Retaining water

Features - Water Issues

Reid Golf Course constructed a giant wetland to manage a water-retention problem. In doing so, it created a giant filtration system that cleans up the stormwater before heading downstream.

September 17, 2013

The stormwater-retention capability of golf courses is something that golfers, the larger community and even course managers themselves often fail to appreciate. It’s not the most sexy, captivating notion in golf, but a project now racing toward conclusion in Appleton, Wis., may just change all that, and the details should be required reading for anyone who maintains or manages a golf course, public or private.

Sound like an outrageous claim? Well, read on and let me know if you disagree. Something tells me you won’t.

Reid Golf Course is a municipal facility in Appleton, lying entirely within the Lower Fox River Watershed. Surrounded by urban development, Reid GC for many years had already served a practical water management purpose in town: a concrete channel cut directly through a four-hole section of the course, gathering overflow from the course and also from the paved streets all around it, and ultimately delivering that water into the Lower Fox River, which flows into the Wisconsin River.

Two problems: First, not enough water was actually making it downstream efficiently, resulting in all sorts of localized flooding on course but mainly off course. Second, the water that did reach the Wisconsin River did not meet new state standards for water quality.

It took two years, but engineering giants AECOM and my firm, Lohmann Golf Designs, solved this issue and upgrade the four affected holes — at basically no cost to the Appleton Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the golf course.

“Two things drove this project,” says Kelly Mattfield, who works with AECOM from the firm’s Madison office. “One component was putting in ponds at the golf course and naturalizing the channel within the golf course. The other was removal of total suspended solids and phosphorus from the stormwater, for compliance with the MS4 permit, and also for compliance with TMDLs at the new state and federal levels.”

Allow me to translate: MS4 is a clever acronym for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System. TMDL stands for “total maximum daily loads” of anything that “impairs” water quality, be they suspended solids, bacteria, phosphorus, or nitrogen.

Long story short, AECOM was hired by the city’s stormwater division to sort this problem, and these engineers brought in Lohmann Golf Designs as consultants, because a) the golf course would clearly play a crucial role in this effort and would require significant renovation as part of the project, and b) we’ve handled a half dozen different stormwater retention projects on golf courses and thus have experience with the process.

Together, in work that finished this summer, we naturalized the channel passing through the course and hugely expanded Reid’s retention capacity by creating four acres of new ponds – or for you engineering types, nearly 50 acre-feet of new storage, enough to handle a 100-year storm. The key word here is “naturalized.” By creating what is essentially a giant wetland, we also created a giant filtration system that cleans up that stormwater as it passes through the on-course system before heading downstream.

As indicated above, LGD has done a ton of large-scale, stormwater retention projects: at The Bridges at Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates, Ill.; at Deer Path GC in Lake Forest, Ill.; at The Traditions at Chevy Chase GC in nearby Wheeling. In each case, we increased retention capability and improved water quality through introduction of natural, wetlands-reliant filtration techniques. We also took the opportunity to greatly enhance course design as part of the process.

However, in each of the above instances, it was the course management entity that instigated and ultimately paid for the project.

At Reid GC in Appleton, the city’s stormwater division was acting to comply with state statute, so it footed the bill. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department operates on a completely separate budget. In essence, the golf course played a crucial role in enabling this communitarian effort – AND received significant design/aesthetic upgrades in the process, with no budgetary impact, save a few thousand for some grow-in materials. The stormwater division even factored in compensation for lost rounds and other pro shop revenues!

“Given the history of the course,” explained Pete Neuberger, project manager for the City of Appleton’s Engineering Department, “it’s unlikely that these types of monies would have been available for course enhancement if there weren’t this stormwater project as a source of funding.”

Is there any reason this sort of situation could not take place on any course where the surrounding community is battling stormwater-retention and water-quality issues? Does it even matter whether that course is public or private? Not in my view, and Mattfield agrees.

“This is the first golf project I’ve personally done, and it was great working with Lohmann because they’ve got so much experience doing this sort of thing,” she says. “Wisconsin is kind of ahead of surrounding states in terms of water quality aspects. But the EPA is pushing TMDLs across the country. Some states have more TMDLs than others, but these and other new EPA directives will definitely result in this sort of situation [in other communities].

