Water Ways

As stewards, superintendents are on the cutting edge of sustainable water practices.

February 23, 2023 | 4 min.
By Joseph Oberle

In March 2022, Chris Aumock became the new executive director of the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendents Association (replacing longtime E.D. Jack MacKenzie), and he knew coming in that one of the biggest challenges facing his constituents would be the issue of water usage on their courses. He quickly recognized another problem for superintendents: the public relations challenges surrounding their industry—and that water issues are at the forefront of it.

“Our issues are that we have these lower quantities of water,” Aumock says. “And our problem is probably education in public perception. When the water is low, people look at who’s wasting it, and they think golf courses are wasting it. But our goal for years has been trying to educate people that we are responsible, educated water users.”

Water shortages are becoming a major concern throughout the western United States, and while it is not yet at a crisis level in Minnesota, it’s heading in that direction. After two summers of drought conditions around the state, the local alarm bells have sounded.

“The problem is only going to get bigger,” says Dave Erickson, superintendent at Eagle Valley Golf Course in Woodbury. “It’s a natural resource. Everybody needs water. So, the issue is not going away. We can’t deplete the aquifers because you need water to live. We have to watch everything we do.”

According to Aumock, superintendents throughout the state have been doing just that for more than a decade, and he is taking that message to the state legislature. Efforts are underway to get golf courses (currently on the lowest level of DNR permits for water allotment) recategorized higher, so they aren’t among the first water users to be shut out if the state spigot is turned off.

“We are considered non-essential water users—the bottom rung,” says Aumock. “But if the DNR decided to implement strict drought condition water usage, we could lose our permits tomorrow—we’d be among the first to lose access. We’re trying to get bumped up one level. We’d still not be essential, but we’re trying to guarantee that minimal access. We just want to be able to keep our basic turf alive.”

Super Solutions
In 2015, the MGCSA published a presentation entitled “Golf Course Water Management Uses and Solutions.” At the time, they reported 500 golf courses in Minnesota averaging 7.8 billion gallons of water usage per year—which was 0.76 percent of all water consumed in the state. According to Aumock—who came to the job after 15 years of experience as a superintendent and assistant superintendent at private clubs, public courses and the municipal level with Minneapolis Park and Recreation courses—those usage numbers have come down.

Aumock says that more than 600 superintendents at 450 golf courses in Minnesota have lowered the volume of water usage significantly statewide. Since the advent of automation and new technologies more than a decade ago—including more efficient computer-controlled pump stations, low-pressure adjustable sprinkler heads for pinpoint irrigation; chemical wetting agents (that help plants absorb more water) and drought stress-tolerant turf varieties—he saw a 20 percent reduction in his water usage during his last years as superintendent at Theodore Wirth Golf Club and Meadowbrook Golf Club. And other superintendents report similar numbers.

“We are using wetting agents to make ‘water wetter,’” says head golf course superintendent and director at Edina Country Club Brandon Schindele, whose course underwent a renovation in 2010. “All of our sprinkler heads that were put in are still individually controlled so we can change the percentage of what goes down based upon our software system. We incorporate a weather station into our irrigation system so if we get two-tenths of an inch of rain, we can shut the whole system off and conserve that water.”

The most commonly utilized tool among superintendents is the moisture sensor that is sunk into the turf to determine water content. Moisture sensor use took a practice tantamount to using a divining rod and brought water usage monitoring into the modern age.

“We’re using a TVR sensor to get those moisture measurements,” says Brian Boll, director of golf course and grounds at Interlachen Country Club. “Before that, the method was done by hand. You stuck a tee in the ground and used torsion to see how much resistance you were encountering. If the soil was wetter there was little resistance. If it was dryer and firmer there was more. Most frustrating was trying to get everybody working the course on the same page with the amount of water needed.

“Now we have tools that will give us a soil [saturation] value. I could put someone on their first day here out with that tool to collect the data. Then we would pull the hose out to water and get the consistency throughout the green that we’re looking for.”

Did You Know?

Superintendents don’t overwater—it causes turf diseases.

Superintendents don’t waste water—it costs money.

Superintendents don’t overuse chemical inputs. They are expensive. 

Golf courses help the environment by filtering chemicals, salt and other pollutants through soil or holding ponds before it moves off-property back into the waterway.

In 2016, golf courses injected $2.3 billion into the economy. MGCSA executive director Chris Aumock estimates that number has surpassed $2.5 billion post-Covid 19.

