Thursday, August 20, 2009

Water Waste on Golf Turf

By Michael Vogt, CGCS, CGIA
Mr. Superintendent, how do you arrive at the amount of water needed to apply to the golf course each night?

While I have made this decision on countless occasions I have tried to answer this one myself. The best answer I could come up with was, “I was on the course all day, by experience I programmed for what I though would be the correct amount of water”. Based on what? Temperature, humidity, cloud cover, wind speed, weather forecast and of course moon phase, no, ET. The weather station gives us a fancy number that relates to Evapotranspiration. This seven syllable wonder was to be the savior of the golf world, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

While measuring ET is good what about the water left in the soil from other irrigation events, the soil moisture bank? Distribution uniformity tells us that the only part of the irrigation pattern will perform as specified; chances are most superintendents’ water based on the bottom of distribution efficiency, thus wet and dry spots. Soil texture is another factor as well as slope, angle of incidence and the list goes on. Is a small amount of wilted or dormant turf a deal breaker in turf management?

Waste is a very powerful word, based on what I know now I have wasted vast amounts of money, money that wasn’t mine and water that probably contributed to the infestation of the dreaded Poa annua and poor, sometimes soggy playing conditions. All in the name of member’s suggestions, pride, color, lack of knowledge and ease of just pushing a few buttons and just letting the water fly.

When I took my first job as golf course superintendent I would travel down the fairways with my handy soil probe, take a sample and roll the soil between my thumb and index finger. If the Illinois clay held together in a thin two or three inch ribbon, no water tonight. In the early 80s I inherited a golf course with quick – coupler valves and a night waterman that was more like Caddy Shack assistant Carl. We were more inclined to water fairways for 45 minutes each valve with the Rain Bird 808 or the featherweight Buckner all brass model 900.

The 12 pound, all brass, Buckner fairway sprinkler

The old fashion water systems and techniques didn’t have the flexibility of modern-day computer operated systems but on the other hand it seemed that we rarely had problems with overwatering, turf was mostly on the dry-side. The flexibility mentioned with computer controlled systems may be one of the causes of over watering, you think? With percent adjust, weather stations, repeat cycles, condition inputs, oversized pipe sizes, triple-row fence to fence sprinklers and pump stations that produce 3500 GPM at 120 PSI. The irrigation systems today may have advanced faster than the ability and or knowledge to operate them. Now, soil sensors to tell the superintendent the moisture, salinity, and temperature below the soil surface, what might be the unintended consequences here? The sensor is only reporting on the exact spot at which it is located.

An informal survey I read indicated only a small fraction of superintendents recently conducted an irrigation audit. Irrigation audits are very telling, reveling weak portions of the irrigation system. Furthermore, why must the irrigation system be broken to be maintained? Irrigation techs are often assigned to repair rather than maintain. If an irrigation system was maintained from installation it would be far less expensive to operate. Waste, this is golf course waste at its worst; electricity, water, fertilizer, sod, life span, chemical inputs. All of the aforementioned because poor irrigation efficiency. Golf course superintendents like the words “stewards of the environment”; it rolls off the tongue very nicely. Check your water delivery system, if it’s not delivering at least 70% distribution uniformity your not treating the environment to your stewardship.

I was reading and article from 1981 in the USGA Green Section Record by Mel Lucas, Past President of the GCSAA ( Twenty eight years later that article could be as topical today as then. These are some excerpts:

“When you are about to waste anything, stop for a moment and consider the energy needed to produce it. It has been said that half the world could exist on what the other half wastes. No commodity illustrates this statement more than the most taken for granted commodity on earth - water. It is the most wasted, overused, and the most precious natural resource in many areas of the world.”


“With the improper management and wasteful consumption of water by so many people, it is no surprise that there is a severe water shortage in many areas of our nation. We all must share the burden of conservation; if we do not, we will have only ourselves to blame if and when the well runs dry!”

Shinnecock Hills, #15 Green

Want good greens; keep them DRY, hand water, this we know. What about tees, fairways and roughs; heavy water, let them dry, then heavy water, repeat as needed, kind of like shampoo directions. The dry, firm and fast conditions have always been vogue only on the highest maintained turf of elite courses such as the National Golf Links of America, Maidstone and Garden City Golf Club. The architecture lends these courses to the wind-blown look of links style golf but why can’t park style courses emulate this management style. Is it the Augusta Syndrome?

I guess it’s harder to let the tiger go than to catch him by the tail! In an effort to trick, bamboozle, fool and outsmart Mother Nature we have created a golf monster that expects lush swamps that bred algae, grow fungus, promote weed encroachment and limit bad lies and good ball roll in the ultimate effort to provide perfect on the tee, on the green, in the sand bunker and Through-the-Green conditions.

It all about the water. How do you use water, I’ll bet things haven’t changed much in 28 years.

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