“If golf courses have the room, and they are in the right spot in the watershed, this makes sense. It’s a win-win for everyone,” Mattfield adds

What did we actually do to the golf course, aside from creating water capacity? Quite a lot, actually. You can’t drop four new acres of water hazard in a 4- or 5-hole stretch of golf course and not impact the layout significantly, visually and strategically.

“We couldn’t simply treat this as a typical pond project,” says Neuberger. “We knew we had to respect the golf course by doing a good job of fully integrating these stormwater ponds as golf course features. It was Lohmann’s job to find a way to enhance the course, and they did that.”

Here’s what went down, but first: A big shout out to course superintendent Doug DeVries, CGCS, and Ryan Inc. Central, the golf course contractor out of Janesville, Wis., who led the construction process. They did a fantastic job shepherding these changes through a very wet spring and summer in Appleton.

On the five directly affected holes, we rebuilt four greens and the equivalent of four fairways, moving them to maximize spatial relationships and improve risk-reward strategies at the edges of all these new water hazards. We also effectively preserved the original green contours thanks to a thorough mapping exercise prior to construction. We even recreated some coveted pin placements: On the front right portion of the original 11th green, for example, there had been a very steep back-to-front pitch. We duplicated that on the new 11th, while expanding the overall size of the putting surface. On the 2nd green, we more or less copied the original while again expanding its perimeters and making it tie in properly to the new surrounds.

Reid GC will never be lumped together with the Midwest’s collection of Golden Age Designs, but it is an older course with some fun, long-standing grooming traditions. For example, they mow a unique, 10-15 foot collar around their greens. Accordingly, when we rebuilt and reshaped the new green surrounds, we kept the features low profile and expanded the bentgrass collars to enable continuance of this style.

Agronomically, the notable thing about the Appleton project is how we rebuilt the greens. Testing on the original soil profiles revealed a 3-4 inch layer of top-dressing build-up. Below that were 6-8 inches of native topsoil. In short, we replicated that profile on the new greens, using a 6:3:1 mixture that matched the top-dressing mix – allowing these new greens to behave more or less like the old ones, in terms of required maintenance practices. We also grassed them to Putter bent, an older strain whose name superintendents are probably surprised to hear after all these years. But Putter’s color best matched the color of the hold-over greens and is expected to perform well at the higher cuts (.120 to .130), with the conservative top-dressing program that Reid employs. For these reasons, we purposely avoided the newer, more aggressive bents that tend to get puffy when left at elevated heights of cut.

An additional note on the greens construction: We’ve done similar soil matching elsewhere, deploying variations on this 6:3:1 theme. When watering in these new greens, however, we’ve found they are not equipped to absorb water like a USGA green might – after all, these greens are built with a heavier soil profile that retains moisture and has more limited ability to convey it like modern greens can, even with slit drainage installed in the subgrade. So the greens rely heavily on surface drainage, which exposes them to erosion potential while you’re waiting for seed to germinate. Bottom line: They are tough to establish.

At Reid, we followed the advice of the USGA’s Bob Vavrek, who recommended (several years back in a Green Section Record article: that we use temporary, breathable covers for two weeks during germination. I know what you’re thinking: That will overheat and suffocate the young plants! Not the case. These covers are breathable and never raised soil temperature more than 2 degrees, and that was during 90-degree July heat. Once the covers were employed, Reid’s new greens came in like gangbusters.

The removal of the old concrete channel is the last step in the reconstruction process, and that takes place this month. We are literally busting it up and burying it nearby. Good riddance. This project boasts enormous environmental and agronomic benefits, but there’s no way around this fact: That channel was an eyesore. The aesthetic difference its removal will make at Reid GC – replacing it with an entire valley of wetland pools – cannot be understated.

The par-4 12th at Reid is a great golf hole whose basic routing was unaffected by all this work. You carry over the edge of a new pond to the top of a hill, then look right – across a valley – to a putting surface on the far hillside. Players used to fly that concrete channel with their approaches. Soon they will crest the hill and see a beautiful, winding, naturalized water feature. Yes, of course, that feature is part of a system that can now handle a 100-year storm, and the water exiting that system is 10 times cleaner. But the 12th hole will also be a more beautiful golf hole, and that should count for something. It’s already counting for something.

“I haven’t golfed for about 15 years,” Neuberger says, “but I’m going to play when the course reopens next spring. I’m excited.”


Bob Lohmann is founder, president, and principal architect of Lohmann Golf Designs and a frequent GCI contributor. Check out his blog at