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On the fairway, lessons in water management


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POSTED: Thursday, August 06, 2009

ATLANTA >> Six years ago, when Georgia's state government rewrote its rules for water use during droughts, it cut no slack for an obvious culprit: golf courses.

With emerald fairways that glistened even in the most blistering conditions, they were a tempting target.

Yet golf course managers were indignant. They argued that they were reining in water use in dozens of ways, like planting native grasses and auditing sprinkler spray patterns. Instead of being penalized, they said, they should be emulated.

It took a while, but from the South to the arid West, their wish is coming true. Mindful that global warming could provoke more and longer dry spells, state governments are increasingly consulting golf courses on water strategies.

In Georgia, golf course managers have emerged as go-to gurus on water conservation for both industries and nonprofit groups.

Marriott International is applying lessons learned at its golf course here to its resort properties in other states. Habitat for Humanity is landscaping front yards with drought-tolerant plants recommended by golf superintendents.

“;Look, if you want to learn how to irrigate, these are the guys to ask,”; said Garith Grinnell, who recently retired from the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Such accolades are a turnabout for a business that is often faulted for harming the environment through excess use of water and pesticides.

In Georgia, the shift in perspective came about largely because of a crippling drought that peaked in 2007. By that year, 97 percent of the clubs that belonged to the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association had voluntarily adopted what are viewed as best-management practices for water use, reducing consumption, they estimated, by 25 percent in just three years.

Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main source of water, had meanwhile dropped to record low levels, exposing muddy bottom not seen in half a century. It dawned on state and local water managers that golf courses might have some useful know-how.

Golfing grounds managers “;are great technical assistance to me,”; said Kathy Nguyen, president of the Georgia Water Wise Council, a state association of water professionals that encourages conservation. “;I can call them up and talk to them about different technologies.”; (Georgia's drought eased significantly this year.)

Nguyen has relied on golf superintendents in drafting guidelines for homeowners like letting grass grow longer, fixing leaks in hoses as promptly as possible and keeping lawn mower blades razor sharp. (Grass cut by duller blades is more frayed and requires more water to stay healthy.)

The golf industry still draws strong criticism from environmentalists. Turf is, after all, the thirstiest of plants. The average American golf course drinks up some 50 million gallons of water a year — comparable to the yearly usage of 1,400 people. In the West, the figures are higher.

Yet that reality, coupled with rising water prices, is what led to strides like irrigating golf courses with “;gray water,”; or nonindustrial wastewater that is recycled for other purposes.

Tom Bancroft, chief scientist with the National Audubon Society, says that for all the progress golf has made, it remains a deeply problematic industry. Many courses “;use fertilizers that can run off into fresh water, and many use pesticides in lawn and grass,”; Bancroft said. (Audubon International, a separate group, works with golf courses to encourage wildlife preservation.)

Mark Esoda, superintendent of the Atlanta Country Club in suburban Marietta, where initiation fees are $85,000, acknowledges that practices among the nation's courses range from indifferent to conscientious. But he maintains that he and other superintendents have a lot to teach municipalities about watering their ballfields and homeowners about tending to their yards.

Zipping around the course on pine-shaded paths, Esoda stopped abruptly near the seventh hole. He gestured toward a patch of newly laid turf of zoysia, a warm-weather shade grass native to Southeast Asia and Australia. On shady parts of the course it is replacing fescue, a genus of cold-weather shade grass that can live through the winter and thus requires five months' more watering and mowing.

Esoda said he had also installed affordable monitors that prevent automatic sprinklers from activating during or right after a rain.

And when isolated dry spots appear on the greens, he said, he sends staff members out with watering cans rather than turning on the sprinkler system.

Finally, Esoda has made an aesthetic adjustment after years of savoring the green glow of a perfect lawn. “;Crispy around the edges is OK,”; he confided.

Water is just one area where golf courses and environmentalists might find a rapprochement, said Anthony L. Williams, director of grounds at Marriott's Stone Mountain public courses just outside Atlanta.

As metropolitan areas sprawl outward, golf courses might be the only large-scale green space for miles around, offering crucial potential habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife.

Williams, who has a degree in local horticulture, has been letting native grasses take over his lawns. Off the fairways he does not even bother to mow, and on the greens he is maintaining grass at one-sixteenth of an inch higher then typical courses. It makes playing slow, he allows, but “;consistent.”; He has also replaced all the flowering annuals with perennials, which generally require less water, choosing those that are attractive to native wildlife.

Since he took charge of the two courses in 2005, Williams has cut water consumption by 45 percent and witnessed the return of some wildlife species like the red-tailed hawk.

The changes have come with a price, like the occasional large brown spot on the fairway. But Williams says the golfers do not mind.

“;I just stand out there on the greens and explain, 'We are doing this so your grandchildren can come out here and play,”;' he said. “;People understand that.”;