Golf course reclaim "lost" land

Reclaim--To make suitable for cultivation or habitation-- This definition aptly, if only generally, describes the process by which increasing numbers of golf courses come into being. Of course, it says nothing of the complexity of the reclamation process or the fact that the term describes a great variety of projects. Golf courses have been constructed over abandoned mines, quarries, landfills and hazardous-waste sites spoiled by all manner of contaminants.

The current trend started as a few projects that demonstrated how, with proper engineering and construction, sites that nobody wanted could become parks, golf courses or other recreation facilities--tangible community assets. Such endeavors seem to be can't-lose projects that satisfy almost everyone (or at least don't offend anyone). That's why the number of reclamation projects involving golf courses continues to increase.


That doesn't mean reclamation projects have no drawbacks. They can be quite expensive and require unique engineering and design expertise. In a few cases, their primary impetus has been that they simply are the least costly solution to cleaning up a contaminated site. But that's exactly what makes these projects so important--they don't just create new golf courses, they solve problems, too. A closer look at a few such projects illustrates the challenges and successes of these courses.

Industrial sites turned recreational * Old Works Golf Course. Anaconda, Mont., had been the home of a copper-smelting facility operated by Anaconda Mining Co. since 1884. Atlantic Richfield Co.--the petroleum firm better known as ARCO--purchased Anaconda Mining in 1977 and subsequently closed the smelting plant. Unfortunately, ARCO was left with an environmental nightmare and an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate to do something about it: either remove the material and fence the site in perpetuity or else devise another plan for coping with the spoiled site. Working with members of the local community, ARCO settled on a plan that eventually resulted in Old Works Golf Course, which opened in 1997 with much fanfare.

Nicklaus Design worked with Roe & Son Construction (Big Timber, Mont.) to develop the course. ARCO bankrolled the effort and then turned the facility over to the community of Anaconda. The EPA had its ever-watchful eye on the project--a designated Superfund site--and the ultimate cost was about $11 million for the course itself and another $30 million for additional cleanup. Although this is a far higher cost than a typical golf course, it is considerably less than the $65 million ARCO estimates it would have cost just to remove the waste and fence the site. Plus, according to Sandy Stash, ARCO's Montana facilities manager, "What we saved in lawyer's fees paid for the golf course." The result is a real benefit to the community, not a just an unusable, fenced-off piece of land.

The plan included extensive measures to minimize the threat of water contamination--a factor in all developments but especially critical in reclamation projects. At Old Works, waste material (crushed rock with high copper and zinc content) was consolidated, the course contoured and, finally, capped with a layer of limestone and 16 inches of soil. An extensive drainage system prevents excess water from leaching through the metal-laden material. To ensure the site is functioning as planned, water quality is monitored continually, and all future earth-moving activity must accommodate the soil cap that covers the mining material. That means that even tree planting must accommodate the integrity of the cap: any material removed from a planting hole must be replaced in its original position.

The legacy of Anaconda Mining is not all bad. Recognizing the historic appeal of the mining operation, Nicklaus incorporated many old relics into the course's layout (see photo, page 17). Plus, the bunkers hold not white sand, but slag--a dark-colored byproduct of the smelting process--giving the course a unique look. Players even report that the slag is a bit more forgiving to hit from than sand!

Researchers are watching Old Works closely to track future performance, but so far, it is a success story--for golf, the environment and the community of Anaconda--that's worth emulating.

Non-hazardous landfills * Industry Hills. Perhaps more than any other site of its kind, Industry Hills is noted as a reclamation success story. Located in the City of Industry, Calif. (in the heart of the Los Angeles metropolis), Industry Hills overlies a former municipal landfill that closed in 1969. Work on the reclamation project began in 1976. This 600-acre facility is much more than a golf course and includes tennis, swimming and equestrian facilities, as well as a hotel and conference center. In spite of its relatively old age, Industry Hills continues to be an example of how to doit right.

