How better irrigation management can save water

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    Los Robles Greens in California expects to use 25 per cent less water as a result of its turf reduction programme

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Of all golf’s environmental challenges, its use of water is without doubt the most important and urgent. That might seem odd for a game that grew up in a country as wet as Scotland, but the spread of golf around the world has put courses in many areas where water is precious, some where it is even in desperately short supply. And, as the hotter the climate, the more water is typically needed to keep the golf course alive, there is an inevitable clash.

Golf de Vidauban in France, profiled later in this issue, is a classic example of a course that almost ceased to exist because of water issues, and the truth is that there are likely to be many more in years to come. California and much of Australia are major golf markets that have suffered from terrible droughts in recent years, and, though every drought breaks eventually, when a region goes through such an event, it naturally makes leaders more wary and more inclined to take policy steps to manage the resource better. So it is with water, and quite rightly too. Golf is important; it is a major source of leisure, and also a large industry. But it is hardly necessary for life.

This is why comparing golf to agriculture, as some in the golf industry like to do, is a dead end. It may well be true that the waste of water in farming makes golf look like small beer in comparison. But so what? People need food to live. They can live without golf.

This realisation – that, in the end, people can live without golf – should be worrying to any course in an area where water is in short supply. Fortunately, across the golf industry, there are many clever people trying to figure out ways to maintain fine quality turf with less water. More fortunate still is the fact that, in many ways, what is good for the environment is also good for golf. All over the world, people are realising that dry, bouncy golf courses are, quite simply, more fun than soggy ones; that golf is more entertaining when the ball bounces and rolls on landing, and that, at a championship level, the only way to really put the best players under pressure is to prevent them from being able to fly the ball right at the flag with any club in the bag and expect it to stop.

In California, Los Robles Greens, a popular municipal course owned by the City of Thousand Oaks and managed by Arcis Golf, has just reopened after a renovation designed to make it more environmentally and economically sustainable.

“It has been pleasure for everyone at Arcis Golf to see the project at Los Robles Greens turn into such a huge success,” said Jim Oliver, COO of Arcis Golf. “The innovative work that has been done is setting a new standard for golf course maintenance — not just locally, but nationally. It has been a terrific collaboration.”

The project, run by architect Jason Straka of Fry/Straka, included the removal of more than 30 acres of golf course turf grass, as well as a redesign of the irrigation system for greater efficiency. After the newly landscaped areas grow in, Los Robles Greens is projected to use 20-25 per cent less water annually. The reduction in turf grass also means less fertiliser, pesticides, and fossil fuels will be needed to maintain the course.

“One million gallons per month, that’s how much water we are saving here,” said Mayor Joel Price of Thousand Oaks. “And the environmental benefits of the renovation go far beyond water savings. We’re leading the way with the new Los Robles Greens, a fun and challenging course that’s an environmental star.”

Nearly 40 acres were converted into native areas, with the installation of more than 50,000 native California drought-resistant plants. During the renovation, new plantings were mulched with product made on-site by recycling more than ten years’ worth of green waste that had accumulated on property.

This kind of turf reduction project has become increasingly popular in recent years. Quite obviously, if there is less grass to maintain, you’ll use less water. But to really save water, it’s necessary for golf courses to take good decisions about their irrigation systems; what they install, and how they use it. Here, there are a number of different approaches.

One might be called the technology approach. Irrigation manufacturers have been working hard to make their systems as efficient as possible so that course managers can apply precisely the right amount of water to precisely the right places. As well as equipment, though, operators need to be properly trained to make use of these systems, as Kneale Diamond of Perrot says.

“Education is crucial,” he explains. “People need to know how to get the most from what they have, but they also need information. That’s why things like soil sensors are becoming more popular; if you know exactly how much water is in the profile, you can be more accurate in deciding how much you need to apply. But there are other issues around saving water. Nozzles, for example. Lots of courses have only 360 degree nozzles, and in many locations these can be reduced to 180 degrees, which saves water. And oddly, I think the problem is worse in the UK than in other markets. People don’t learn to use irrigation that well in the UK – they think they don’t need to because of our weather.”

