2002: Superintendent News - Survey reveals a personal approach to irrigation

By Frank S. Rossi, Ph.D.

To listen to superintendents espouse the benefits of the latest irrigation technology leaves the impression that water is used sparingly and precisely. This, however, would be the wrong conclusion. It seems disingenuous to neglect the price of green. It’s also important to do as much as possible to promote efficient water management.

That’s especially the case now owing to prolonged droughts in some regions. A good portion of the eastern seaboard is bracing for severe water use restrictions. Florida has been in various stages of water restrictions for the last few years. The National Drought Monitoring Center’s Drought Monitor (http://drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html) indicates more than half of the country is experiencing some form of drought.

Turfgrass research has focused on the biological implications of species and cultivar selection and nonpotable water, with less attention on scheduling and virtually none on system and golf course design. Yet from a superintendent’s perspective, the design and, more importantly, the flexibility of an irrigation system are where the “rubber hits the road” when it comes to water management.

Water use

Superintendents have learned the importance of being involved in regulatory discussions, especially with water advisory boards that set watering restrictions. Advisory boards meet to clarify exact water needs and how golf courses are irrigated.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission manages water resources in a 27,000 square mile watershed through New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Water Resource scientist Mike Brownell is responsible for permitting new projects in the basin and monitoring consumption by golf courses.

“When we put flow meters on the intake pipe on golf courses, it is clear golf course superintendents are using much more water than they think, or maybe even need,” Brownell said.

He has found that during the irrigation season the 30-day-average use is 142,000 gallons per day, with peak use of 275,000 gpd. To water 2.5 acres of bentgrass greens requires approximately 15,500 gpd.

The SRBC reports high use for a 30-day period was between 736,000 and 828,000 gpd for one whole course, to a low of 89,000 gpd watering only greens and tees. High volumes of water extracted from streams suggests a deep and infrequent approach to irrigation. Brownell says the deep, infrequent philosophy can have a significant influence on environmental quality by lowering water levels, thereby altering the stream environment for aquatic life. He recommends pumping more regularly at lower volumes and storing water on-site. This mitigates the high draws from a stream while still allowing the superintendent to pump aggressively from an on-site storage area.

In an effort to more thoroughly understand how superintendents make irrigation decisions, the SRBC conducted a survey of golf courses in the basin. Superintendents were asked about the amount and frequency of irrigation. There were no relationships among courses of similar grass and soil types, nor of topography and expected conditioning standards. The only consistent result was that irrigation amounts were different for every course, suggesting that a superintendent’s approach to irrigating was a greater factor than grass or soil type.

One might be surprised by the personal nature of irrigation strategies, since they can be imprecise. On the other hand, with the variety of microenvironments that exist on a golf course, the variability from one facility to another could indicate site-specific irrigating. For instance, large volumes of water are being used in a region where historical weather records suggest only three months of precipitation deficit.

Is the industry doing all it can to use the minimum amount of water, or are we simply making broad-stroke adjustments that uniformly alter run times? Are we activating four heads in a zone when we need only one head or should we be using a hose?

Site specific irrigation

Top of the line irrigation systems with all the “bells and whistles” might cost more to begin with but are likely to save money and water in the long term. This assumes that when new systems are purchased, designed and implemented, the superintendent embraces the technology and finds ways to utilize sophisticated controls integrated with weather stations and even soil moisture sensors. An extensive approach like this strives to add precision and removes ambiguity associated with the “art or feel” of irrigation.

In the mid-1990s, Apple Computer conducted a survey of various age groups regarding their perception and use of computer technology. There was an important finding relative to the irrigation technology discussion. Most people new to computer technology used less than 10 percent of the computing power available to them on a personal computer. The study concluded people over age 50 used a computer basically as a typewriter.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who embrace new technology and see the benefits. Erick Holm, CGCS, superintendent at Hop Meadow Country Club in Simsbury, Conn., who from 1985 to 2001 was at Onondaga Golf & Country Club in Fayetteville, N.Y., is among those able to integrate the latest technology (science) with a feel (art) for golf turf irrigation.

At Onondaga, Holm went from limited flexibility with irrigation zones and heavy reliance on hand-watering to maximum flexibility with less need for it. His old irrigation system had six heads per zone while his new system provided individual head control. In two summers with similar weather conditions and different irrigation systems, Onondaga reduced the amount of total man hours per season for hand-watering from 290 to 85.

Holm was able to utilize important computer software to predict water loss measured as evapotranspiration (ET). Once a baseline water need was established, he adjusted greens differently than fairways to a certain percentage of ET. He further adjusted to compensate for microenvironmental factors and immediate turf or soil conditions. This is true site-specific irrigation, the antithesis of the global adjustments made without regard for site conditions.

What’s next

“Soil monitoring is the final frontier in golf turf irrigation,” proclaims Paul Roche, the irrigation division manager for the S.V. Moffett Co. Inc. in West Henrietta, N.Y. Roche says many superintendents don’t use irrigation systems to their full potential.

Roche is an avid user of a personal digital assistant and demonstrates it when integrated with GPS/GIS. He just finished creating layers of information for Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., as part of its new irrigation system and in preparation for the 2003 PGA Championship to be hosted there. As a result , Oak Hill superintendent Paul B. Latshaw will have access to cables, drainage and course irrigation system information at his fingertips.

Whether all of this technology will eliminate the “art” associated with golf turf irrigation is doubtful. There remains a huge gap between the amount of technology available and the full use of technology . When such use results in significant reductions in water consumption, there should be no obstacles to full implementation.

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