Water, Water Everywhere, But ...

Prudent Use of Water Resources Still Vital for Golf Courses

From the July/August Issue of FORE Magazine
By Jason Deegan

Google alerts about news media stories on water conservation barely trickle into Mike Huck’s in box anymore. Not so long ago, the flow was torrential.

Now that California’s drought has been declared over by Gov. Jerry Brown, Huck worries that residents in Southern California will ignore the topic. At the time of Brown’s declaration in March, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was reported to be 165 percent of normal – its deepest in 16 years – leaving key mountain reservoirs full to bursting.

But even with this abundance, Huck believes it’s no time to get complacent about one of the most important issues that Southern California golf courses face. Besides, the healthy supply is expected to have no effect whatsoever on the cost of water. And another drought could arrive at any time (the last one was declared by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as recently as 2008).

“We still need to keep looking at these things. Droughts come and go,” said Huck, a former golf course superintendent and United States Golf Association regional agronomist who is a consultant on recycled water, irrigation and turfgrass management in Southern California. “We might be back where started in a year or two. We might fall asleep at the wheel all over again.”

Despite the governor’s declaration, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is still under water restrictions. State Senate Bill X 7-7, passed in 2009, places local water districts under a mandate for 20 percent cutbacks by 2020 (a provision that is subject to review in 2015).

Since ballooning water bills place a considerable strain on the bottom line of any golf course, superintendents throughout the region believe there’s no sense abandoning water conservation projects that have proven effective. Clubs have taken different routes in their quests to save water, from removing turf to installing new irrigation systems to using reclaimed water. Many have even stopped overseeding with ryegrass in the winter because it takes extra water to revive the Bermuda grass.

Three courses in the San Fernando Valley – El Cariso GC, Woodland Hills CC and Porter Valley CC – have taken advantage of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Commercial/Industrial Drought Resistant Landscape Incentive Program to reduce their turf irrigable footprint by returning sections of their courses to nature.

El Cariso in Sylmar, operated by Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation, is a notable success story. For removing 6½ acres of turf in out-of-play areas and installing a more efficient irrigation system last year, it received $380,000 from the DWP – taking the form of a rebate for the irrigation system and $1 per square foot of turf removal. That covered nearly one-third of the total project cost.

“That was just a wonderful project,” said Jorge Badel, the county’s senior golf director. “In these difficult budgetary times, the cost savings on water allow us to provide other parks services. Golf is benefiting the recreational well-being of all of the residents, not just golfers. That’s important.”

There was also a residual benefit to El Cariso – aesthetics. “It added shape and contour to many holes on the course,” Badel said. “It’s the same hole, but with the shaping of the compacted granite areas, it’s accentuated the contour of the holes. We’ve received many compliments for this from golfers and the clubs.”

El Cariso’s improvements grew out of the county’s participation on the Golf Industry Water Conservation Task Force, which was jointly created by the DWP and the local golf community, including the SCGA. It is charged with enhancing water conservation at the 35 golf courses under the jurisdiction of the DWP.

Another club that took advantage of the DWP’s incentive program was Porter Valley in Northridge. It removed roughly one quarter of its turf last year, taking out 27 acres that were mostly out of play, leaving 70 acres of turf that is watered by irrigation.

“The biggest challenge was to convince the members and neighbors it was a good idea,” Superintendent Don Johnson said. “We killed grass. Twenty acres of dead grass is quite a conversation piece. But almost all the new plants are native to the coastal valley. It has been a good project. Most of the new members love the new look.”

Porter Valley also replaced its irrigation system in 2006, a strategy that courses with older versions should consider. Lakeside GC in Toluca Lake is in the midst of replacing its irrigation system by laying a dual main line pipe system for reclaimed water at a cost in the ballpark of $2 million, according to Superintendent Robert Hertzing.

Hertzing said the new system – which will sprinkle recycled water on the course and potable water on the greens – is scheduled to be completed this fall.

“We are taking clean water to the greens, so they will be successful,” he said. “We are using the lower-quality water on the rest of the course. By investing in this system, we are able to do that efficiently. We are investing in being able to use alternate water sources. It’s the prudent thing to do.”

Hertzing estimated that savings from new irrigation systems typically don’t pay for themselves for at least 20 years. Instead, the real savings come from avoiding broken equipment and the labor costs it takes to fix them.

Woodland Hills CC removed seven acres (of the 70 in its layout) within the past year, and hopes to cut its $360,000 annual water bill by roughly 10 percent, Superintendent Steve Sinclair said.

Bel-Air CC is in the midst of a 17-year plan that combines water conservation with improved turf management. Superintendent Brian Sullivan, a member of the LADWP/Golf Conservation Committee, indicated that the club has taken a number of steps in recent years:

· Converting a polystand of fairway grasses including Bermuda, kikuyu, Poa annua and perennial ryegrass to a singular hybrid Bermuda that uses less water.
· Removing turf under densely tree-lined fairways and replacing it with mulch.
· Using a new irrigation system with 90 percent distribution uniformity instead of the 65 percent common just a few years ago.
· Replacing a nonfunctioning well last year in one portion of the golf course at a cost of $400,000.

By blending the well water, Sullivan said, the club intends to conserve approximately 25 percent more water. He added that the club would consider digging another well in the future “if all goes well.”

Universal access to recycled or reclaimed water would be an ideal solution for many courses looking to conserve, although building the infrastructure will take millions of dollars and years to complete. Sinclair hopes his Woodland Hills course has access to reclaimed water as soon as possible, and noted that “[city officials] are starting to talk about it.”

Johnson said it will be much more difficult to get reclaimed water to his Porter Valley course. “We are pretty far and uphill (from any water lines),” he said. “They will have issues to get it to us.”
Huck remains bullish that water conservation awareness must not melt away, even with all that surplus in the hills. “The drought is over, but can we go back?” he said. “Not really. We’ve got pieces in the puzzle driving us to conservation.”