This is an updated version of the original article, which was published in July 12, 2013, issue of the USGA Green Section Record.

It’s 100°F outside and you just received notice that water delivery to the golf course will be reduced by 30 percent in the coming weeks. What are you going to do now? Like it or not, drought emergencies and mandatory water cutbacks are a recurring situation at many golf facilities, even in relatively high-rainfall areas of the United States. In some parts of the country, lack of rain for six to eight weeks can put significant pressure on water supplies and trigger a drought emergency. Planning for a drought emergency is not a pleasant situation for golf facility owners, superintendents or golfers. Effectively preparing for the situation is best done well in advance when you are not in the middle of an emergency, which allows for more effective planning and communication between course officials and golfers.

Water regulations and drought-emergency ordinances are often written so they can be applied broadly. This often comes in the form of a percentage water reduction that is imposed on customers. Typically, this is done in a phased approach mandating customers to cut back 10, 20, 30, 40 percent or greater as subsequent drought emergency levels are reached. The goal of developing a drought-emergency plan is to determine in advance precisely how much golf course irrigation needs to be reduced to satisfy a given level of mandate and develop a strategy to accomplish these goals.

There are different approaches to planning for a drought emergency, but all have the following baseline factors in common:

  • Precise knowledge of golf course acreage and the size of greens, teeing grounds, fairways, rough and landscape areas.
  • Knowledge of monthly water use for the various golf course areas.
  • Intimate understanding of the irrigation system and its output, operation and capabilities.
  • An understanding of high-priority areas that need to be maintained to preserve acceptable playing quality and customer satisfaction.

The following five-step plan outlines a process that golf course personnel can use to develop a customized drought-emergency plan.

Secure an accurate map of the property.

A current and accurate map of the entire golf course property is an essential starting point for developing the drought-emergency plan. This forms the basis for measuring and analyzing the irrigated acreage. An AutoCAD map that includes an overlay of the irrigation system is best because boundaries of all irrigated areas can be accurately measured. There are also other tools available for this purpose, including:

Commercially Available Services: Customized GPS maps are available through USGA | DEACONTM, which includes accurate measurements of the putting greens, tees, fairways, roughs and bunkers on the course. Functions within DEACON allow you to model how much turf area would need to have watering reduced to achieve various levels of water reduction. You can also use DEACON to create what-if scenarios such as adjusting the size and shape of various turf areas to decrease water use. Course Vision and other commercially available products can also help with documenting the sizes of features on the course.

Online Tools: Area-calculator tools and planimeters are available for free online or may be purchased as mobile apps. Many of these tools use satellite imagery that is ground normalized to allow the user to obtain reasonably accurate measurements of the property and various course features. Examples include Google Earth Pro and the Planimeter app.

Determine the size of turf and landscape areas.

Using the map, determine the square footage and/or acreage of the entire property and then break it down into specific use areas. The list must be based on irrigation zones and the ability of the control system to irrigate each area separately. This is much easier for a system with individual irrigation head control versus a block system where a single valve may be covering multiple sprinklers in both fairway and rough areas. The list of relevant areas may vary from course to course based on site-specific features but will generally include the following zones:

  • Putting green complexes (greens, approaches and surrounds)
  • Teeing grounds
  • Fairways
  • Primary rough
  • Secondary rough/out-of-play areas
  • Practice range
  • Landscape areas

Once accurate measurements are determined, calculate the percentage of each area compared to the total property (Table 1).

Determine how much water is used annually to irrigate the golf course.

Historical water-use data can be obtained from a variety of sources, including:

  • Billing records from the local water agency
  • Daily logs from the irrigation pumping system
  • Data from golf course accounting or maintenance records

Water use is reported in different ways, such as acre feet (1 acre foot = 325,851 gallons), 1,000-gallon units, or hundred cubic feet (HCF, which equals 748 gallons). It is best to use the same terminology as the water agency to avoid confusion.

Water use obviously varies from month to month; therefore, it is important to list historical water-use data in a monthly format. The reported water use will preferably reflect an average of the past three to five years.

Next, develop a monthly estimate of how much water is typically used in each area of the golf course by taking the total amount of water used for the month and allocating it according to the area percentages identified in the mapping process. Repeat this step for each month (Table 2).