Landfills are hazardous waste sites. Therefore, like other sites so designated, an essential part of any plan to develop a landfill site is to prevent water from leaching through the waste and into ground water. A clay cap over the top of the waste is the typical solution. At Industry Hills, the cap is 10 to 15 feet thick, thanks to the movement of more than 5 million cubic yards of fill. This allowed contouring to proceed with confidence that adequate thickness remained afterward and minimized the problems of other landfill courses with thinner caps. For example, some have had to cope with garbage that worked its way to the surface. But, as you'll see, more serious problems can result from a thin cap.

At all landfill sites, certain inevitable processes demand attention. For example, ground settling has been significant at Industry Hills. The results range from broken irrigation lines to more serious consequences, such as one green that literally cracked in half (see photo, above). According to Kent Davidson, Industry Hills' superintendent of 13 years, "The site continues to settle but to a lesser degree than when it first opened. We now have fewer surface depressions and broken PVC pipes. However, I expect that settlement will continue indefinitely."

Another unavoidable consequence of using landfill sites is landfill gas (LFG). Composed of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases, LFG is the inevitable by-product of the decomposition of landfill waste. At Industry Hills, a system of wells (perforated pipe sunk into the ground) and piping divert LFG to vents which, at times, can be lit to burn off the gas. All reclaimed landfill sites now use such a system. However, the Industry Hills plan went one step further and used the LFG to run boilers. These provide heat and power to various facilities at Industry Hills, including the hotel and conference center. Methane generation is declining now (as expected), forcing Industry Hills to rely more on outside energy to satisfy its needs. But using LFG has resulted in substantial savings.

Even if a landfill site does not use its methane for power or heat, it must deal with it. Without some way to divert LFG, it seeps toward the surface, finding its way into the root zone. The main problem with methane is not that it is directly toxic. Rather, it displaces oxygen, causing anaerobic soil conditions. Landfill courses without LFG-collection systems and those with thin caps have had serious LFG problems. But, even with an extensive system such as the one at Industry Hills, LFG still can be troublesome. Davidson was even forced to replace some greens as the turf died out. The replacement greens were underlined with plastic to prevent re-occurrence of the problem (see photo, above left). According to Davidson, "SCS Field Services (Long Beach, Calif.) routinely monitors for surface gas emissions. In two instances, migration into the root zone has required installation of new recovery wells and expansion of the collection system."

These problems are minor compared to the overall success at Industry Hills, however. Its two 18-hole courses, Zaharias and Eisenhower, each see about 60,000 rounds each year, and the other recreational facilities are a valuable resource for the surrounding community. Plus, its contributions to the environment do not stop at reclaiming a landfill. Industry Hills uses effluent water for all of its irrigation. It also participates in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

Not surprising for such a large facility, a crew of about 60 people is required to keep the landscape and courses in top shape. Satsuma Landscaping (for which Davidson works) maintains all the grounds, including the golf courses. Pamela Pavela, the superintendent in charge of landscaping, puts an ornamental finish on a landscape whose sophistication goes much deeper than its superficial beauty.

Industry Hills, rightfully so, is touted as a model for others planning similar undertakings, such as another landfill site slated for development in West Covina, literally within eyeshot of Industry Hills. Some of the experiences gained here will be used in planning this new 18-hole facility.

The quandry of quarries and mines * Black Diamond Ranch. Abandoned quarries are increasingly popular sites for golf courses. Such sites typically have little worth once their value as quarries is depleted. However, in spite of the construction obstacles they may impose, their topography often makes them attractive golf-course sites--at least from a designer's perspective. Developer Stan Olson turned one such quarry into a course that's gaining recognition as both a spectacular Tom Fazio design and an environmental success story.

