SUSTAINABILITY
Every Drop Counts: Watering With Precision and Efficiency October 21, 2016 By George Waters, USGA

Modern irrigation systems often feature more than 1,000 sprinklers that can be programmed, operated, and adjusted on an individual basis. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

This is the third of three stories that highlight measures being taken by golf courses around the country to mitigate the issues of rising costs and restricted access to water. The USGA Water Resource Center of USGA.org contains more valuable information about golf’s use of water. Read part I in the series here, and read part II here

Irrigating golf courses with precision and efficiency has always been important in golf course maintenance because it creates better playing conditions and healthier turf for all who enjoy the game. Today’s golf course managers are taking this priority to a higher level, using a combination of high-tech innovations and simple, time-honored techniques.

“There have been rapid advances in irrigation system technology in recent years that have enhanced the ability of superintendents to more precisely manage water,” said Pat Gross, director of the USGA Green Section West Region. “The state-of-the-art irrigation system installed 20 years ago has been replaced with several generations of newer, more efficient irrigation system components and controls.”

Modern irrigation systems are amazingly complex and efficient. The central computer, pump station and each individual sprinkler are all highly integrated. Even the sprinklers themselves are technological marvels. Today’s irrigation systems often feature more than 1,000 sprinklers that the superintendent can program, operate and adjust on an individual basis.

Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach, Calif. – site of the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship – recently underwent a golf course renovation to improve playability and decrease water use because of ongoing drought issues and rising water costs. The project involved significant turf reduction, utilizing grasses that require less water and installing a state-of-the-art irrigation system.

Adjusting low or tilted sprinklers can be tedious, but it is an affordable technique that golf courses can use to greatly improve watering efficiency. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

“The new irrigation system at Poppy Hills is comprised of roughly 1,800 sprinkler heads precisely located to correspond with grassing lines,” said Matt Muhlenbruch, Poppy Hills superintendent. “This design keeps water where we want it and ensures that we do not irrigate outside playable areas.

“We had our soils analyzed by specialized equipment that allowed us to classify the typical moisture content of the area around each sprinkler,” said Muhlenbruch. “We also installed in-ground sensors in all the putting greens and select fairways to monitor soil moisture, salinity and soil temperature. This data is sent to the central computer and we can see in real time which areas need to be irrigated.

“The information and control we get from the new system allows us to easily and accurately irrigate only the areas that need it. That helps us provide better playing conditions while using less water and saving money.”

Advancements in irrigation technology allow superintendents to water with unprecedented precision. However, even the most advanced technology cannot replace the tried-and-true techniques of precision watering that have been used since the earliest days of golf course irrigation. Leveling sprinkler heads and hand watering are two simple practices that all golf courses can use to significantly improve the effectiveness and accuracy of their irrigation.

“Irrigation efficiency is influenced by many factors; however, the one that may impact overall water use the most is simply having sprinkler heads level to the surface. Efficiency can be reduced by as much as 20 percent when sprinkler heads are too low,” said Larry Gilhuly, an agronomist in the USGA Green Section West Region. “Low or tilted sprinklers can significantly change the overall water distribution, resulting in excessively wet or dry areas that affect playability and turf health.”

Efficient Watering Practices

A variety of factors can cause a sprinkler to be low or tilted, including turf growth, sand topdressing, bunker splash and soil settling. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for low or tilted sprinklers. They must be dug up and readjusted. Leveling sprinkler heads may be tedious work, but it is also an affordable technique that all golf courses can use to significantly improve the effectiveness of their irrigation.

Another time-honored technique of precision irrigation is hand watering. When it comes to applying the correct amount of water exactly where it is needed, there is no substitute for a trained staff member armed with a hose. “Hand watering may be labor intensive, but it is also the best way to address small dry areas,” said John Daniels, an agronomist in the USGA Green Section Central Region.

Why not use an automatic sprinkler?

“Most sprinklers are designed to cover an area of 10,000 square feet or more, but dry spots are often much smaller than that,” said Daniels. “Using a sprinkler to water a small dry area may be faster than hand watering, but much of the water is delivered to areas that don’t need it. This not only wastes water, it creates playability and turf health issues.”

At Westwood Country Club in St Louis, Mo., Superintendent Corey Witzman and his staff take precision irrigation seriously. They have always relied on hand watering and recently they have enhanced their efforts with the addition of hand-held moisture meters.

Precision Irrigation Helps Courses Save Water and Improve Playing Conditions
Golf course managers are using a high-tech innovations and simple, time-honored techniques to water more precisely and effectively than ever.
  • Modern irrigation systems often feature more than 1,000 sprinklers that the superintendent can program, operate and adjust on an individual basis.
  • GPS and sensor technology allow superintendents to see in real time which areas of a course need water.
  • Ensuring that sprinklers are level with the ground is something all golf courses can do to improve the quality and efficiency of their irrigation.
  • Ensuring that sprinklers are level with the ground is something all golf courses can do to improve the quality and efficiency of their irrigation.

“Using portable moisture meters has taken our hand watering efforts to another level,” said Witzman. “They allow us to set a specific value for what areas need water. This gives an employee direction when deciding where they should or should not water and it gives me confidence that different staff members are all using the same standard.

“The results have been very noticeable, we are delivering water only where it is needed and golfers are commenting that playing surface consistency has never been better,” said Witzman.

“Irrigating with greater precision is within reach for all golf facilities,” said Daniels. “Which improvements are most appropriate may vary, but the important thing is for golf courses to consistently work toward improving the effectiveness of their watering. Whether it is leveling sprinkler heads or replacing an outdated irrigation system, making a commitment to improve irrigation precision will save water and maximize playing conditions.”      

George Waters is a manager of education for the USGA Green Section. Email questions or comments to greensection@usga.org.  

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