Water Conservation on Golf Courses

By James T. Snow
National Director USGA, Green Section
Reprinted from the publication Water Right - Conserving Our Water Preserving Our Environment
Published in 2001 by International Turf Producers Foundation, Case Study 7, page 48.


Among the most important issues facing the future of the game of golf is that of water use. In many parts of the country, golf courses require large amounts of water to irrigate the landscape on which the game is played. Often, golf courses are highly visible features in communities and are targets for criticism during periods of drought when homeowners and others are restricted in their use of potable water.

For several decades the golf industry has recognized its responsibility to reduce water use and become less reliant on potable irrigation sources, and has taken many steps to achieve that goal. The industry has taken a multifaceted approach to the problem, including the development of 1) new grass varieties that use less water or can tolerate poor quality water; 2) new technologies that improve the efficiency of the irrigation system; 3) "best management practices" in golf course maintenance that result in less water use; 4) alternative water sources that reduce or eliminate the use of potable water; 5) golf course design concepts that minimize the area maintained with grasses that require considerable use of water; and 6) programs that educate golf course superintendents and other water users about opportunities for ongoing water conservation.



Improved Grasses that Require Less Water

Since 1982 the United States Golf Association has distributed more than $18 million through a university grants program to investigate environmental issues related to the game of golf, with a special emphasis on the development of new grasses that use less water and require less pesticide use. For example:
  • Several improved cultivars of buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides), a native of the American Great Plains, have been developed by turfgrass breeders at the University of Nebraska. This grass can replace high water use grasses on fairways and roughs in a large geographic area of the Mid-West, resulting in water savings of 50% or more.
  • Improved cold-tolerant, seeded-type bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) cultivars have been developed by breeders at Oklahoma State University, allowing this stress-tolerant, low water use grass to be established in the transition zone as a replacement for high water use cool season grasses. Water savings of 30% to 50% or more can be realized. When the Ruby Hill G.C. in Pleasanton, CA was built several years ago, its fairways and roughs were established to bermudagrass instead of the cool-season grasses used at nearly all other courses in Northern California. They estimate a water savings of about 40% compared to similar courses that use cool-season grasses.
  • Turfgrass breeders at the University of Georgia have developed improved cultivars of seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum). This extremely salt-tolerant grass can be irrigated with high-salt or brackish waters with little effect on turf quality. Cultivars are available for greens, tees, fairways and roughs, and some can be irrigated with water directly from the ocean!
  • Ongoing breeding work on zoysiagrass (Texas A&M), saltgrass (Colorado State and Arizona State), annual bluegrass (Minnesota and Penn State Universities), alkaligrass (Loft's), fairway crested wheatgrass (Utah State), colonial bentgrass (Univ. of Rhode Island) and a number of grass species at Rutgers University and at other commercial seed companies, will provide new grass varieties for golf that reduce water and pesticide use for decades to come.



New Irrigation System Technologies

Tremendous strides have been taken in recent years to improve irrigation system efficiency through the use of technology, including:
  • Using sophisticated on-site weather stations, weather reporting services and other resources to determine accurate daily irrigation replacement needs, thus reducing over-irrigation. There also is a considerable effort being made to adapt various types of sensors to evaluate turf soil moisture replacement needs, including tensiometers, porous blocks, heat dissipation blocks, neutron probes, and infrared thermometry.
  • Improving irrigation uniformity through careful evaluation of sprinkler head design, nozzle selection, head spacing, pipe size and pressure selection. The Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT)(Cal State University at Fresno, 5370 N. Chestnut, Fresno, CA 93740; phone 209-278-2066; http://cati.csufresno.edu/cit) is a leader in combining sprinkler uniformity and relative turfgrass quality needs to achieve the greatest water savings possible on golf courses and other turf areas. Many golf course irrigation design companies and individual golf courses routinely use CIT services to reduce golf course water and energy consumption.
  • Using state-of-the-art computerized control systems, portable hand-held controllers, and variable frequency drive pumping systems to apply water in the most efficient means to reduce water and energy consumption.
  • Considerable savings of water and energy resources can be achieved with these technologies. For example, the SCGA Members Club in Murrieta, CA recently installed a completely new, state-of-the-art irrigation system and has reduced water use by about 35%. And because they are able to complete their irrigation schedule in a narrow window during nighttime hours, their considerable energy costs have been reduced by about 50%.