Black Diamond Ranch (Lecanto, Fla.) is a former limestone quarry that produced gravel and lime for concrete and agriculture. Several large, open pits punctuated a landscape that otherwise was composed of trees and rolling terrain. The pits presented challenges but also opportunities. Tom Marzolf, a senior designer with Fazio Golf Course Designers Inc., notes, "When we went out to this site the first time, we thought, 'Wow! Imagine what we could do with this!' [The most damaged part of the property] ended up becoming the focal point of the golf course."

Protecting water quality was a priority at Black Diamond because one of the deeper quarries (about 90 feet deep) had penetrated an aquifer used for drinking water. As Marzolf explains, "If we decided to put golf into this quarry, we would have to protect the lake throughout the construction process so that no damage would be done to the ground water. We buffered the golf holes from the banks of the lake by putting in linear waste bunkers. We also installed grass catchment areas that would act as dry ponds. We piped all [the drainage from] the golf holes--into the dry pond areas, which would act as a filter. The runoff water would dissipate rather than feeding into the lake.

"Just by diverting water and shaping the holes to protect the lake, we were able to use the quarry and get some spectacular golf holes. Some of the cliffs are 60 to 80 feet tall. It's dramatic golf--it was a great use of this land. In the process of building a golf course we were able to clean up an abandoned mine site and protect the long-term integrity of the aquifer."

According to Marzolf, Black Diamond was one of the first successful golf courses on a quarry site. Now, people are searching for such sites. "This has started a trend of people actually looking for abandoned mines for new golf courses," he states proudly.

* Heritage Bluffs. A different sort of quarry existed in Channahon, Ill., near Chicago. There, an old sand-and-gravel pit has become Heritage Bluffs Public Golf Club. The Channahon Park District operates Heritage Bluffs, and the Director of Parks and Recreation Chuck Szoke is understandably proud of the positive reviews his course is receiving. As importantly, Heritage Bluffs' turned an eyesore into a beautiful course and did so in an environmentally sound and efficient manner. "In addition to the attractiveness of the mined areas for the golf-course design, the site contained wooded areas, wetlands and topography that gave the site great potential. The course design, by Dick Nugent Associates (Long Grove, Ill.), fit the course to these natural features, rather than trying to fight them or force a design onto the land.

"The Wadsworth Golf Construction Co. (Plainfield, Ill.) did an outstanding job of maximizing [on-site] resources," continues Szoke. "The project balanced perfectly; all necessary fill material, clay to line the lakes and black dirt for topsoiling, originated on site. The spoil piles were largely left intact as course features to define and separate fairways."

Sandy and gravelly soils are common in the Channahon area (which is why several pits still operate nearby). "We are somewhat used to working with them," says Szoke. Still, the lack of water-holding capacity means irrigation has to be "carefully monitored. On the plus side, drainage after rainfall is excellent."

* The Pete Dye Golf Course. Yet another type of mine site recently has been converted to golf. Having worked with several other reclaimed sites, including Blackwolf Run and the soon-to-open Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., noted designer Pete Dye recently oversaw the completion of the Pete Dye Golf Course, in Bridgeport, W.V.

This abandoned coal mine required extensive work to mitigate the damage wrought by the old operation. "It was a big area that they had mined before the government required restoration. There were humongous piles of what they call 'coal gob.' It's worthless stuff--It's an awful, oily material."

Something had to be done with the coal gob, and the solution was entombment. The goal was to prevent water from leaching through, picking up hazardous material and then contaminating surface or ground water. Dye summarizes the process: "You use a gravel bed and tiling around the outside [of the gob piles] so water flows around, then you use a heavy layer of clay over that, set all the material [gob] on it, and then wrap the clay around it like a blanket, creating a big mound. It'll be there 8 billion years," Dye jokes. "When someone in the future finds one of those hills, they'll wonder 'What in the world is this mound doing here?' It took 16 years to get that site cleaned up. The golf course only encompasses about 160 or 180 acres, but we cleaned up close to 500 or 600 acres in that area."

