California Sports Fields, Golf Courses Feeling the Heat | Sports Destination Management

California Sports Fields, Golf Courses Feeling the Heat

Under Drought Restrictions and Faced with Water Use Penalties, Fields and Greens Managers Turning to Creative Alternatives
Apr 21, 2015 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When California Governor Jerry Brown ordered officials in early April to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history, sports facility managers had more to worry about than lawns and swimming pools. To them, water restrictions could mean brown, dried fields that could cause injury – or incredibly hot artificial turf (which uses water for rinsing and cooling purposes).

But the findings of surveyors – the lowest snow level in the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping – could not be denied, and it meant everyone had to cut back.

In an article carried on, Brown's order followed previous cutbacks imposed by the water board. It required campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to “significantly cut water use;” directed local governments to replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping; and created a temporary rebate program for consumers who replaced old water-sucking appliances with more efficient ones.

"We're in a new era; the idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past," Brown said.

Some local sports fields have been closed as a result of being unsuitable for play. According to Food and Environment Reporting Network, school and college sports are the latest casualties of the drought.

But a dried-out sports field isn’t just brown and ugly; it’s also a safety concern. “Without proper irrigation, the ground gets really hard,” says Kevin “Skippy” Givens, a supervisor in the physical education, recreation and sports office at UCSC. “You’re playing on something almost as hard as concrete.” When players get tackled or go down, they’re more likely to suffer a concussion or shoulder or knee injuries, he says.

At UCSC, cutting back on all irrigation uses, including a 45% reduction on the main athletic field, was key to meeting the college’s water conservation goal, says water and energy manager, Patrick Testoni. The downside of the field closure is that intramural softball is canceled. And five competitive sports clubs that were also displaced, including men’s soccer and women’s rugby, are now being squeezed onto the remaining, smaller athletic field – or shifted off-campus to the city’s already crowded playing fields, which are also being watered less than usual and may not stand up to the added wear and tear.

Some high school facilities might be able to take the summer off after students go home for the season, but other facilities are still busy -- notably, the state’s 914 golf courses.

Golf facilities have had to make the most significant changes in order to remain viable -- and legal. An article in Money Magazine’s online site noted that some facilities were already replacing trees with cacti, and putting in drought-resistant plants. Many had already cut back on water usage by about 20 percent.

"It adds just a little to the hardship, but there won't be much difference," said Craig Kessler, director of government affairs for the Southern California Golf Association.

Some local areas have implemented even tougher restrictions. The Contra Costa Country in the East San Francisco Bay area has recommended a 40% water reduction.

To cope, golf courses across the state are using alternative water sources, switching from potable tap water to recycled, untreated wastewater. Many are no longer watering their rough areas.

One water board in Southern California even offers a turf reduction rebate program, in which golf courses are compensated $2 per square foot of grass that they remove from their courses. Some are going to artificial turf. (One trivia fact: The average American golf course uses 312,000 gallons per day, according to agency -- about half an Olympic-sized swimming pool).

Some golf course owners and managers are taking matters into their own hands, not merely cutting water use but monitoring where, whether and when the course actually needs it. The Pomerado News carried an article about measures being taken at the Bernardo Heights Country Club, where low-flow sprinkler heads were being installed, and mulch was being substituted for turf in many areas.

Jim Alwine, golf course superintendent at Bernardo Heights Country Club and president of the California Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said Bernardo Heights has been taking drought response steps since he became its superintendent 2- 1/2 years ago.

He said to keep golf courses green, they are typically over-seeded with rye grass for colder months, while Bermuda grass is used in warm months. That has to change.

“We’ve gone all Bermuda grass, taking out the rye 100 percent in the fairways,” Alwine said. “All, except the greens, will be Bermuda that uses significantly less water and can go many days without water.”

Alwine said if the drought gets to be so bad that water is rationed, the club will stop watering the Bermuda grass altogether and let it turn brown. “We can let it go for a year or two and it will come back. It’s a strong turf.”

In addition to the ecological need, property owners and managers in California have extra incentive to limit water use: Violators can be fined up to $500 per day for infractions.