Hard Times

Columns - Game Plan

September 10, 2018

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.

Henry DeLozier is a principal in the Global Golf Advisors consultancy. DeLozier joined Global Golf Advisors in 2008 after nine years as the vice president of golf for Pulte Homes. He is a past president of the National Golf Course Owners Association’s board of directors and serves on the PGA of America’s Employers Advisory Council.