Making Every Drop Count

Over the years, breathtaking panoramic desert scenery has attracted many an Easterner to situate a golf course in the Southwest. Adapting to the sunny dry climate was not a chore. It was expected that cold climate turfgrasses could root compatibly into the sandy loam. They were laid and watered as needed. However, now in a time when water shortages necessitate restrictions on usage in drought-affected regions, so much so as to become part of a mandated household routine, golf course superintendents must oversee and ensure maintenance of the transplant grasses. Even with a turf that is adaptable to dry conditions, where water restrictions aren't imposed, water management practices have become the standard operating procedure and are here to stay.


“It's good business to save water,” maintains Allen Brown, superintendent at Plum Creek Golf & Country in Castle Rock, Colo., a town where watering is restricted to mornings and evenings and is scheduled by property address. Brown explains, “We don't have to deal with a water shortage because we have our own well, but we conserve anyway. Even though we operate our own well, we still have to pay to maintain it and to pump water out to where it goes. The whole business of moving water around is very expensive. So the less we water, the better off we are financially. It comes down to economics.”

Brown has implemented a number of practices that are now standard procedure in caring for the bentgrass, fine fescue and Kentucky bluegrass turf areas. His recommendations include:

  • When mowing, raise the blade ½ inch to promote better rooting. The shorter the grass, the shorter the roots.

  • Moderate the fertilizer. Overfertilizing pushes growth.

  • Wherever possible, avoid traffic on the turf. Reducing water reduces the plant's ability to recuperate from damage.

  • Use soil penetrants or wetting agents to reduce the tension in water for easier movement into and through the soil, rather than beading up to run off or evaporate. Spot treat problem areas, applying the wetting agents with a spray tank or a proportioner, which hooks on to the end of a hose. (For more on wetting agents, see “Getting Water In,” on page 14.)

  • Cultivate the soil by aeration. Brown aerates in the spring and fall, helping water penetrate into the soil where it's needed most.


A water shortage is not the issue for greenskeeper Brian Rhodes when he is watching how much he waters the Sonora Golf Course in Sonora, Texas. His restrictions are associated with the cost of pumping the well water. Rhodes watches for leakage around sprinkler heads and has cut down on watering areas that don't really need it. He quit watering the driving range regularly a few years ago, now only doing so to establish the seeds and to avoid dust storms.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources allocates about 4.5-acre-feet of water per turf acre per year to the Golf Club at Vistoso in Tucson, Ariz. What the department doesn't realize is that the wall-to-wall grass that superintendent Terry Todd oversees is a winter turf. The ‘Penn Links’ turfgrass that grows on the course, although now it is a grass that is adapted to growth in the desert, was planted there by eastern transplants to the high desert valley region. It now more accurately would require 5-acre-feet of water per turf acre. Golf course watering is based on nightly values for that day or on evaporation. But on the greens, says Todd, “We water heavily about once every seven days to get the roots as deep as we can and flush the salts though the profile. Everything else, the fairways, tees and roughs, are watered nightly.”

The Golf Club at Vistoso and the private Stone Canyon Club where Todd is also director of golf course operations, will be switching from potable water to effluent water in July. Todd is concerned about entering the summer season and starting on the new source, with its high salts, nutrients and nitrogen levels. Todd concludes, “It'll be a little different ball game. When we go to 100 percent effluent, we can use as much water as we need. But we'll have to flush the greens more frequently to flush the salts through the profile. Our water costs are going to triple from using potable water vs. effluent. We'll probably be watering in a deficit mode just because of the cost of the water.”


Water shortages have not been much of an issue in the Midwest in recent years. To alleviate the problem in the past though, Mark Jackson, manager of golf course operations for Davey Tree Corporation in Pontiac, Mich., opted to dig another well. If there were not enough finances for that, his recourse was to operate on a priority basis, only watering greens. With the next scheduled watering, he says, “We watered only tees, then with the next gulp of water, only fairways; basically, only keeping the most important things alive.”

Jackson occasionally went to watering every other day, when ponds were not able to regenerate from rainwater. He recalls, “At a golf course in Grosse Pointe, Mich., fortunately, they let us water at night time when nobody was using bathrooms and showers, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. It definitely had to be done by 6 a.m. because that's when the biggest rush was and golfers don't like to get wet.”

“Just because the course is green doesn't mean we are misusing water,” says Mike Springs, golf course superintendent of the Rio Grande Club in South Fork, Colo., of the common misconception. “Area farmers, ranchers and concerned citizens are finally believing that golf courses are, in most cases, far more technologically advanced, capable and committed to being water-use conscious. They realize our irrigation system is far more efficient than any center pivot or flood irrigation system and we are using as little water as possible to keep our crop alive compared to the potato or hay farm systems in the area. We are slowly winning the battle but it's not an easy task. The fact is, most superintendents prefer drier, firmer conditions, so we are always pushing the edge, cutting back water, pre-stressing the plants, relying on our soils, fertility and management practices to cheat the eye.”

According to Springs, it's all about effective water management practices, efficient field observation, cultural and fertility practices and cooperation from mother nature.

Springs reports twice a day to district water commissioners from flume measurement readings that show the amount of natural surface water leaving the property. The data provide what maximum pumping rate is allowable to fill the holding pond. Then based on availability, Springs decides on how aggressively or lightly to water.

The club is on a large-scale ranch that has extensive surface water rights. Even so, Springs' intent is to do everything possible to conserve. He contends, “We use a lot of wetting agents and do a lot of hand watering. We have used a phenomenally low percentage of our actual available water. During the 2001 to 2004 seasons, we endured some of the worst droughts in 108 years of recorded history, but still managed to grow the golf course and conserve water. It takes a dedicated crew, lots of man hours spent hand watering, and constant irrigation system adjustments, tweaking, additions and more to make every drop count.”

Clare Adrian is a freelance writer who resides in Columbia, Mo.

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