At this point, it is important to note that actual water use may be different for each area of the golf course. For example, Poa annua putting greens may use more water per acre than fescue rough areas on the same course. Keep in mind that this is a theoretical exercise to understand the general scope of how much water is applied to various areas of the property.

Develop a prioritized list for irrigation scheduling.

Next, develop a list of which areas will receive the highest priority for irrigation and which areas will be progressively cut back in case of a drought emergency. Some areas of the golf course, such as green complexes, are obviously more important than others when it comes to playability and will receive the highest priority. However, using data to fully understand golfer traffic patterns at your course will help refine your prioritized list and focus reductions on areas that see the lowest amount of play and have the least impact on the golf experience. The USGA GPS Service allows courses to rent small GPS loggers that golfers can put in their pockets or clip to their clothing during their rounds. Facility managers can then view where golfers traveled on a customizable heat map of their course. Seeing the traffic data on a map of the course makes it very easy to identify areas for water reduction that would have minimal impacts on play.

Developing the priority list is best done as a collaborative effort between the superintendent, general manager, golf professional, ownership and key committee members/course officials. Everyone needs to agree on the concepts developed at this stage so any disagreements and second-guessing can be avoided when a drought-emergency arrives. Please note that priorities and the level of detail may be different for each course based on business needs and site requirements.

Determine how much water must be reduced for each drought-emergency level and where the reductions will be applied.

At this stage, all the homework has been done and it is just a matter of manipulating the numbers developed in Step 3 (historical monthly water use) based on the priorities established in Step 4 (water-use priority list). As an example, if a second-stage drought emergency is declared and a 20-percent water reduction is mandated, where should cutbacks be made? The following describes how to make these calculations:

  • Using the monthly water-use data from Step 3, calculate the total amount of water that must be reduced based on the percentage required by the drought-emergency level (Table 3).
  • Using the monthly water-use data, reduce the percentage of water applied to various irrigated areas of the property based on the priority list developed in Step 4. Manipulate the percentages until the necessary water reduction is achieved. Note that the greatest amount of water savings will be achieved by reducing water applications on larger areas of the property, such as the rough. Repeat the calculations for each month the drought emergency is expected to be in effect (Table 4).
  • Verify that irrigation programming can achieve the desired goal by making the adjustments on the central irrigation computer and performing a projected run cycle. Make further adjustments to the irrigation program as necessary until the projected water use meets the reduction goal.
  • Repeat these steps for each drought-emergency level.

Communicating The Plan

Developing a drought-emergency plan is not only helpful for determining irrigation priorities, it is a useful communication tool to share with water agencies, owners, green committees and golfers. Sharing the plan can be done in different ways:

  • Post a brief article on the bulletin board or golf facility website describing the goals of the drought-emergency plan and how it will be implemented on the golf course.
  • Display a color-coded map or satellite image of the property showing where water will be reduced in case of a drought emergency. The map can be placed in multiple locations such as the clubhouse, golf shop, restaurant and locker rooms.
  • Consider placing informational signs on the golf course showing where water reductions will be made as part of the drought-emergency plan.
  • Invite course officials, water agency personnel and interested golfers on a tour of the golf course to show precisely where water will be reduced. In addition to discussing details of the plan, the tour also provides an opportunity to demonstrate operation of the irrigation system and point out any deficiencies or potential difficulties with implementing the plan.


Developing a drought-emergency plan takes time and effort, but the exercise is very beneficial for several reasons. First, it requires superintendents and course officials to compile data about their property and irrigation practices. Some may find it surprising how much water is actually used on different areas of the golf course. Second, the data provide an objective baseline of information to make rational decisions in advance of a crisis situation. Third, the drought-emergency plan can be used as an essential communication tool to share with golfers, water regulators and the community.

Some may wonder why going to such lengths is necessary to meet water-reduction goals. Why not just adjust the irrigation computer and cut 20 percent across all areas of the golf course? Although such an approach would be relatively easy, the results are unlikely to be satisfactory and this approach will end up damaging critical areas such as greens and fairways far more than non-critical areas such as the rough or out-of-play zones. The goal is to make targeted reductions while preserving playing quality to the extent possible. Whether drought occurs regularly at your course or hardly ever, it is always better to be prepared with a solid plan.

Looking for help developing a drought-emergency plan for your course? Through our Course Consulting Service, a USGA agronomist can work with you and your course officials on all facets of this important plan.