After getting doused with 9 inches of rain in June, Scott Brickley figured there would be no shortage of water to irrigate his golf course for the rest of the summer and early fall. But Brickley didn’t know at the time that Mother Nature was about to turn off the spigot and turn on the heat.
Brickley, the golf course superintendent at Bunker Hill Golf Course in Medina, Ohio, watched the irrigation pond on his golf course fill to the brim after Mother Nature dumped a near-record amount of precipitation on the northeast Ohio area. But then he watched the irrigation pond drain like a sieve later in July and August after the area received almost no rain. Bunker Hill’s irrigation pond, which holds about 17 million gallons of water, is its only source of irrigation.
“I didn’t expect we would have a water shortage problem after getting so much rain in June,” Brickley says. “But in late August, I was worried.”
Eventually, the dry spell broke and rain arrived, replenishing the irrigation pond. Brickley breathed a sigh of relief, but he wonders what in the name of El Nino has been going on with the weather the last five years.
“There is no moderation in the weather anymore,” Brickley contends. “It’s one extreme or the other.”
Brickley isn’t the only superintendent who believes there is something up, as in climate change, with the weather. According to a recent survey of about 400 superintendents, about 20 percent answered, “Yes, I see it more and more,” when asked, “Do you believe climate change/global warming is affecting golf course maintenance?” Seventeen percent answered, “I didn’t used to, but I’m leaning that way.” Twenty-five percent answered, “I don’t know,” and 38 percent said, “No, climate change is a crock.”
Incidentally, in September the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the summer of 2015 was the Earth’s hottest on record since records began in 1880. The highs occurred on the surface of both land and sea.
Count Rick Slattery, golf course superintendent of Locust Hill Country Club near Rochester, New York, as one who believes in climate change.
“As far as I’m concerned, the weather is getting more extreme,” he says. “You can label it as climate change, or you can label it as something else.”
While many superintendents believe the climate is changing, it’s safe to say that most of them believe it is cyclical, considering the golf course maintenance industry is largely conservative and climate change, for some reason, has become a political issue. But whether superintendents believe that climate change is cyclical or caused by human beings, they agree that what is happening is impacting golf course maintenance and the way they approach their jobs.
What they believe
Slattery points out that most people take one side or the other in the climate change debate. He takes both.
“If you look at long-term weather trends – not just in the last 40 years – this kind of very warm and very cold (cycle) has been going on since the beginning of time,” says Slattery, noting that Niagara Falls froze over in 1911 and the Dust Bowl occurred in the 1930s.
But Slattery believes that, while long-term weather trends are occurring, human beings are influencing climate change through the use of fossil fuels, deforestation and the replacement of green spaces with concrete and asphalt.
“I do think man’s effect is exasperating [climate change] and [contributing] to the weather’s wild swings,” he says.
John Nelson, superintendent of the Merit Club in Libertyville, Illinois, says the weather is more severe than he remembers as a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. But he does not believe that human beings have anything to do with any change in the weather.
“Everything goes in cycles,” he adds.
Nelson suspects the Earth’s orbit has shifted slightly, which has affected the weather.
While many studies say human beings are impacting climate change, Nelson doesn’t buy it.
“For every study that says one thing, you can get a group of scientists to say [the opposite thing] in another study,” he says.
One might think that Tim Barrier, who has tended turf at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in liberal-minded Southern California for more than 30 years, believes that human beings are causing climate change. Barrier does not doubt that the weather is changing, but he says human beings are giving themselves too much credit if they think they are impacting climate change.
“There may be some warming going on, but unless they can come up with 10,000 years of records, there is no way we are going to know if this is manmade or cyclical,” he says.
Barrier points to the history of warming cycles as fact, noting that the Ice Age ended about 11,000 years ago.
“Why aren’t we still frozen? Because we warmed up again – and it wasn’t caused by man,” he says.
Barrier says the man-made global warming theory is a conspiracy and that people are exploiting it just to make money.
“Hundreds of thousands of people rely on this fib [to stay in business],” he adds.
Brickley believes in climate change, but he is unsure if it is cyclical or caused by humans. That said, Brickley is proud that the Bunker Hill maintenance staff is doing what it can to decrease its carbon footprint, such as switching to hybrid mowers.
What they are seeing
Brickley, who has been the superintendent at Bunker Hill for 21 years, says each of the last five years of weather have been an adventure. “You never know what you’re going to get from year to year,” he adds.
