Friday, May 22, 2009

Golf Course Irrigation Water

Michael D. Vogt, CGCS, CGIA
McMahon Group, Inc.

Turfgrass has a dramatic impact on life in the United States. According to the Irrigation Association, “There are over 50 million acres of turfgrass in the United States with an estimated annual value of $40 billon. The annual value of turfgrass is greater than the value of America's corn and soybean crops combined.” With the onset of the devastating drought and government imposed restrictions on water use in the southeast United States last year the golf industry is asking the question of, “How long will the water last?”

The topic of water and its relationship to golf is so inseparable that the United States Golf Association has spent 18 million dollars in university grants to develop new turf varieties that use less water and still provide suitable playing surfaces for the game.

Golf course irrigation is estimated to use more than 476 billion gallons of water annually in the
United States. Water consumption is highest in the southwest, with a reported average use of 88 million gallons annually per course. The Irrigation Association reports that of all fresh water used in the United States for the purpose of irrigation, 79.6 percent is in agriculture, 2.9 percent is in landscape, and golf courses consume 1.5 percent. The remaining 16 percent is consumed by humans, animals, or industry.

These figures can be misleading as to the significant role of water used in golf course irrigation. Many golf courses located in urban areas use potable water supplies for irrigation. This water is highly treated and very expensive. The reduction of use of these potable water sources can provide great cost savings as well as benefits the local population.

Recent news headlines have been highlighting drought conditions throughout the United States. Andrew K. Smith, external affairs director for the Irrigation Association said about localized drought conditions throughout the southeast United States, “They weren’t ready up front. When you have to deal with these things after the fact, you have a problem.” Georgia’s Governor, Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency October 20th, for the northern third of the state of Georgia and asked President Bush to declare it a major disaster area. Not only has Georgia struggled with the drought crisis, neighboring states that depend on water from Georgia’s Lake Lanier have felt the severe stain form months of below normal rainfall. More than a quarter of the Southeast United States is covered by an "exceptional" drought — the National Weather Service's worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which encompasses most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
The following is the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s position statement on water use:

“Golf course superintendents are responsible stewards of water resources. GCSAA supports collaboration with all levels of government to address water use and quality issues and for golf course superintendents to be involved in the construction of productive public policy related to water issues. GCSAA supports the use of reclaimed, effluent or other non-potable water for golf course irrigation when the water quality is suitable for plant growth and there are no public health implications. GCSAA does not support mandated use of reclaimed water when the water quality or water quantity is not adequate, when use is not cost effective or when the golf course superintendent does not play a key role in the decision-making process for the development of effluent water standards. GCSAA supports water conservation and the utilization of irrigation/water use BMPs.”

What the GCSAA is effectively saying hear is; that the association supports the role of the superintendent as a steward of the environment and as good environmental stewards the superintendents should prescribe to water conservation and the best management practices associated with water conservation.

Water sources for turfgrass irrigation have already come under-fire from activist groups and even local and state governments. Watering bans have had impacts on lawns, landscapes, and golf courses where just years ago were thought to have ample sources of good quality water for a variety of recreational and aesthetic uses. The fact of the matter is that food, drinking water, and sanitation will always be the most important use for the most valuable resource, good quality water.

In an effort to begin saving and measuring amounts of valuable water resources on golf courses a study was preformed by the Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT). The CIT studied 5 separate 18-hole private golf courses, with irrigation systems ranging in age from 10 – 17 years old. Distribution Uniformity (DU) was measured at each golf course, it was determined that a change in sprinkler nozzles would increase efficiency on all 5 test cases. To measure DU, a test was preformed, that is a placement of graduated containers in a measured grid on an irrigated area. The amount of water caught in each container is measured. The calculation requires ranking the containers values from highest to lowest, with the value of the lowest 25% divided by the overall average of the graduated containers. The calculation is expressed as DULQ which indicates the calculation is based on the low quarter or the lowest 25% of the containers. A DU of 100% would indicate perfect uniformity (not achievable in the field).

According to the Irrigation Association’s Certified Golf Irrigation Auditor manual, rotary sprinkler DU is listed in 3 categories, with 80% considered excellent (achievable), 70% good (expected), and 55% or less considered poor. It stands to reason that the lower the DU the longer the irrigation head or heads have to run to achieve uniformity at the worst area or coverage. All of these test golf courses retro-fit new nozzles into the sprinkler heads on the golf course.

These are the comments by the golf course superintendents after the sprinkler nozzle retro-fit:

“Dry spots and wet spots are much less numerous”
“We are able to run sprinkler heads longer without puddling”
“Turf areas had many donuts throughout the course. The new nozzles evenly distributed the water, reducing and eliminating this issue on my golf course.”
“After installing the new nozzles I was able to reduce the ET (evapotranspiration) demand 5% lower than the previous year.”
“Significantly improved coverage”
“Less water around head, less disruption of head position with mud and mess.”
“Better performance in higher elevation pressure sensitive areas”
“Well worth the investment.”
“It has reduced our hand-watering requirements, perhaps saving around $8,000 per year.”
“Absolutely would recommend the (nozzle) change given a similar situation.”

