Golf courses utilize water conservation methods to offset effects of abnormally dry weather

-A A +A
By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Despite recent rain showers, we are in a drought. The North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council has Brunswick County listed as “abnormally dry” as of March 10.

Naturally, a drought affects golf courses in a big way. It impacts the way they look and the way they are maintained Drought is costly in water and in energy.

Problems arise when the average citizen is placed on a water restriction and he or she sees sprinklers spewing water on a nearby golf course. The citizen is irate because his lawn is brown, but the golf course down the street is green.

The problem is this: Golf is a huge business in the Carolinas, generating millions of dollars in our economy every year. It is not just the greens fees and the money spent on golf equipment and clothing. Golf attracts tourists to Brunswick County. Those visitors spend money in our restaurants, art galleries and shops. They rent hotel rooms and beach houses.

Several years later, they retire here and buy homes, often on the very golf courses they played as visitors.

Golf is not just a sport, but an industry. It’s an industry that needs to be protected when drought strikes.

Last fall I attended the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association Conference and Trade Show in Myrtle Beach, S.C. As usual, I took several classes, and one of them was “How to Become Water Wi$e on the Golf Course.” It was taught by Dr. Dara Park of Clemson University, Mica Franklin and Kathy Conard of Aquatrols Corporation of America.

“The golf course superintendent is the CEO, CFO, VP and treasurer of a multimillion dollar complex that is a living organism,” Park explained. “It is up to them to maintain the product to the satisfaction of the customer. They are the bottom line of the golf course.”

The three women were exceedingly informative, and although the class lasted more than three hours, they kept the interest of everyone there.

Mica and Kathy were from a company that manufactures chemicals that help keep the ground moist with minimum watering. Often called “surfactants,” these products help the soil retain moisture so it does not flow through the soil too quickly. Applying these agents to the soil helps reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation.

Today, many new courses in our area use reclaimed or effluent water for irrigation. When a new golf course community is built, a major consideration is water supply. When a sewer system is built for the community, the reclaimed water is often designed to be used to irrigate common areas and the golf course. It’s a little more expensive originally, because separate water lines need to be laid out, but it makes a big difference in the long run. As the community uses water, that same water is reprocessed and used once more for irrigation.

Water conservation is vitally important today because many of our aquifers are shrinking and drying out. We cannot keep drilling for more water, especially in this area because the sea water backwashes into the soil and our ponds and wells become brackish with salt.

There are many ways that superintendents can control water use. They can check how sprinkler heads are set around the course. They don’t need to water into a pond or into waste bunkers.

Park cited a course in Utah (Thanksgiving Point) that saved 300,000 gallons of water one summer by simply adjusting sprinkler heads and nozzles.

Using moisture sensors to assess the moisture in the soil will help a superintendent water more efficiently. Installing meters in several zones will also help reduce irrigation because all areas of a golf course will not require the same amounts of water.

Many golf courses are installing weather station controls on their sprinklers so they don’t automatically turn on after a rainstorm.

New golf course designs reduce the number of irrigated acres by planting natural grasses and other plant materials, and leaving areas wild between fairways.

In these economic times of cutting back, many of our courses did not overseed with ryegrass this winter. Some overseeded only tees, greens and fairways. This not only saves money on the cost of seed but also on irrigation. The brown Bermuda grass is not dead, it is perfectly healthy, but simply dormant for the winter.

Years ago, most courses in this area were allowed to go dormant, but as tourism increased, the demand for green golf courses increased. Visitors from snowbound regions wanted to play on postcard green grass, so more and more courses started overseeding each winter.

But all that green ryegrass needs constant watering, and in today’s economy, that’s a problem. We may find in the next few years that we are playing winter golf on dormant Bermuda, predicted a recent article in Golf Business Magazine by Trent Bouts.

Even older, established courses are becoming open to change as the water supply shrinks nationally. Greens require the most water, and some courses are making them smaller to adjust to the realities of water use. And it’s not just about the water, it’s about the amount of energy and electricity required to constantly irrigate vast areas of grass.

Keeping the grass healthy with fertilizers and judicious aeration will help reduce irrigation costs. Healthy turf will not require as much water because the water will not flow through the turf and into the soil away from the root system.

Keeping greens rolling fast also requires lots of water because the grass must be cut very, very short and often hand-watered in the heat of the summer. Bent grass greens have a reputation for rolling fast and true. But today, the new Bermuda hybrids are becoming popular because they are hardier and more heat tolerant and require less irrigation.

We cannot rely on the superintendents alone to curb water use.

We can all be part of the effort. Many of us have lawns and can apply some of these golf course practices to our own turf. Sprinklers do not need to run automatically, rain or shine, for example. Keep your grass healthy and the water will not run right through the roots. Find areas that don’t need to be watered or create them. Mulch more, seed less, plant local ornamental grasses that don’t need to be watered daily.

Inside, turn off faucets, reduce shower time, only wash a full load of laundry or a full load of dishes. Fix dripping faucets, install water-conserving toilets and shower heads.

We need to understand that golf courses are businesses. If we are members of a club, or owners of a club, we can educate ourselves about water conservation.

Communication is the key in all this. We can all pull together to make sure our water supply is stable. Our golf course superintendents are doing the best they can to curb water use. Superintendents also need to communicate better so that members and guests will know they are working hard to be good stewards of our diminishing water supplies.

If the present trends continue, scientists predict that by 2013 water restrictions will be mandatory in 36 out of 52 states.

This is a challenge to all of us, golfers and private citizens alike, to be diligent in our efforts to conserve water, our most precious commodity.


Little Billie came home all excited from walking around the golf course with his father.

“My daddy’s the best golfer in the whole wide world,” he said, proudly. “He can play golf for hours and hardly ever lets his ball get in those little holes.”

Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net.