Because of dry weather the last several summers, Brickley says his crew has had to hand water greens more than usual, which equates to more labor.
At Locust Hill, it rains, but the rain seems to come down in big batches, Slattery says. “We get like 2 inches of rain in two hours,” he adds.
This summer, the rain came so fast and hard that it barely penetrated the soil. Because it was so dry, most of the water ran off. Only the top half-inch of the soil profile was moist, Slattery says.
“It is deceiving because you think there was a lot of rain,” he adds.
Slattery says he has noticed that superintendents are having a harder time managing Poa annua because of extreme temperatures.
“Poa doesn’t do well in extreme weather – it dies when there is extreme heat and extreme cold,” he adds.
Slattery also says he also has seen spikes in certain weeds, such as clover and crabgrass, during periods of extreme hot weather. But Slattery hasn’t noticed any Southern weeds that have migrated north because of warming temperatures.
One thing Nelson has noticed is that winters in the Chicago area are arriving later and ending later, which is impacting turf maintenance in the spring. Five years ago, Nelson would blow out the irrigation system on Nov. 1 and put the course to bed for the winter. Now Nelson is waiting until later in the month because the grass is still growing in early November and players are still playing.
The Merit Club is usually open for play during the first week of April. That’s when Nelson usually sprays for Poa annua control to prevent it from seeding at the end of the month. Last April, Nelson and his crew sprayed a plant growth regulator according to schedule, but temperatures plummeted to the mid-20s the following week and didn’t touch the mid-50s for about a week. It was a stretch of weather that Nelson had not counted on and was not predicted.
“With the combination of the chemicals in the products stunting the plant and the cold weather shutting growth down, the greens basically didn’t grow until mid-May,” Nelson says.
Barrier, of course, has been trying to grow grass during one of the worst droughts in California history. In July, there was a respite – an inch of rain. “That hasn’t happened in my 33 years in the business,” Barrier says. “It was a godsend.”
How bad have things gotten? Last year, the state allowed Rancho Santa Fe 500,000 gallons of water in August for irrigation. This year, it was cut to 268,000 gallons – a 45 percent reduction.
Dealing with it
Brickley has implemented new maintenance measures at Bunker Hill to get the course through adverse conditions, such as unexpected dry spells and heavy downpours. One of Brickley’s most popular cultural practices these days is venting greens.
“We vent the greens every month whether they need it or not,” he says. “Five years ago we didn’t vent at all.”
Slattery, who has been at Locust Hill for 21 years, isn’t sure if it was foresight, but he says he has put much effort into improving the course’s drainage over the last several years. He has overseen the building of retention ponds and the installation of a new irrigation system.
For superintendents, water management always has been about getting water onto your golf course as fast as possible and off of your golf course as fast as possible, Slattery says.
“And that is becoming even more important because of the extreme weather,” he adds. “Because when you get a 2-inch rainfall or a half-inch rainfall, you have to get that water off the golf course quick. And when going through an extremely dry period, you need to get water out there very quick.”
At Rancho Santa Fe, Barrier has removed 18 acres of turfgrass and replaced it with drought-resistant native landscape to cut back on irrigation. Barrier is all for irrigating with reclaimed water, but that is not so easy.
“Our closest reclaimed water source is almost 3.5 miles away,” he says, estimating it would cost about $17 million to build infrastructure for the club to connect and irrigate with the source.
With the extreme changes in weather, superintendents realize they may have to change their approaches to turf management as well.
“You try to gear up and anticipate what’s going to happen, and you just roll with it,” Brickley says. “The best trait we have as superintendents is our ability to adapt to Mother Nature.”
Being at Locust Hill for 21 years has helped Slattery with his approach. He knows the ins and outs of the course well, such as areas that stay wetter than others as well as areas more apt to succumb to turf disease. Slattery has kept a journal for years on the agronomic nuances of the course.
Barrier says Rancho Santa Fe was able to survive the Great Recession when 100 members left the course, and he believes the club and course will survive the current drought and anything else that Mother Nature might hurl at it.
“We just adapt and do the best we can with what we have to work with,” Barrier says.
As far as superintendents dealing with changing climate, Barrier has no doubts that they will prevail.
“You’re not going to find a tougher group of people than superintendents,” he says. “We are survivors.”