Not all superintendents were able to document a net savings in water and energy, but all 5 superintendents did see improvements in turfgrass quality and better water distribution. According to the CIT study the basic lessons learned are:

· It is very important to know the distribution uniformity of your existing irrigation system.

· If improvement is warranted (based on the irrigation audit), then evaluate the numerous options available. These options include, but are not limited to, pressure changes, sprinkler changes, spacing changes, and/or nozzle changes.

· It is highly recommended that the superintendent seek out professional consultation in selecting the correct replacement nozzles, as simply replacing nozzles may not achieve the desired results.

As responsible users of our water resources we are in a position to be proactive. Taking steps now to evaluate your golf course’s irrigation system will reinforce your commitment to wise use of this finite natural resource. A golf irrigation audit will often uncover inefficiencies that can be corrected with simple maintenance practices. For example; a sprinkler nozzle is a simple and low cost remedy to distribution inefficiencies. If a superintendent acquired irrigation audit results leading to nozzle replacement and sprinkler head alignment as a leading factor in distribution problems the cost per head would be about $10.00 plus $8.00 labor. Assuming the golf course has 800 sprinkler heads, which equates to a retro-fit cost of $14,400. Adjusting for the increased efficiencies in distribution a golf course will often save irrigation run time and eliminate costly repairs associated with over-watering wet spots. Appling enough water to dry areas to keep turf green and healthy often leads to over-watering adjacent turf areas causing waterlogged conditions. Increases in turf playability and turf health can be difficult to measure, but be assured your regular player will notice that the puddles in the landing area of number 13 fairway have disappeared, he doesn’t necessarily know why, he just likes the extra roll, and now the ball sits-up to accept his perfectly executed shot.

Savings in energy and water alone will often justify the expenses, for example:

· The average U.S. golf course uses 51,000,000 gallons of water annually (157 Acre Feet).

· Let’s assume an acre foot of water (325,851 Gallons) cost $360 to deliver, (U.S. average energy and water cost) $56,520, per year.

· By increasing golf course watering efficiencies by 13% (the average yield of a nozzle retro-fit and head adjustment) a slightly greater than a 2 year payback can be realized, that does not take into consideration the improved playing conditions and repair of traffic ruts, soil compaction, and reduced turf density on over-watered areas.

Another Case study examines the irrigation system in a more graphical way, a golf course superintendent’s irrigation system, after retro-fit and head alignment, increased Distribution Uniformity from 60% to 70%. The turfgrass plants require 15.6 inches of water per year. Because of inefficiencies, the superintendent needed to apply 20.59 inches to be able to supply that turf with the poorest uniformity the needed 15.6 inches of water. If irrigation system uniformity can be increased only by 10% the superintendent will only have to apply 19 inches of water per year. It requires 27,154 gallons of water to cover one acre with one inch

If this golf course must purchase water for irrigation, here is an example of water purchase savings. Let’s assume that water is billed per unit, with a unit consisting of 1000 gallons. Divide 4.2 million gallons by 1000, the product is 4,236 units. At $1.40 per unit, a 10% increase in efficiency would yield a yearly savings of $5930.40.

The savings does not stop at water alone, if the pump station operates at 1000 gallons per minute, not pumping 4.24 million gallons of water would translate to a yearly hourly savings of 70 hours. With pump station average life expectancy of 15 years, that’s a savings of 1050 hours, that savings is near 132 days of pump station operation. The average 18-hole golf course in the north-east and mid-west areas of the United States, this savings can equate to one free year of pump station operation!

The cost savings alone should be justification enough to audit your golf course irrigation system, but there is the most important reason, it’s the right thing to do. By being a wise consumer of water, you as a responsible manager of our resources telegraph a message to government and community that golf cares about our valuable resources. If golf as an industry and a community professes to be stewards of the environment, our stewardship should begin by wisely using our limited resources to the best of our ability.

Golf course superintendents are some of the best water management professionals in the “Green Industry”. Be assured that in the no-to-distant future golf courses will be regulated with some type of water budget. The following is a checklist of Best Management Practices (BMP) for irrigation system use and maintenance:

· Irrigate to a depth just below active rooting.

· Observe irrigation system pump station for pressure and flow, compare with design parameters.

· Sloped areas and compacted soils will need to be irrigated in short, frequent intervals.

· Periodically test the irrigation system to make sure it is producing an acceptable level of uniformity (DU).

· Use ET modeling to establish baseline irrigation programs.

· Have frequent system checks for sprinkler head rotation, leaks, level head-to-surface adjustment and arc adjustment.

· Have a written plan or protocol for limited water use or water restrictions in your area.

Carry a soil probe to examine soil moisture at root depth.

· Know how much water you use!

At McMahon Group we now offer this valuable golf course irrigation audit by an Irrigation Association trained and certified auditor. We, at McMahon Group do not have any affiliation with golf irrigation products or companies that supply golf irrigation. We audit your irrigation system from an unbiased position and recommend money saving and better playing conditions without regard to irrigation companies.

For more information on how a golf course irrigation audit can improve turf conditions and save valuable water resources and operational expense call or e mail, Michael Vogt, CGCS, CGIA, at McMahon Group.

Irrigation audits are valuable tools to fine tune your golf course irrigation system and demonstrate that your management efforts are aimed at conservation and environmental responsibility.

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