Grasshoppers, Water, and the Golf Business

Beginning in June 1874, a swarm of grasshoppers dense enough to block the sun’s rays – so copious that you could scoop them up with shovels – descended on the drought-ravaged Great Plains. They mowed down crops and brought economic devastation to entire communities. In a scene eerily familiar, the chewing herbivorous insects, a close cousin of the locust, did it again in 1931 in regions suffering from prolonged periods of below normal rainfall.

No one is predicting a return of the grasshopper, although that seems a haunting title for an apocalyptic movie. But history does warn us of the dangers of extreme drought, when grasshoppers can flourish and when turfgrasses are most vulnerable. As we move into the summer months, when rainfall is scarce in many parts of the United States, golf courses and sports facilities are reminded that they must manage water usage and consumption diligently.

Audubon International, which promotes sustainability for businesses, recreational properties and communities, is committed to bringing solutions to golf and sports facilities. “Putting your golf course, community or resort on the path to sustainability may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be,” Audubon International CEO Christine Kane says. “We suggest starting by establishing an environmental policy that will guide your operations. This will bring your employees and members onboard and pave the way for incorporating topics such as water conservation, IPM or wildlife management into your budget, marketing and maintenance processes.”

Golf facilities and clubs also benefit from sustainability’s halo effect. Many members today expect greater levels of environmental stewardship from businesses and other organizations with which they are associated. In addition to its environmental impacts, sound water management has taken on a good-for-business shine as well.

Research points out that sound environmental stewardship matters to women and millennials especially.

Eighty-three percent of U.S. women believe that climate change is a serious problem, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. Nearly 70 percent of the women polled worry that such changes will affect them personally. The bottom line is that women are concerned about sound environmental practices and are receptive to learning how golf course managers are caring for Mother Earth.

Pew further reports that drought is among the top four climate-related concerns. “Fully half of Americans name drought as their chief climate change concern, and this is especially true in drought-plagued Western states compared with other regions of the country,” according to the research.

Clubs and courses seeking to attract younger members would do well to take a responsible approach to environmentalism. “Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share, but build loyalty among the power-spending millennials of tomorrow,” says Grace Farraj, an executive with Nielsen Environmentalism.

Audubon International launched its Water & Sustainability Innovation Award this year to recognize landscape companies, organizations and municipalities for sustainable, water-efficient projects. Corica Park South Course of Alameda, California, and its management firm, Greenway Golf, was the first recipient.

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf provides a tangible form of recognition for clubs and courses committed to protecting the environment and preserving the natural heritage of the game. By helping people enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that golf courses provide, improve efficiency and minimize potentially harmful impacts of golf course operations, the program serves an important environmental role worldwide.

Audubon International also has developed Standard Environmental Management Practices that are generally applicable to all golf courses. These standards form the basis for the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf certification guidelines. Points of focus from the ACSP for golf facilities include habitat planning and management guidance, which educates club members and other golfers while increasing the understanding of best management practices for pesticide use.

This article was authored by GGA Partner Henry DeLozier for Golf Course Industry Magazine

Hard Times

In his award-winning description of the Dust Bowl years, author Timothy Egan tells the story of a land without adequate water for crops and the soul-suffocating consequences of extreme drought. “The Worst Hard Time” recreates the 10,000-foot high dust storms that whipped across a delicate dryland ecosystem, choking animals and people eking out an existence most of us cannot imagine.

It’s hard to read the author’s account of their epic struggle and not relate it to the importance of intentional water management programs for anyone in the golf business today. Water management is one of the great responsibilities for all who draw water from the land, and superintendents are rightfully praised for their careful and attentive water consumption practices. They are diligent and careful users of water – whether from the ground or recycled effluent. Yet, many fear we are not doing enough to safeguard the long-term health of our most valuable assets.

Fortunately, and in contrast to the Dust Bowl years, when charlatans and conmen preyed on fearful farmers, there are now a number of progressive superintendents developing and sharing solutions for the common good. We’ve highlighted a few of them here, some of which fall into the category of plain old common sense and others that are quite innovative.

Common-Sense Solutions

Rick Tegtmeier, the superintendent at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, which hosted the 2017 Solheim Cup, often employs the wisdom of experience.

“If there is a rainfall event in our immediate future, we turn off the well (that fills the irrigation lake) in anticipation of filling the lakes with runoff water,” he says. “That saves the club money by not pumping the water out of our deep well. All our lakes on property can be drained into one of the lakes that we draw out of. In the event of a water shortage or drought, we have 21 days of water on property to keep our greens and tees alive.”

Many superintendents monitor water consumption with technology systems that constantly monitor the efficient performance of irrigation systems. “If a head is not turning or a nozzle is clogged, I can assure you water is being wasted,” Tegtmeier says.

Innovative Solutions

Tegtmeier is also known for his innovative approach to water management.

“Over the four months of summer, we utilize wetting agents on greens, approaches, tees and fairways. These surfactants make the water wetter and help to evenly distribute moisture throughout the soil profile.”

There are many types of surfactants available to turf professionals. “Using the right ones to either retain water in the profile or penetrate the soil is key,” Tegtmeier adds.

Bill Cygan, superintendent at Silver Spring Country Club in Ridgefield, Conn., considers water management a “blend of art and science.” Using moisture meters, Cygan and his team seek optimum moisture content for their course to produce firmer and healthier playing surfaces. “Many factors, including season, weather, soil types, microclimates and membership expectations, must be considered,” he notes.

Both Tegtmeier and Cygan also carefully monitor evapotranspiration (ET) levels on their courses. Cygan uses deficit irrigation for replacing only the least amount of water lost through ET that is needed to keep the plant healthy.

Tegtmeier says tracking ET helps determine how much to water back that evening. “We also have six TDR meters we utilize throughout the day to see if the soil needs water. Thirty years ago, we used a soil probe or a cup cutter to determine if water was needed. Now, TDR measurements are an essential part of what we do every day.”

Wetting agents are also an important part of the superintendent’s arsenal. “Wetting agents aren’t a replacement for good drainage or an irrigation system,” Cygan says. “But they will aid either process, depending on which product is chosen.”

We’ve come a long way from the Dust Bowl years, when wet sheets were hung in windows and doors were taped and stuffed cracks with rags to ward off the elements. But despite their good intentions, homespun remedies didn’t work. Poor soil management practices and the lack of water were to blame. The toll was paid by the people who lived to tell the tale.

Fortunately, progressive superintendents have developed common-sense practices and innovative solutions to help ensure that the worst hard time is not repeated on our golf courses.

GGA’s Henry DeLozier penned this article for Golf Course Industry Magazine.