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Floe N. Watters asks, ‘Golf courses waste enormous amounts of water, don’t they?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


The answer is an unqualified "No!" Many people believe that, simply because larger turf sprinklers are so visible, but golf courses use far less water than people think. Most people are surprised to hear that more than 80 percent of current fresh-water use goes to agriculture. Where we have designed golf courses on former farmland, the golf courses use only one-third the water it took to keep the crops going.

That makes sense, since turf came into widespread use because it needed far less water and maintenance. There were beautiful lawns well before the invention of irrigation, albeit, very few of them existed in desert climates.

Less than 20 percent of water usage occurs in all urban uses, from people taking baths (please, don’t cut back on that to save water!) to watering lawns and golf courses. Even for irrigation, the total acreage devoted to lawns dwarfs golf course acreage. Therefore, while water conservation is necessary, shutting down water to golf courses would not solve water shortages (if any), so I don’t understand why it’s such a politically popular idea.

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Modern superintendents practice water conservation, using the newest generation of irrigation systems, weather monitors and computer control that allow them to apply precisely the necessary irrigation water to supplement Mother Nature. These tools let today's superintendents put down far less water than their predecessors’. While some critics think superintendents just “turn 'em on full blast,” their computerized irrigation systems can create a chart showing just how and when they need water, and when they do water. The accompanying chart shows how sensitive the superintendent at the Quarry at Giants Ridge can be.

His weather monitor determines nightly turf-moisture loss, which is typically 0.1 to 0.15 inch. He uses the “checkbook method,” putting back precisely that lost amount. He doesn’t water every night, though. If the need is small, he waits a few days – knowing that turf can go thirsty, just as humans can – and if rain is forecast, he may skip irrigating another day.

The Quarry had severe winter burn, necessitating heavy spring watering. As summer progressed, water was applied as necessary. That shows that highest water applications corresponded with, not surprisingly, the driest periods, and many days required no water application. Some small applications correspond to watering in fertilizer applications, as is good practice.

The chart shows the superintendent used only 26 million gallons of water for the year. I calculated the “theoretical” need for irrigation, based on weather data, and it came to 26 million gallons, meaning he applied precisely the amount of irrigation necessary to grow the course in for opening (which usually requires more moisture) and keep the turf healthy without over-watering a bit.

I expect further calls for water reductions on golf courses and other uses. If so, we can expect browner courses in outer areas, but it’s hard to imagine golfers giving up putting surface, tee and fairway quality they have gotten used to. We may get some help from science, in the form of newly developed turfgrass strains that resist both drought and disease.

As a designer, I expect firmer, faster conditions as a result of water restrictions, and try to design golf holes that will play well under those conditions when they arise.