Tony Cunzio knows the art of keeping a golf course green, growing and lush in the desert with advancements in both technology and efficiency from the days when cannon-like sprinklers fired arching streams of water haphazardly over fairways and greens.
"I wouldn’t say that irrigation is an exact science," said Cunzio, president of United Irrigation of Indio. "But it is becoming a science."
Water may be the most visible, most critical and certainly the most emotional issue involved in the construction of new golf courses such as the city-owned SilverRock Resort in La Quinta. Each new course must find a source of water, either from the aquifer underneath the Coachella Valley or, like SilverRock, from Colorado River water shipped to the desert through canals.
Using as little water as possible while trying to ensure the maximum use of that water is a team effort that includes local water agencies, the course designer, irrigation and landscaping specialists as well as computerized watering technology.
"The most sophisticated system that is available on the market today is on this course," said Cunzio. "That’s with regard to control and how water is applied."
Without irrigation, the desert’s golf industry wouldn’t be possible. That means an irrigation system must efficiently and readily deliver the million gallons of water a day in the summer needed by courses such as SilverRock.
"The backbone of any good golf course is a world-class irrigation system," said Don Ackley, water management supervisor for the Coachella Valley Water District.
Critics of the water usage at the desert’s 113 courses wonder if the courses are draining the precious natural resource. But defenders of such irrigation say water is more abundant than most people think and that golf courses are far more efficient than private homes or other landscaped areas in using water.
For SilverRock, the irrigation comes to from the Colorado River through the All-American Canal, which winds 159 miles to the desert from the Imperial Dam near Yuma, Ariz. The concrete-lined canal runs directly through the SilverRock property at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains and actual plays as a water hazard on five holes in Arnold Palmer’s design of the course. Having the canal on site makes the water easier to access for SilverRock’s builders.
Filling the system
At two so-called turnouts from the canal on the property, water is drawninto the 20 acres of lakes that serve as the irrigation reservoirs for the course. All of the lakes, including some near pads for proposed hotels , are connected and allow the water to circulate and filter through the system. The main 7.8 million gallon irrigation lake is on the course’s 17th hole.
Once the water reaches the irrigation system, the challenge is how to put the water on the course properly.
"In the old days, the old pump stations basically just kicked on, then pumped full speed ahead. The system was on maximum and anything that was extra was just blown off where ever it could go," Cunzio said. "Nowadays, the pump stations are very regulated and they actually use the speed of electricity to regulate how fast the water is pushed into the field."
The main pump station for SilverRock is located off the 10th hole and can pump as much as 4,400 gallons of water per minute. That water leaves the 16-inch pipes, the start of a system of more than 35 miles of piping. The pipes eventually narrowto less than an inch for the drip irrigation emitters around the desert landscaping.
Like many desert courses in recent years, SilverRock is equipped with a computerized irrigation system that is in touch with an on-site weather station. At SilverRock, the system is from Rain Bird, which along with Toro, dominate about 95 percent of the golf course irrigation market. Systems can range from $20,000 to $30,000, depending on the size of a course and software differences.
The weather station measures humidity, temperature, wind speed and other factors, and the computer adjusts water usage for changing conditions.
"The system senses the capacity that is needed in the field. So you are monitoring and you are applying only what is needed to the field," said Cunzio, whose company has done irrigation work on five courses in the desert. "That means you are only using the amount of electricity that is needed to get (the water) there."
On a typical winter day, the SilverRock course could require 500,000 gallons of water. But under cooler, overcast conditions, newer irrigation systems like the one at SilverRock might decide the course only needs 400,000 gallons. A hotter, windier day may cause the computer to pump out 600,000 gallons.
Applying the water
The computerized system requires better on-course hardware to complete the irrigation process. Instead of a small number of sprinklers that could spray water in a circular pattern 40 or 50 yards, Cunzio and his crew installed more than 3,100 smaller sprinklers on the 130 acres of turf. Those sprinklers range from coverage patters of 10 to 12 feet each to up to 64 feet. Each sprinkler can be set to handle specific areas to eliminate wasted water onto cart paths or the native desert areas scattered throughout the course.
Laying out the pattern for the sprinklers comes only after most of the dirt to shape the course has been moved. The main lines for each hole run through the rough alongside each hole, with smaller pipes branching out to heads in the fairways.
"The irrigation designer will have someone come out and field stake every position of every head," said John Przybyszewski, the SilverRock project manager for Heinbuch Golf. "Then he puts together a stake plan. Then he presents that to the golf contractor. Then they go back out and that’s how they position to install the pipes."
The pipe system covers not only the 130 acres of grass, but also extends into the native desert areas where low-water vegetation is being used.
"We are using desert-acclimated plant material, which uses some supplemental watering," said Doug Enroth, a principal for Pinnacle Landscape. "All of this material uses very little irrigation, if any. But during the summer, during the hottest part of the year, there is some supplemental irrigation needed."
Saving every drop
Conservation is a key to the SilverRock water plan, since the CVWD is mandating the project use 25 percent less water than they did just a few years ago. In addition, SilverRock must keep water costs between $30,000 and $40,000 to meet proposed operating budgets. That’s still drastically less than water costs in other desert areas such as Las Vegas or Phoenix, where costs of $100 an acre foot are about five times higher than CVWD costs.
SilverRock will also join a growing list of desert courses concerned about water that somehow doesn’t get absorbed into the soil or is lost to evaporation.
"We are actually capturing irrigation runoff, drainage runoff and recycling it," said Roy Stephenson of civil engineering firm Berryman and Henigar. "All the lakes have aquifers and cleansing materials to take runoff. So nothing that falls on the site gets off that site. It’s a great big catch basin."
CVWD also requires each golf course to have backup wells drilled to the aquifer, both for emergency use for the CVWD as well as for backup irrigation purposes.
The irrigation begins months before the first dirt is moved for a new course. A study of how much water the course’s turf, desert landscaping lakes will require is worked into a water management plan. For SilverRock, the city hired contractor Pace Engineering to develop the plan in conjunction with the Coachella Valley Water District. The CVWD must approve the water budget under its landscape ordinance, giving the agency the right to limit water used for large landscaped areas.
Courses such as SilverRock can increase their water budget by using drip irrigation and desert landscaping instead of more acres of turf, Ackley said.
"I think it’s a win-win," Ackley said. "We are getting a reduction in water usages and the background palette is more interesting when I play golf than just a sea of green."
Source: The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.)