
When Tiara Rado replaced its irrigation system, the property enlarged an existing pond and built two large ponds, a small pond, and a moat around one green. As a result, its water-storage capacity increased from 2 million to 12 million gallons of water. The new irrigation system has also helped Tiara Rado save “a lot of money” on power and water costs, Jones says, by reducing the number of active pumps; the property has three pumps, he reports, but now only runs one or two at a time.
The backbone of TPC Stonebrae’s computerized irrigation system, Davies says, is daily course monitoring. “One person does a daily course run to focus on documenting areas where irrigation adjustments need to be made—whether it’s increasing or decreasing water—based on the weather and current course conditions,” he reports.
Along with computerized irrigation systems and more precise irrigation heads, notes Jones, the industry has evolved to offer superintendents other tricks of the trade, such as portable moisture meters and a variety of wetting agents, which are part of routine maintenance practices at Tiara Rado.
At Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., site of the 2015 U.S. Open, the maintenance staff led by Director of Agronomy Eric Johnson and Golf Course Superintendent Mark Trenter relies on soil probes to help conserve water.
“Being in the Northwest, we get a lot [of water] out of the sky,” states General Manager Matt Allen. “But like a lot of golf courses, we’re still trying to use the latest and greatest in tools and technology available to us.”
In addition, Allen reports, “We are in the early stages of GPS mapping all of our soil data for our greens complexes. We hope to get enough data to generate an irrigation audit.”
At TPC Stonebrae, Davies says, he has made greater use of wetting agents in conjunction with the property’s cultural practices. However, he adds, the maintenance crew strives to balance keeping the turf alive with maintaining consistent playing conditions.
TPC Stonebrae also uses Google maps and Google Earth. However, Davies notes with a trace of irony, “We sit on the eastern ridge of the Silicon Valley, but our hand-held device capability is not what it might be. When it comes to utilizing hand-held software out in the field, we have to take notes and bring them back to the office.”
Some properties, such as The Club at Las Campanas in Santa Fe, N.M., are saving water by using subsurface drip irrigation instead of sprinklers on areas such as tee boxes. With this low-pressure, low-volume irrigation system, water is applied directly to a plant’s root zone, with applicators installed below the ground surface.
Turf Varieties and Native Areas
The types of grasses on a property contribute to its water-management needs as well, and many golf courses have installed new and improved turf varieties in recent years.
When Chambers Bay opened eight years ago, the entire golf course, which uses on-site well water, was planted with drought-tolerant fine fescue grass. “It requires less water and grows deep roots,” explains Allen. “It will grow roots down to where it finds the water.”
Locust Hill has eliminated weaker turf varieties, such as poa annua, that require a lot of water. When Slattery first came to Locust Hill, poa made up 80% to 90% of the turf. Now, however, 80% to 90% of the course is less-thirsty bentgrass. This transition has been a key to how the club has decreased the amount of water used annually for irrigation by 23 million gallons since 1995, while also cutting pesticide and fertilizer use by more than half.
In addition to new turf varieties that require less water, golf courses are increasing natural vegetation in out-of-play areas for further conservation.
With about 4.5 acres of native areas on Locust Hill’s golf course, Slattery explains, “It eliminates all inputs in these areas and in the rough.” To increase its native areas, Locust Hill has allowed 5- to 15-foot borders to return to their natural state around water features, to filter storm water before it drains into local bodies of water.
Like all golf courses, Locust Hill prioritizes playing areas, and the staff endeavors to grow healthy turf with a healthy root system. The greens require the most maintenance, notes Slattery, and fortunately, they also cover the smallest amount of maintained acreage on the golf course. By eliminating maintenance inputs in the rough and the native areas, he notes, the grounds crew makes the biggest impact on the biggest areas of the golf course.
TPC Stonebrae, which is part of a gated community with 600-plus homes, maintains about 90 acres of grass on a 375-acre property. “Every golf hole is surrounded in some manner by native vegetation, and only five holes are affected by the surrounding neighborhood,” says Davies.
While every property wants to have the best possible conditions for its golfers, that doesn’t mean that the golf course must be lush and green all the time. And some properties need to prepare their golf courses for tournaments that range from the annual member-guest to major professional events.
For the 2015 U.S. Open, the USGA selected a new golf course for the championship for the first time in 45 years. Still, Allen says, it was “business as usual” at Chambers Bay, “except for the fine-tuning of the use of the soil probes to make sure the moisture was consistent on the putting surfaces.”
The property also had to irrigate more than expected after the region experienced a record heat wave for six weeks prior to the tournament. “That was one of the unintended consequences of that unprecedented heat,” explains Allen. “The fescue was dormant and not responding quickly, but the poa annua was very responsive to the irrigation.”
Locust Hill was the site of an LPGA tournament for 37 years until 2013, and for the LPGA Championship in the last four of those years. “Low water usage goes hand-in-hand with championship conditions, when the golf course should be firm and dry,” Slattery notes.
