Area courses getting creative with water conservation

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Colorado golf courses are going to surprising, and in some cases extreme measures, to dampen water use.

The Broadmoor’s private greens aren’t as green anymore. Patty Jewett’s public course is undergoing renovation, planting drought-tolerant native grass cultivars.

Golf courses across the state have cut their water usage by 1.5 percent according to a 2002 study released by Colorado State University. Sounds unimpressive. Unless one takes into account that courses would have been justified using 20 percent more water under the dire, drier circumstances – a higher temperature range and even less precipitation than in years past.

“We got this strong sense that people were taking action to reduce water use but it didn’t show up in the numbers,” said Steve Davies, an agricultural and resource economist at CSU and principal investigator in the data collection for the study. “We didn’t see a lot of conservation in the data, but then we realized conservation methods were essential just to stay even.”

In other words, compared to a normal precipitation year, the amount of water courses used in 2002 would have been 26.5 percent under the national average, and 21.5 percent under Colorado’s mean.

In gallons, Colorado golf courses used nearly 15.8 trillion in 2001, and about 15.5 trillion in 2002. That works out to 10-15 gallons per square foot per year. To put that figure in perspective, owners of bluegrass lawns use 18 gallons per square foot annually.

Some golf courses are practicing conservation out of necessity. Others are doing it for financial or ecological reasons, still others to earn the coveted title of Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Through an association that began in 1991 between the United States Golf Association and Audubon International, golf courses take steps to curb water and chemical usage, promote wildlife habitat and incorporate native plant species.

Although local golfers can attest to the wildlife – wild turkeys waddle across the greens at the Broadmoor, and foxes steal golf balls from the fairways at Patty Jewett – what’s surprising is the technology behind the scenes that is tapped to control water use.

Three thousand sprinkler heads on the East and West courses at the Broadmoor are individually controlled by an elaborate computer system. An on-site weather station determines exactly what the turf’s needs are. “There’s no guesswork,” said Fred Dickman, director of golf maintenance. “There’s a lot of science behind it.”

In addition, the Broadmoor purchased new sprinkler heads so each head’s trajectory could be easily adjusted. “If there’s a tree in front of the head, you can adjust the nozzle so it doesn’t go underneath the tree and waste water.”

Patty Jewett uses technology called ET, which stands for evapotranspiration. The weather-based system takes into account wind, solar radiation, temperature and moisture, and calculates, using a formula, exactly what the turf grass loses during the day. “We replace that value at nighttime,” said Superintendent Pat Gentile. “For the last couple of years, we have used 80 percent of what it recommends.”

Gentile said Patty Jewett uses reclaimed water, city-treated water that was used once and failed to evaporate. “In the long run, that water filters through the turf grass and recharges the water below.”

According to the study, nearly every course statewide employed at least one water conservation technique in 2002. Eighty-five percent of courses used wetting agents, which work a lot like soap by spreading the water molecule to cover more surface area, and 76 percent eliminated irrigation in some areas. Seventy-four percent reduced irrigation, 71 percent adjusted fertilizer use and 70 percent hand-watered trees.

“I think it’s fairly clear that demand reduction played a big role in getting through the drought,” Davies said. “The fact that we were able to refill the reservoirs to a high degree was partly due to these measures.”

The CSU study, funded by the Colorado Golf Association and the Rocky Mountain Professional Golfers’ Association, inadvertently discovered that the state’s courses have a habit of using less water than the national mean by about 5 percent. Despite its arid environment, Colorado courses stepped up to the plate even before the drought demanded it – possibly because the state is somewhat accustomed to conserving the precious resource.

Twelve thousand acres of the state’s golf courses could be considered habitat for birds and small mammals, and more than 900 of those acres are maintained specifically for that purpose. And, as Dickman said, “The guests just love it.”

“In most instances, (wildlife habitat) areas can be identified because they are considered environmentally sensitive. Play in these areas is regulated by the USGA rules of golf,” said Joe McCleary, superintendent of Saddle Rock, one of seven public courses in Aurora. “Typically, these areas are wetland or other types of sensitive habitat.”

Saddle Rock also uses ET technology, and McCleary said staff members monitor irrigation requirements and system performance on a daily basis to conserve water.

The Broadmoor’s courses, certified as an Audubon Sanctuary since 1999, boast a big deer population, bears and Mountain Bluebirds in addition to the wild turkeys running around in the wildflowers. As a result of its certification, the Broadmoor had been implementing water conservation technology “even before this drought occurred,” Dickman said.

Although Patty Jewett’s playing surfaces – greens, tees and fairways – are not getting watered any more or less than usual, Gentile plans to cut the total water needed to maintain the course by replacing all the outlying grass – roughs and banks – with native grass species that “obviously require less water.”

Part of his intention is to become a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Working toward that goal, Patty Jewett employees are in the midst of a huge inventory, determining the acreage of native grass and turf area, water and chemical use, and the number of wildlife species. In addition to countless avian and plant species, Patty Jewett boasts foxes, coyotes and even beaver in the wetlands. After the inventory, what’s left? “Filling out the rest of their paperwork,” Gentile said ruefully.

It hasn’t been easy. “The plants were all under stress,” Dickman said.

But how do golfers feel about the less-than-green greens, and the currently-under-construction areas on their favorite courses?

Apparently, the lovers of the links were more than willing to do their part for the greater good.

“We did a golfer survey last fall, and people thought the courses were in good condition,” Davies said. “There was a sense that people thought the courses were doing pretty well on the lower amounts of water.”

“I don’t think anyone complained,” Gentile said. Perhaps at Patty Jewett, golfers have gotten used to seemingly odd requests. “Two years ago in the wintertime, we weren’t allowing as many carts on the fairways, so they weren’t doing as much damage,” said Gentile, who explains that less turf damage equals less water.

And at the Broadmoor, “everyone was very supportive,” Dickman said. “It’s always a challenge, irrigation, but in our opinion it’s one of the most critical factors out there.”