Golf courses are walking the market tightrope to save water

October 5 – The severity of the current drought threat to the Colorado River reservoir system has drawn attention to the practice of overseeding Bermuda grass lawns with winter ryegrass when cool temperatures cause Bermuda dormancy and color loss.

Ryegrass seeds require a heavy soaking in the fall to germinate, and then owners should apply more water throughout the winter than they would on dormant Bermuda.

As golfers from near and far begin to flock to local clubs, Mesa’s more than 20 golf courses begin the annual ritual of seeding.

The process ensures that lush carpets of grass greet golfers on the greens, fairways and tee boxes rather than bronzed expanses of playable but less aesthetically pleasing dormant grass.

But this year, overseeding is expected to shine even more light on golf course water use, which has the misfortune of being more visible than other industries, including data centers, which use as much or more water.

This fall, the City of Mesa is encouraging water patrons to forgo planting winter lawns. Scottsdale, too, discourages overseeding and prohibits homeowner associations from mandating homeowners to overseed.

Several Mesa golf courses have said that not overseeding is not an option because golfers who come here between November and April expect bright green grass.

“Why do they come here? Because the grass is green and they love the course conditions,” said Don Rea, PGA of America secretary and operator of Mesa’s Augusta Ranch Golf Club.

“If we stop overseeding, people will just go somewhere else,” he said.

As local yards are over-seeded this year, officials said they are reducing water use in other ways.

A course director thinks improvements in agronomy could allow Arizona courses to one day forgo winter overseeding without sacrificing course quality.

But that time has not yet come. Winter is the most important time of year for the golf industry, when rates are at their highest, and Mesa grass must be good.

For Rea, November to April are the only months when the course is profitable.

While Arizona’s courses aren’t on par with other regions in the winter, Rea thinks players can take their money to other warm-weather golf destinations.

“We see ourselves as the stewards of those (water) resources,” Rea said, “and then at the end of the day, we try to have a good product there so people keep coming to Arizona.”

Turf is a valuable crop for the state: A 2016 study by the University of Arizona’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics found that golf contributed $3.9 billion dollars in sales to the state economy in 2014, while using only 1.9% of Arizona’s fresh water.

“In winter, (players) want everything green,” said Johnny Webb, superintendent of Mesa’s Desert Sands golf course. “We will use the water in the winter.”

Webb thinks most courses will shut off their water in the summer, when water demand is high but course revenue and traffic are at their lowest.

He said overseeding takes a lot of water at first, but after germination it can cut back and use a lot less water than in the summer. He remembers a month of January when he did not need to irrigate his course at all.

“It’s the summer you use a lot” of water, Webb said.

Webb also said “golf is way above” water conservation. He said the irrigation technology is “much, much better than the old-fashioned way”, making it easier for superintendents to avoid waste.

Rea said many courses use high-tech sensors to measure soil moisture and salts, so superintendents don’t overuse the water.

On his own run, he said he was able to control each individual sprinkler head, so he didn’t have to waste water if he wanted to put extra moisture on a particular problem area.

This level of control also allows courses to use less water by removing non-functional pieces of turf.

Joe Dahlstrom, chief operating officer of Paradigm Golf Group, which manages the Mesa-owned Dobson Ranch golf course, said the course has successfully converted many areas of grass to alternate surfaces that don’t have need watering.

After experimenting with several different materials, they have successfully used volcanic ash from outside Flagstaff and plan to greatly expand its use in other areas, especially under trees.

Webb estimates he was able to cut about 3 acres of grass from his course to save water.

“If people would just look at areas that aren’t playable and replace them with something aesthetically pleasing, that’s a big step” toward saving water, Dahlstrom said.

Dahlstom and Rea also believe the augmented reality golf trend will allow the industry to grow without adding additional acres of turf.

Dobson Ranch has installed the TopTracer system at its driving range, which allows golfers to play virtually on courses anywhere in the world, and Augusta Ranch is launching the system on its range on November 11.

Dahlstrom thinks a future direction for golf in Arizona could be to switch to hybrid strains that don’t require overseeding. He said scientists are developing hybrids that retain their playability and color while they sleep.

Dahlstrom said one of Paradigm’s other courses, Bali Hai in Las Vegas, successfully transitioned to hybrid grass and no longer requires overseeding.

Eliminating the common Bermuda was “not an easy task”, but the change put Bali Hai in a much better position than its competitors as Lake Mead, a major water source for Las Vegas, dries up.

Dahlstrom said Las Vegas has a different climate than Phoenix and the same grass wouldn’t work, but he thinks other new hybrids and technologies are coming that could eliminate overseeding for Arizona courses.

Michael C. Ford