In 2011, droughts affected a large swath of the middle of the country: nearly all of Texas and parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. These extreme conditions impacted everyday lives as well as numerous industries, including golf.
Summer may have given way to autumn, but the lack of rain persists in many areas, and the severity of drought has many consequences. Superintendents in these afflicted areas have faced considerable challenges in order to keep their courses playable. For golfers used to green layouts, the drought has required an adjustment in their expectations of how a golf course should look.
During rounds, golfers in drought-stricken areas may have noticed several abnormalities at courses. Here are some answers to questions you may have about the drought and its effect on the courses you play.
If there’s a drought, why are there wet areas around the course?
Although irrigation systems are carefully designed to apply water as uniformly as possible, it is impossible to design a system that can cover a golf course’s numerous features. Sharp contours, greens, tee complexes, bunkers and trees all call for specific sprinkler location, which cannot be adjusted.
Additionally, irrigation systems typically are designed to supplement rainfall rather than replace it. During droughts, shortfalls in the coverage area become evident.
Why are there burnt-out spots around the course?
During severe droughts, communities limit water usage for non-critical activities like landscape irrigation. So course superintendents prioritize areas of the course for watering. Greens are most important, followed by approaches and surrounds. If these areas are kept in good condition, the course is still playable and can be kept open.
Why aren’t we hand-watering more?
Hand-watering is the most accurate method of getting water to specific areas. For example, manually irrigating just the tees uses a fraction of the water that would be applied through sprinklers, which cover large areas in addition to the tee itself.
However, hand-watering requires a lot of labor and is therefore expensive. Many courses simply cannot afford to hand-water portions of the course. Low-budget courses likely have to forego tee irrigation completely.
One somewhat positive aspect of a severe drought is that grass quits growing and no longer needs mowing. Labor that normally would be cutting grass can be utilized for hand-watering. Unfortunately, the combination of a drought and a tough economy means many courses reduce their staff rather than reassign them to tasks like hand-watering.
If we’re limiting our irrigation, why does our system need repairs?
Most soils have some percentage of clay. As the clay dries, the soil contracts, damaging pipes, control wires, valves and irrigation heads, which also can be misaligned. It is important to note that once the rains return, the soil will expand, further damaging the system.
Why are there so many burrowing holes by animals on the course?
Droughts impact all animals. Wildlife that normally would be able to find water and food in remote areas will move to areas receiving irrigation in order to survive. This includes birds, burrowing animals and even insects.
Why is the grass on our fairways so long?
Longer grass is better able to tolerate traffic. In addition, greater leaf-surface area almost always results in greater root development, allowing the plant to get to water that is deeper in the soil.
What’s wrong with the trees around the greens?
To conserve water, many courses have gone to hand-watering greens and tees. Trees and turf areas that normally would be included in the coverage area of sprinklers are now on their own.
Even at courses that still are using irrigation systems, trees may show injury from salt. Many sources of water contain significant amounts of sodium and other salts. With normal rainfall, these salts are flushed from the soil. During a drought, the salts can accumulate to levels that cause foliar burn of trees.
Isn’t water water?
Not even close. Water sources vary widely, often within a community or even a single course. Wells may be in different aquifers and the irrigation lake may be filled from a combination of storm water runoff, recycled water from a sewage treatment plant and potable water from the city supply.
Even within a single source, the quality of water changes depending on time of year and environmental conditions. A course that normally relies on a mix of runoff and recycled water may find that its sole source during a drought is the latter. Salt levels in the recycled water are not diluted with the runoff and can rise to levels that are harmful to plants.
Why aren’t we aerating this fall?
Areas with adequate irrigation should continue normal cultivation practices, including aeration. However, drought-stricken should not be aerated until the soil-moisture level returns to normal. Opening up the soil during severe drought will increase evaporative loss.
Why are there cart restrictions? Aren’t they for wet conditions?
Drought-stressed turf does not grow and cannot recover from wear and tear. Turf that has not been aerated is more susceptible to damage through compaction, often caused by cart traffic.
During severe drought, no practice is more important to the protection of stressed turf than limiting cart traffic. Ideally, carts should be confined to paths. The next best step is to eliminate cart traffic from the most important areas of the course – from 100 yards from the green and in.
If the drought is this year, why is the maintenance budget for next year going up?
Courses and golfers will feel the impacts of a severe drought for many years. Expect to see increased costs due to replanting of lost turf, repair of the irrigation system, rebuilding cart paths cracked by soil contraction and expansion, likely increase in water cost and replacement of damaged and dead trees, which will continue to occur as many as five years after the drought.
Jim Moore is the director of construction education for the USGA’s Green Section. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.