In 2016, the local golf industry employed 24,933 people.

In 2015, an estimated 500 state golf courses used 7.8 billion gallons of water per year—which was 0.76 percent of all water consumed in the state. Aumock says that number has decreased since that time.

Dealing with Drought
Every year is different due to rainfall amounts, but these technologies have helped all the superintendents achieve significant reductions in water usage—when Mother Nature cooperates. Call it climate change or being stuck in a cycle, but drought conditions have enveloped our state the past two summers. Despite the irrigation challenges drought presents, it was not a total washout for superintendents.

“My staff got really good at irrigation, meaning irrigation repair, maintenance, monitoring and application,” says Schindele. “In a drought year, you can really see your inefficiencies, and we got really good at dialing those things in to make sure that the system was doing what it was supposed to.”
Aumock, agrees, saying the drought taught superintendents more about their course.

“The past couple years have been an amazing learning curve for everyone,” Aumock says. “Newer superintendents got to learn their properties even better. We always have hot spots that we monitor, but the drought showed them everywhere. So, long term, guys can look at those areas and see if they need to make turf or soil renovations.”

At Eagle Valley, Erickson uses holding ponds to capture stormwater run-off for his irrigation, and while it assists him in a drought, an even greater benefit is saving water during regular rainfall years, as he doesn’t have to tap groundwater aquifers. Eagle Valley was built in 1997 with an irrigation system of underground pipes that filter water from ponds throughout the course. When the city of Woodbury expanded nearby Hwy. 19 in 2014, the runoff was diverted into a large, 12-foot-deep holding pond near holes 7 and 8 of the city-owned course. Erickson installed a pump and has been capturing stormwater to irrigate his course and save nearly a third on his groundwater use.

“It probably saved me 8 million gallons of water last year, Erickson says. “But in a plentiful rainfall year, it probably saves more because I wouldn’t have to use a deep well. If we got rain once a week and that pond stayed full, I wouldn’t have to use the deep well at all.”

While Eagle Valley benefitted from municipal ownership with the project, other courses have employed their own stormwater ponds, including Prestwick Golf Club (across Hwy. 19 from Eagle Valley) and Oneka Ridge Golf Corse. But lack of pre-existing infrastructure or local partnerships can be a financial impediment to some public courses.

Perhaps more affordable than retrofitting a course’s irrigation system is re-grassing with modern drought- and disease-resistant turf varieties—such as Boll is doing at Interlachen. The University of Minnesota’s Horticulture department has developed these cultivars for years, and Boll has been testing 10 of them in his nursery to see what will work best to replace the mixed stand of grass on his course. What started as a plan to ward off winter kill will also help in water usage when Interlachen re-grasses this May.

“We currently have a mixed stand of annual Bluegrass and bentgrass,” Boll says. “But the annual bluegrass has restricting value, meaning it’s not as well rooted and needs more water, fertilizer and plant protectants to keep it healthy.”

Boll will remove the grasses on his greens, tees, and fairways and reseed with two cultivars of modern bentgrass. Then he’ll selectively remove bluegrass and bentgrass from the rough areas and inter-seed more drought-tolerant cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescues.

 “With the transition to a solid stand of bentgrass on our playing surfaces, we anticipate saving five to 10 million gallons of water per year,” Boll says. “I can keep that water shut off for longer durations because the bentgrass is much more efficient with its rooting and able to capture more moisture within the ground.”

Working in superintendents’ favor is the increasing desire of golfers for firmer, faster playing conditions—which goes hand-in-hand with less water. It’s a fine line to walk, but it can be a win-win.

Process efficiency and resource management are also good for the golf courses’ bottom lines, and healthy, profitable golf courses are good for the industry, which is estimated at $2.3 billion statewide, according to an economic impact study commissioned by the MGA. 

Indeed, the game brings plenty of jobs to the community (Aumock says the MGCSA represents approximately 600 turf professionals in Minnesota, alone). And golf also provides plenty of joy to its participants. Therefore, it’s incumbent on all of golf’s stakeholders and constituents to recognize the importance of water usage efficiencies to the future of the game.  

Joseph Oberle

Joe Oberle is an award-winning author, sportswriter, and has been the managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine since 2002. He’s covered the Minnesota Vikings, the NFL, Minnesota Twins and spent six seasons as publications manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he co-authored “Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan.”

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