This is similar to the process used at Old Works, and at Blackwolf Run (also a Dye design), where foundry waste was entombed using gravel, tiling, clay and 30-mil plastic. Strolling down the fairways on this highly regarded course, you'd never suspect what lay beneath the turf.

Volcanoes? * Three Rivers Golf Course. As these case studies illustrate, reclamation can take many forms. But here's one for the books. It occurred in Kelso, Wash., near Mount St. Helens. This infamous volcano erupted in 1980, dumping ash and other volcanic material over enormous swaths of land. Subsequent rainfall washed much of it into rivers, disrupting drainage and threatening large areas with flooding. The Army Corp of Engineers responded by dredging the Cowlitz River, among others, to improve its flow.

The dredging operation left huge piles of material next to the Cowlitz, including a tract previously designated for what would become Three Rivers Golf Course. Designer Damien Pascuzzo, of Graves and Pascuzzo (Walnut Creek, Calif., and Bend, Ore.), describes the scene: "They started stockpiling the material on the site, and the drifts were enormous. They had 30- and 40-foot drifts throughout the site."

However, in an extraordinary stroke of luck, what at first seemed like a serious problem turned out to be a blessing in disguise. To determine if this material would make good fill, Pascuzzo continues, "Bob Graves [also of Graves and Pascuzzo] sent it off to have it analyzed, and it turns out that the particle size was very similar to a straight sand material, with very uniform particle size and the right amount of percolation and water retention to grow turfgrass, even on greens." In fact, it was so superior to the existing soil, the design firm decided to use the volcanic dredgings to contour the entire course, including greens and tees.

One of the peculiar characteristics of this dredged volcanic material is that its particle size is so uniform. The material spewed by Mount St. Helens consisted of everything from extremely fine ash to boulders, and it all washed into area rivers. However, just like the process that allows a simple "jar test" to determine soil texture proportions, the largest material that washed into the rivers settled out first, the finest material carried farthest and everything else in between graded out progressively according to size. Three Rivers Golf Course just happened to be along a stretch of the Cowlitz where this high-quality sand had settled out.

Yet another potential problem was turned into good fortune. As time passed and the Corp continued to dredge, Graves was becoming concerned about how long the operation would last. After several months of communicating with the Corp, an agreement was finally reached: The Corp could continue to dredge and dump material on the Three Rivers site for as long as necessary, but it also would grade the site for the golf course when it was done dredging. The Corp kept its word, and the sand is as deep as 34 feet in some places (see photo, below). Even bunkers were constructed with it. And so far, the turf at Three Rivers is performing nicely.

Although few courses have luck such as Three Rivers, most courses on reclaimed land don't have particularly unique maintenance challenges either. As noted, however, ongoing monitoring--such as for methane or water quality--often is a necessity, and ground settling is a fact of life atop landfills. However, proper design and construction that accommodates the existing situation typically results in adequate conditions for typical golf-course turf maintenance.

Even though reclamation projects tend to require large, complicated engineering schemes, the growing number of designers, builders and specialists with such experience makes them less experimental and more routine. Chad Ritterbusch, communications manager for the American Society of Golf Course Architects, estimates that a majority of their members now have some experience with reclaimed land. And, notes Ritterbusch, "It's critical to get someone who's done it before."

Unfortunately, the EPA and other agencies charged with overseeing and permitting projects do not grant any special favors to golf-course reclamation developments. Pete Dye, who has experienced this firsthand, remarks, "Once you take [a site] over, it's your obligation to clean it up, and they [EPA] are going to tell you how." Nevertheless, increasing expertise of designers and builders, plus the regrettable--but real--pressure against golf-course development on unspoiled land, ensures that the number of courses on reclaimed land should continue to grow. Of course, as Black Diamond Ranch demonstrated, some reclaimed quarries actually are prized as course sites because of their topography. Regardless of the site, nearly everyone agrees the results are worth the effort.

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