Best Management Practices for Golf Course Irrigation

Best Management Practices for water conservation could be described as the combination of proper plant selection and cultural maintenance practices that provide adequate turf quality for the game of golf while minimizing water use. These could include:
  • Selecting low-water-use turfgrasses, groundcovers, shrubs and trees for use on the course.
  • Providing adequate levels of nutrients to the turf, including a balance of potassium and nitrogen, while avoiding excessive levels of nitrogen.
  • Using mulches in shrub and flower beds to reduce water evaporation losses.
  • Adjusting mowing heights to the ideal levels, depending on species and seasonal water use characteristics.
  • Using soil cultivation techniques such as spiking, slicing and core aerification to improve water infiltration and minimize runoff during irrigation or rainfall events.
  • Improving drainage where needed to produce a healthier turf with better root systems that can draw moisture from a larger volume of soil.
  • Limiting cart traffic to paths to minimize turf wear and limit soil compaction.
  • Cycling irrigation sessions to ensure good infiltration and minimize runoff.
  • Root pruning trees near critical turf areas to prevent tree root competition with the turf for moisture and nutrients.



Alternative Water Sources

During periods of drought and water use restrictions, it is not hard to understand why many communities are concerned about golf course use of potable water supplies, either from municipal sources or from on-site wells. In response, many golf courses have developed alternative irrigation water supplies that do not depend on potable sources. These include:
  • Storage ponds to collect storm runoff water that might otherwise be lost and wasted.
  • Use of tertiary treated effluent from municipal sewage treatment facilities. This recycled water provides moisture and nutrients to the golf course while helping the municipality avoid discharging the effluent water into nearby rivers. The turf does an excellent job of filtering the water of nutrients and breaking down various chemicals and biological contaminants in the water. Use of recycled water on golf courses is mandatory in some locales in the Southwest, and it is estimated that more than 1000 courses nationwide currently use this source of water.
  • Use of brackish waters or even ocean water to supplement other water sources. Bermudagrass is quite tolerant and seashore paspalum is very tolerant of high salt content water, allowing golf courses to irrigate with brackish waters that otherwise have little other use. For example, the Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, FL is planting its greens, tees, fairways and roughs to two of the new seashore paspalum varieties emanating from the Univ. of Georgia breeding program, and will be using ocean water from a nearby estuary bay to irrigate the turf. A state-of-the-art irrigation system will allow precise application of this water so as not to affect native plant materials, and the entire course will be irrigated during six off-peak hours to minimize energy costs.
  • Construction of reverse-osmosis (RO) desalinization plants on-site to produce irrigation water from ocean water or brackish water where other supplies are not available or are very expensive to purchase. The Everglades Club on the Barrier Island of Palm Beach, FL; the Jupiter Island Club in Hobe Sound, FL; the Sombrero Country Club in Marathon, FL; and the Mahogany Run Golf Course in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, all have built RO plants in recent years and have established good-quality, dependable, and less costly supplies of irrigation water, while allowing others in their communities to use the limited supply of potable water.



Golf Course Design Concepts that Save Water

Today, golf course architects use innovative design concepts to help save water.
  • Careful earth shaping and good drainage design is used to collect runoff and sub-surface drainage water in on-site storage lakes.
  • Turfed areas and water-demanding landscape areas are held to a minimum, resulting in water savings of 50% or more.
  • Golf course sites with poor or inconsistent soils are capped with a 6-inch layer of sand to allow uniform water infiltration and a significant reduction in water use by reducing runoff and avoiding over-application of irrigation water.



Educational Opportunities Concerning Water Use and Conservation

  • Numerous books related to golf course irrigation are available for practitioners.
  • The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the Irrigation Association regularly present seminars concerning golf course irrigation.
  • More than 2000 golf courses participate in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses, which educates course personnel about water conservation and protection, and provides recognition to courses that take significant steps to conserve water.
  • There are many industry periodicals that routinely explain and promote the use of water-conserving practices.

These resources clearly will expand in the future as research continues and new technologies are developed.



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