Paradise Valley Country Club, northeast of Phoenix, Ariz., is anything but a typical desert golf course. It’s a true innovator in water conservation practices, thanks to a forward-thinking membership and the hard work of superintendent Rob Collins and his staff.
The ongoing effort has taken place in stages over the past decade and includes turf removal and improved irrigation efficiency, through rigorous analysis as well as the use of various tools, among them a simple leveling instrument.
“We want all of our 3,000 sprinkler heads to be within 2 percent of level,” said Collins, who is in his 20th year as head golf course superintendent at the club. “It’s critical to performance, so we use the level to check that percentage on a continuing basis. If the percentage is beyond that standard of 2 percent, we dig up the head and re-level it.”
Tweaking individual sprinkler heads may sound minor, but the effect is anything but.
“The ground isn’t always perfect, and sprinklers can move out of a level position (which can affect uniformity of distribution by as much as 8 to 12 percent),” said Collins. “That can cause us to either re-water or turn up the sprinkler to hit a dry spot, which can mean potential excess water usage. We want to control the things we can control, and ensuring level heads is one of them.”
Those sprinklers are part of an irrigation system that was installed in 2008 to ensure more consistent watering. “With regard to uniformity, the old system wasn’t that good,” said Collins, whose staff includes three full-time irrigation specialists. “We knew we were using excess water and wanted to conserve more. The improvement in irrigation efficiency is a tough one to put a number on, but in terms of percentage, it’s probably 10 to 20 percent just by improving the quality of distribution.”
Treating each green individually in the watering process has also helped, according to Collins. “That might sound obvious, but we often have the same number of sprinklers around the greens, yet the greens are different sizes,” said the Ohio State alumnus. “Throughout the course all the sprinklers in perfect triangles are 60 feet apart. But once you get to the greens, which are designed differently, you can’t maintain that same sprinkler pattern. So we used aerial videos to look at the size of each green and assigned sprinkler run times according to that.”
Multiple daily moisture meter readings also provide valuable feedback. “Using that tool just increases our sensitivity to multiple variables, including our watering process,” said Collins, who said the annual rainfall in the area is approximately 8 inches. “We take multiple readings throughout each green, up to three to four times a day, and track patterns over time. In November or December, we may not need to add water for days. In June or July, however, it may be only hours before you go back to check to see if watering is needed. And when a monsoon comes through in August or September we can save up to two days of water. That’s part of the extreme climate we have here in Arizona.”
The single biggest water-saving measure implemented by the club is a turf removal program that began in 2009.
“We have gradually replaced approximately 20 acres of turf (90 acres remain) with native or low water-use landscaping,” said Collins. “The tradeoff in water usage has been significant. This was a voluntary decision by our members who wanted to realize the water savings, and were willing to give up grass to do it.”
Simply removing turf is one thing; knowing what to replace it with is equally important. “Some courses planted trees after removing turf,” said Brian Whitlark, USGA Green Section agronomist for the West Region. “When those trees mature in 20 years, they will actually use more water than the turf. At Paradise Valley, Rob worked with a landscape architect to design a plant palette with water conservation, aesthetics and playability in mind. Higher profile areas received different plantings than lower profile areas farther away from the clubhouse. Being smart and hiring the right people to help you decide what to plant when you take out turf is an important part of the story.”
In Arizona and other southwestern states, courses use, on average, more than five acre feet of water per acre of turf. “So when we eliminate turf acreage, we save almost all of that water, although we do use some when we replace the turf with desert landscape,” said Collins, a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a weather observer on the USS Nimitz. “An acre foot is about 330,000 gallons annually, so you’re talking over 1.5 million gallons per year. That’s a lot of water. We realized that savings from turf removal and some selective tree removal.”
The cumulative efforts of Collins, his staff and the club have resulted in more than $50,000 savings in water costs annually, despite considerable rate increases in recent years. An additional $5,000 in electricity costs is saved annually through reduced irrigation pump usage.
“Rob is extremely detail-oriented and seeks to quantify and justify every decision he makes on the course to provide the best information for the membership, because ultimately it’s their golf course,” said Whitlark. “They made a lot of intelligent decisions through a collaborative effort between club governance, the golf staff and the maintenance staff.”
Collins credits the club membership for their focus on sustainability.
“They are stewards in their community and very passionate,” he said. “Their expectations are high and they demand high quality conditions, but they are also responsible citizens. Sustainability and quality standards go hand in hand. You can’t think of quality and forget environmental stewardship. They always go together.”
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based golf writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites. Email him at email@example.com.