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Johnny Pond asks, ‘Why do new courses have more water than older designs?’
In all design fields, customer demand and outside influences like construction technology and government regulations affect design.
Modern golfers demand better irrigation and drainage than their predecessors. Modern governments also require golf courses to serve double-duty as flood-control areas and environmental filters. As a result, virtually every golf course requires an irrigation reservoir and others require flood detention, or environmental filtering lakes. In flat places like Florida, it's often necessary to dig long, narrow lakes adjacent to each fairway to provide drainage outlets.
Lastly, earthmoving has become easier, and relative to other construction costs, less expensive. Modern architects tend to move more earth for aesthetic and practical reasons, and lakes provide good earth-cut sources to build golf course features.
Flood control/detention lake sizes are usually dictated by an engineer, while the golf course architect determines irrigation lake size, based on design considerations like minimum emergency, normal storage volume and permissible water-level fluctuations.
Large lakes provide insurance when the water-refill supply is shut off temporarily for repair. Irrigation lakes should store seven to 10 days of peak irrigation water needs since repairs always seem to be inconveniently necessary in the heat of summer! Courses using 300,000 to 1 million gallons per day need 3 million to 10 million gallons (about 10 to 30 acre-feet) of storage, which requires a minimum water surface of 2 to 6 acres.
Large irrigation lakes have better aesthetics because they maintain more constant water levels after withdrawing necessary water for nightly irrigation. We size irrigation lakes just large enough to minimize water fluctuations to less than 6 inches, to reduce exposure of unsightly, unsafe, and erosion-prone mud banks. The courses above that size would maintain a maximum lake-level drop of 6 inches, while smaller lakes might drop an unacceptable amount.
It is possible to make irrigation lakes too large, as larger lakes lose more water to evaporation. If the course buys water, they hate to see it literally "disappear into thin air," so we keep non-irrigation lakes as small as possible to minimize evaporation for aesthetic/hazard lakes.
We dig lakes at least 8 feet deep to provide more irrigation storage without additional evaporation (as water evaporates from the surface only) and minimize algae growth by preventing sunlight penetration to the lake bottom – which goes no deeper than 8 feet.
I don't favor including so-called "safety shelves" on lakes. They reduce irrigation-lake capacity, and I have heard of golfers wading onto these shelves to retrieve balls specifically because it was shallow, whereas a steep drop-off takes balls away from the shore, reducing temptation. I'm sure a lawyer could argue either unfortunate case.
Some golfers complain that modern lakes don't look natural. In part, that is because we typically construct a hard surface around the edges now. We find we minimize erosion by adding hard surface like riprap, concrete bags, Gabion walls, and formal retaining walls of timber, stone, or cast iron above water level. Where water levels will fluctuate, extending hard surface below water level allows that, disguising the changing water levels better than mud banks during dry periods.
While none looks natural, they are effective at keeping the lake edge stable, and that is the price we pay for practicality.