Mark Ganning of Hunter Irrigation echoes the same points. “The first thing is the layout and the uniformity and the coverage across the ground” he says. “If you don’t have uniformity you’ll always be overwatering trying to compensate. Once the system’s in it comes down to good central control and giving the course manager the tools to adjust on a micro level. Because they know the lie of the land best.”

Finca Cortesin Golf Club on Spain’s Costa del Sol is a challenging course to maintain. With diverse and undulating terrain, it demands equipment that’s well suited for the job. That’s one of the reasons why the course recently updated all of its turf care and irrigation system equipment to the latest Toro products.

According to superintendent Ignacio Soto, Toro products were selected because they adapt well to a wide range of course conditions and features. “Our course has a lot of movement and elevations, so we need strong, efficient, high-quality machines,” Soto says.

In addition, the course installed Toro’s Infinity Series sprinkler heads as part of the irrigation system in its newly constructed short-game area. The unique sprinkler design allows access to key components from the top of the sprinkler for troubleshooting and repairs without digging.

Finca Cortesin is located in a big resort area with a luxury hotel and private residences, so the guest experience is an important consideration. For the first time in Spain, the course is using hybrid mowing technology on fairways and greens to minimise noise and emissions. The course also plans to incorporate more hybrid and electric technology to continue building on its commitment to the environment.

Golfcrest is a private member-owned 18-hole country club located in Pearland, Texas, just 20 miles south of downtown Houston and 30 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico.

This par 72 course includes more than 125 acres (51 hectacres) of turf that must be maintained and managed. With its close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, weather can be severe at times with heavy rain events, hot and humid summers, and frequent high wind conditions. The existing irrigation system provided poor distribution uniformity on and around the greens causing unsightly and inconsistent conditions while wasting a considerable amount of water.

The members approved an equipment upgrade to Hunter’s G885 golf rotors. “The precise distribution of water, even during windy conditions, delivered higher turf quality on and around the greens as well as increased consistency of playing conditions. Additionally, we have seen a reduction in water use of 30 per cent thanks to Hunter’s efficient golf rotor and nozzle options.” says Carter Hindes, the club’s director of agronomy.

Hunter’s golf rotors provided a 30 per cent reduction in the annual irrigation water usage for the course. This results in an ongoing savings of approximately 18 million gallons (68 million litres) every year.

Rancho Bernardo Inn in California is another course that has seen good results from putting in a high-tech irrigation system. At Rancho Bernardo, the installation of Rain Bird’s IC system irrigation produced major improvements in water and energy efficiency, with an estimated 30 per cent water savings annually. Remote system access allows course managers to use iPad technology to access central control and make precise in-field adjustments and perform complete system health checks within minutes every day.

But not all clubs can invest in high end irrigation systems. Architects Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb recently completed a total renovation of Winter Park, a nine hole municipal course in Orlando. Johns and Rhebb, who both trained with Coore & Crenshaw, were able to bring in the project at an especially low cost, because they both designed and shaped the holes. As such, paying out more than a million dollars for a massive irrigation system was not feasible, so they called in irrigation designer and superintendent Don Mahaffey. Johns says: “Don not only designed the state-of-the-art irrigation system, but he was our quality control guy. He insured that all the parts were correct and everything was being installed properly. Anything that went wrong he was there troubleshooting in person, not via telephone. He ensured the pump house upgrades where correct and would sync up with his newly designed system.

“But what Don brought to the table that we are all most proud of is he designed a super lean and mean system, not over engineered or overdone. He was able to irrigate the entire golf course with 50 per cent less irrigation heads a normal course would have installed – that’s value engineering at its best! And the turf is completely covered, no issues.”

This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture