Thursday, July 30, 2015

Area Golf Courses Use Technology and Science To Keep It Green

With California facing one of the most severe droughts on record, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in January and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages.

On Thursday state officials announced that even with record-breaking heat throughout June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding the Governor’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect.

Whereas residential and park usage of water statewide is only four percent of the total amount of water consumed, just one percent of that is used to maintain golf courses.

Still, the grounds keepers of Elk Grove’s two golf courses have heeded the call for conservation of water.

And, they add, it hasn’t been that easy or that cheap. They had to turn to science and technology, though, for some help.

Both Emerald Lakes Golf Club, a public golf course managed by the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD), and Valley Hi Country Club, a private golf facility, have the luxury of having their own wells from which to draw water for irrigation.

Brown, dry grass are common on area courses
“Although wells do not fall under the water restrictions, we have followed the CSD lead and reduced our water usage,” Gilbert Urbano, grounds superintendent of Emerald Lakes, said. “We have spent the last seven years replacing sprinklers and changing our cultural practices.”

Urbano said his crew has replaced and renozzled 147 sprinkler heads and have adjusted overall waterflow from 54 gallons per minute to just 18.5 GPM. Plus, of the 54 acres Emerald Lakes spans, 51 acres are now being irrigated.

“We have reduced our water days by 33 percent on the greens, rough and fairways and by 75 percent on our range tee areas,” he said.

At Valley Hi, golf course superintendent Sean McPhedran says he’s completely stopped watering the club’s large driving range.
Valley Hi CC's Jim Davis (left), Sean McPhedran and Gerry Kirchofer

“We use a green paint to designate target greens on the range,” he said.

But, the conservation effort at Valley Hi was well underway as far back as 12 years ago.

“It’s been the concern of our members here that we were doing our part,” Valley Hi Board president Gerry Kirchofer said. “We started the sanding program about 10-12 years ago and now we have much better soil, much better roots for the turf.”

Annually, Valley Hi has brought in about 1,000 tons of sand to spread across its grounds to the depth of about 1/8 of an inch. McPhedran now believes the golf course turf is sitting atop two inches of sand.

“Before that we are all clay and the only way to maintain grass was to flood the hell out of it,” Kirchofer explained. “We water a lot less now to maintain turf.”

But, that annual treatment has cost Valley Hi about $50,000 a year, according to McPhedran. However, the course uses five to ten percent less water with a more sandy topsoil.

“The golf course is a much better golf course,” Kirchofer said. “We all wanted to use less water. I’ve been a member for 26 years and I like to play early in the morning. Before we built this layer of sand the course was so wet the ball would land and there would be no roll to it at all.”

Plus, in 2009 the Valley Hi board of directors decided to spend $1.2 million to completely rework its irrigation system, a project that was finished in 2011.

“We completely overhauled our water infrastructure, build a new pumphouse and then put all new (sprinkler) heads in,” Kirchofer said. “We went from an antiquated sprinkler system to a really technologically-integrated sprinkler system from our new pump house.”

With Valley Hi’s new “Toro Lynx” irrigation system each sprinkler head has its own valve, unlike old systems where one valve controlled up to six to eight sprinkler heads. McPhedran says he operates the system via a computer in his office or via a remote app on his Smartphone.

“If there’s an area that isn’t getting enough water, we can then designate that one head to run extra,” he said. “Where there are wet spots or dry spots, we then go adjust everything in the computer.”

This high-tech approach to irrigating the 18-hole layout at Valley Hi has allowed them to use 15 to 20 percent less water, according to McPhedran.

In addition, McPhedran uses the science of evaporation transpiration or E.T. to determine how much water the golf course should receive.

“E.T. is based on how much water will be evaporated in any given day,” he explained. “That number changes because it’s never the same every day.”

McPhedran checks with a state agency with weather instruments that monitor evaporation rates throughout the state.

“We go online about seven or eight o’clock every night and look at the evaporation transpiration rate and then set the amount of watering,” he said.

Frequently McPhedran sets that from his home computer. If he’s on the course and notes a dry area, he typically logs onto the water system via his Smartphone and makes adjustment to the closest sprinkler head.

But, that’s not all the local golf course operators do to cut back on the amount of water used. There have been advances in turf treatments that allow the greens keepers to use less water to keep the grass green and healthy.

“We have used carbon-based fertilizers for our fairways and common areas, began using more organic material on our greens and tees,” Urbano said of his efforts at Emerald Lakes. “We have incorporated filters and bubblers into our lake maintenance improving the water quality.”

“We’re now making the water work more efficiently,” McPhedran said. “We use what is called ‘wetting agents’ and it is basically like a soap made specifically for turf. Even before the drought we would spend $10,000-$12,000 a year on wetting agents.”

This year, McPhedran says, Valley Hi will end up spending about $20,000 on the different wetting agents because of the drought.

“It’s already showing to be working,” he said.

Still, there are patches of brown grass that dot the landscape of both courses because of the cutback in watering.

“It’s behooves us to conserve because it makes it a better golf course and it costs us less,” Kirchofer said. “We have also selected portions of the golf course to let go brown. We started this 12 years ago, but we’re making huge steps this year to deal with the drought.”

“The State Department of Water Resources went to all businesses on a private source of water and told them everyone has to cut its water use by 25 percent,” McPhedran added. “We began keeping our own record of water use. If anyone calls on us we are prepared to show our 25 percent water reduction to them.”

Urbano says Emerald Lakes has cut back its water usage by 47 percent on the greens and tees of its 9-hole course, by 29 percent on fairways and rough and by 75 percent on its driving range.

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