Golf Course News

Water conservation plans require constant evaluation

Water conservation plans require constant evaluation

Snow, James T

FAR HILLS, N.J. – With drought conditions gripping the East Coast and parts of the western United States, water conservation issues have again been pushed to the forefront. While golf courses are often cited for misuse of water, the golf industry has recognized its responsibility to reduce water use and become less reliant on potable irrigation sources.

As research and technology progresses, superintendents should continue to evaluate, update and implement their water conservation programs. In recent years the turfgrass industry has developed varieties of turfgrass that use less water or can tolerate poor-quality water, introduced technologies that improve the efficiency of irrigation systems, and tapped alternative water sources that reduce or eliminate the use of potable 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 pesticides.

For example, turfgrass breeders at the University of Nebraska have developed several improved cultivars of buffalograss, which is native to the American Great Plains. This grass can replace high water-use grasses on fairways and roughs in a large area of the Midwest, resulting in water savings of 50 percent or more.

At Oklahoma State University, turfgrass breeders also have developed improved cold– tolerant, seeded-type Bermudagrass cultivars, allowing for the establishment of this stress-tolerant, low water-use grass in the transition zone of the United States to replace high water-use cool-season grasses. Water savings of 30 percent to 50 percent or more can be realized.

Ruby Hill Golf Course in Pleasanton, Calif., features Bermudagrass fairways and roughs instead of the cool-season grasses used at nearly all other courses in northern California. As a result, the course estimates that it has reduced water use by about 40 percent compared with similar courses that use cool-season grasses.

Improved cultivars of seashore paspalum developed by turfgrass breeders at the University of Georgia are extremely salt-tolerant grass and can be irrigated with high-salt or brackish waters with little negative effect on turf quality. Cultivars are available for greens, tees, fairways and roughs, and some of these varieties can be irrigated with water directly from the ocean.

Research on other improved varieties is ongoing. Work is being undertaken on zoysiagrass (Texas A&M), saltgrass (Colorado State and Arizona State universities), annual bluegrass (Minnesota and Penn State universities), alkaligrass (Loft’s Seed), fairway crested wheat- grass (Utah State University), colonial bentgrass (University of Rhode Island) and on a number of grass species at Rutgers University. This research, along with breeding work being done at other commercial seed companies, will provide new turf varieties for golf courses that reduce water use and pesticide use for decades to come.


New irrigation system technology also has improved water-use efficiency on golf courses. Superintendents can reduce over-irrigation by using onsite weather stations, weather reporting services and other resources to determine accurate daily water-replacement needs. 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.

In the meantime, using state-ofthe-art computerized control systems, portable hand-held controllers and variable frequency-drive pumping systems remains the most efficient way to reduce water and energy consumption. For example, the Southern California Golf Association Members Club in Murrieta recently installed a new irrigation system that has reduced water use by about 35 percent. And because the club is able to complete its irrigation schedule in a short time frame during nighttime hours, it has reduced its energy costs by about 50 percent.


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 onsite wells, during periods of drought and water-use restrictions. In response, many golf courses have developed alternative irrigation– water supplies and methods that do not depend on potable sources.

These include using storage ponds to collect storm runoff water that might otherwise be lost and wasted and using effluent that has undergone a three-step (tertiary) treatment process. This recycled water provides moisture and nutrients to the golf course while helping the municipality avoid discharging the effluent water into nearby rivers. 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 1,000 courses nationwide use recycled water.

Brackish water or even ocean water can supplement other water sources. Bermudagrass is quite tolerant and seashore paspalum is very tolerant of high salt-content water, and these varieties allow golf courses to irrigate with brackish water that has few other uses. For example, the Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., is planting its greens, tees, fairways and roughs with two of the new seashore paspalum varieties emanating from the University of Georgia’s turf-breeding program.

Reverse-osmosis (RO) desalin- ization plants are another way to produce irrigation water from ocean water or brackish water where other supplies are not available or are very expensive. Three golf courses in Florida and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands have built RO plants in recent years, establishing good-quality, dependable and less costly supplies of irrigation water and allowing others in their communities to use the limited supply of potable water.

James T. Snow is the national director of the USGA Green Section in Far Hills, N.J. Portions of this article were adapted from the International Turf Producer’s Foundation publication, “Water Right-Conserving Our Water, Preserving Our Environment.”

Copyright United Publications, Inc. May 2002

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