High and sometimes dry

High and sometimes dry

A prolonged drought in Colorado is over, but water still dominates the conversation in the land of mile-high golf courses.

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August 14, 2015
Guy Cipriano

Colorado Springs, elevation 6,035 feet, hosted the annual Golf Course Builders Association of America summer meeting. Fortunately, attendees heeded speaker Rick Phelps’ advice and drank plenty of water. Lifelong Colorado residents point out that altitude-related nausea is caused by dehydration and not a lack of oxygen.

Those who maintain, design and build golf courses in the region couldn’t escape the blow the climate provided the past few years. This one involved a lack of water, which can nauseate even the best positioned golf course facilities. We visited with Phelps, a past American Society of Golf Course Architects president, in a hotel lobby following his GCBAA meeting presentation. He’s too seasoned to sulk about what an outsider quickly notices when visiting his region. Drought potential and high altitude make Colorado a rugged place to conduct business.

Neither Fred Dickman nor Sean McCue, the head turfies at The Broadmoor Resort and The Country Club at Castle Pines, respectively, are Colorado natives. But they have worked in the state long enough to understand that things can get bone-dry on the Front Range, where 85 percent of Colorado residents live. The region recently endured five consecutive years of drought. A soggy spring foreshadowed what has developed into a saturated 2015, at least by Front Range standards. The Broadmoor, a renowned three-course resort in Colorado Springs, received 14 inches of rain in May alone, according to Dickman.

Mentions of an El Nino reaching the West doesn’t alter Dickman’s thinking about water. He knows he must cautiously monitor current and future usage. Water along with finding reliable labor, especially if sweeping changes to the H-2B program are implemented, are his biggest concerns. The Broadmoor’s water source is what Dickman calls “raw water” originating from snow melt. Local universities classify The Broadmoor’s source as non-potable water. Either way, the water situation at The Broadmoor isn’t as dire as other courses in the region. “It’s good quality water,” Dickman says. “It’s pure water. Our PH is good for the Southwest. A lot of areas even in the Mountains, you might not have great quality water if you are drilling off a well.”

Fifty-three miles to the north, McCue manages a Jack Nicklaus-designed private course with access to effluent water. He knows he’s fortunate. “We’re sheltered up here from some of the water problems because of our source,” McCue says. Finding labor can be tough because Castle Pines is an affluent part of the Denver metropolitan area and shovels are entering the ground at accelerated rates because the non-golf portions of the economy are flourishing compared to other parts of the country.

Between our visits to The CC at Castle Pines and The Broadmoor, GCBAA members gathered in a downtown Colorado Springs hotel. Phelps proved the ideal speaker to brief a gathering of builders and vendors on the situation in the West. His father, Dick Phelps, was a well-known golf course architect in the Rocky Mountain region. His brother, Scott, is a veteran golf course superintendent, who leads the maintenance operations at The Golf Club at Newcastle, a 36-hole facility in Newcastle, Wash.

“Everything we do starts with water,” Rick says. “We’re only at the beginning of the discussion. We have to keep talking about it.”

The next phase of the golf and water discussion in Rick’s view includes four parts:
• Recognizing golf will always be a conspicuous user of water;
• Studying more high-profile examples of reduced water usage such as Pinehurst No. 2 and Chambers Bay;
• Expanding education (the American Society of Golf Course Architects is expected to release a book of water-related case studies in 2016);
• Relaying a consistent message to those inside and outside the industry about the relationship between golf and water.  

Designing, maintaining and preparing a course resting at altitude is another area of Rick’s expertise. Contrary to what sea-levelers might think, not all golfers see distance benefits from playing at altitude. Golfers with low swing speeds will experience no increased distance while golfers with high swing speeds may set personal driving records when playing courses such as The Broadmoor and CC at Castle Pines, which both sit 6,000 feet above sea level. High-altitude courses feature low humidity and low disease pressure, and are subjected to intense UV radiation, according to Rick.

Monitoring conditions during the winter represents the biggest seasonal challenge, according to Dickman. “The summers are pretty nice,” he says. “We get our days, but you can’t really complain because it’s low humidity. Those five years of drought … Well, you have drought in the summer, so you also have drought in the winter. You come out of the winter maybe a little bit dry, then it battles on. That’s the biggest difference being at altitude. You get a lot of sun. It’s not like Chicago, where the cloud cover is all the time.”

Dickman is a Chicago native who spent 12 years in Arizona before arriving at The Broadmoor. A stint in a water-deprived state proved to be the ideal Colorado primer.

“Arizona really prepared me for up here because Arizona does a great job managing their water,” Dickman says. “It is a little different up here, but a lot depends on your water source, whether it’s non-potable, treated or potable. There are a lot of different things. From a technology standpoint on using your system and everything else, Arizona really does prepare you for managing water.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.