Regardless of how a course is used, golfers need to accept the maintenance practices that are now necessary for course upkeep, Slattery adds. “In the 1970s and 1980s, golfers never used to critique a golf course by whether the greens held or not,” he says. “When did it become the superintendent’s responsibility to hold the golfers’ shots? Golfers need to learn to adjust to conditions. Some of the responsibility has to lie on their shoulders.”
In addition, he notes, “It’s not just the greens that are getting firm. The fairways also are getting firm, and that gives them a lot more roll on their ball.”
According to the GCSAA survey, usage of all water sources decreased from 2005 to 2013—except for recycled water, which was used by 15.3% of survey respondents in 2013, compared to 10.9% in 2005.
Chambers Bay is one of several Pierce County properties that one day may have access to recycled water, courtesy of a $342 million expansion at the county’s wastewater treatment plant. When the expansion opens this fall, the plant will use a process called deammonification, which breaks down ammonia and allows for sewage to be recycled and converted into irrigation water.
The technique has been used widely in Europe for years, but only five other wastewater treatment plants in North America use the method—a patented process called DEMON—that is being adopted by Pierce County. The expanded plant is expected to generate up to 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed water daily, through a project that will make treated wastewater safer for marine environments.
“We’re not doing it yet, and we’re not sure when that is going to start,” Allen says. “We know other courses that have used that kind of water have challenges with salinity, but it certainly would be an advantage being located adjacent to the wastewater treatment facility.”
At other facilities, access often is an impediment to using recycled water. “We’ve looked into establishing some form of recycled water, but the infrastructure is not there,” says Davies. “The homes in our neighborhood don’t generate enough gray water to build a treatment facility out here.”
Regardless of a property’s water source, however, using as little of it as possible is beneficial to all. “The less water you use, the healthier turf you have,” says Slattery. “And the easier your job will be.”
Communication and Validation
It’s not just ball roll that helps golfers buy into a property’s water-management strategy. Communication with golfers—and the general public—is vital to garnering needed support for today’s practices.
“The first couple of years, water use was at the forefront of every conversation, especially in California. That hasn’t changed,” says Davies, who has been a superintendent for 27 years.
Communication with staff members, ownership, membership and the surrounding homeowners association is a key part of Davies’ job. He tells them about the challenges of maintaining a golf course, the plan of attack, the desired outcome, and when results can be expected.
“I am the face and voice of all that activity. Otherwise, the rumor mill starts, and people fill in the blanks,” he says. “People see that a golf course is green, so they assume that the property is using lots of water.”
Davies communicates with members by updating the club’s website regularly and sending out weekly e-blasts about course conditions or maintenance projects. The e-blasts also provide an opportunity for Davies to respond to comments or questions from members. “If one person asks a question, that means they’ve already had a conversation with five or six people about it,” he says.
Jones reports that his properties try to lead by example when it comes to touting water-conservation efforts. “People think we use a lot of water, but compared to agriculture and homeowners, we use relatively little,” he reveals.
Playability, pace of play and golf course features are the primary concerns for the Tiara Rado golfers. However, when the course’s new irrigation system was installed, the property published an article in the local newspaper that explained how the new system works.
“We do it because we want to,” Jones says of water-conservation efforts, “and because it’s better for the turf.”
Water usage is a sensitive issue, states Slattery, but water conservation is good for the environment as well as for job security. “It’s like pounding a drum. You have to keep talking about it,” says Slattery, who also sends weekly e-blasts to members.
As important as those efforts by golf stakeholders are, however, validation from other sources probably carries even more weight in the court of public opinion.
Locust Hill achieved Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification in 2014, and it became a member of the New York Environmental Leaders (NYEL) program, run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in 2015. The property’s membership in the program, which provides recognition and incentives to entities that are committed to sustainable practices and conserving the state’s environment and natural resources, runs through 2018.
As an NYEL member, Locust Hill’s performance commitments include restoring 3.5 acres of the golf course to a natural state; decreasing the amount of water used for irrigation by 2 million gallons a year; reducing fertilizer and pesticide usage by 400 pounds a year, and continuing to train future golf course leaders in sustainability through its internship program.
“It’s important to have third-party verification in the industry,” reports Slattery. “The public perception of golf courses is not good. We’re on our soapbox. Every weekend members of the public turn on their TVs and see lush, green golf courses. That’s why we need third-party verification. It changes people’s perception about golf courses. We’re on the front lines. Perception is something we really have to fight, and third-party verification is the key. It’s not going to come from us.”
Davies agrees. “We can respond with a pretty good track record, and the city of Hayward has been one of our staunchest allies,” he adds. “It all falls under that heading of communication, and a lot of times for us, it’s almost a reactionary kind of thing. Perception is a great factor in how everyone draws their own conclusions.”