Tim Barrier is a golf course superintendent, but you might figure he’s a certified public accountant with the way he talks numbers. That’s what happens when you’re a superintendent in California these days.

The Golden State has turned to toast the last three years because of an unprecedented drought, one of the most severe in the state’s history. Because of the drought and subsequent increase in water prices, Barrier, the certified golf course superintendent at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in San Diego, has turned golf course irrigation into a numbers game. Listen to Barrier as he talks figures related to his course removing 18 acres of turf and planting drought-resistant native plants and grasses in its place to reduce water use.

“[The turf reduction] will save us about 17 percent of water a year, which is about 45 acre feet of water. That’s about $90,000,” Barrier says, noting the course’s annual water bill is about $600,000.

Not only is the course saving money on water, it’s also saving another 3 percent on its maintenance budget from not having to mow and maintain those 18 acres, Barrier adds.

Considering water prices in the area are rising 6 to 12 percent annually, Barrier calculates that the turf reduction project made solid business sense.

“The economics of golf and water are super critical here,” Barrier says.

When it comes to golf and water in California, superintendents must be highly educated, much more than their peers in other parts of the country. They, literally, must watch every drop of water they use.

“We have to be uniquely efficient,” Barrier says.

That said, California superintendents can teach their brethren across the country a few things about irrigation efficiency. And numbers, too.

Dealing with dry

Despite a wet end to 2014, there are no signs the drought, in its fourth year, is letting up. In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages.

Barrier said in early February that spring was six weeks ahead of schedule in Southern California, with temperatures already in the mid-70s.

“The bermudagrass is usually dormant and brown this time of year,” Barrier says. “It’s already green.”

That means Barrier will spend more on water.

“It’s going to be a real challenge this year,” he says. “We really need rain badly.”

What also worries Barrier is that the mountains in California, particularly the Sierra Madre Mountains in the southwestern part of the state, have no snowpack. Usually, the Sierras have about 15 feet of snowpack this time of year.

About 125 miles away, near Los Angeles, Steve Sinclair, the certified golf course superintendent at Woodland Hills Country Club, says he hasn’t seen a drought like this one in his 23 years at the course. Like Barrier, he begins to recite numbers.

“Ninety-nine percent of our annual rainfall falls between October and April; we get about 17.5 inches a year during those seven months,” Sinclair says. “The last three years we’ve received a total of about 17.5 inches. So, we’ve received in three years what we normally get in one year.”

At Pebble Beach Golf Links in Monterey, California, Director of Golf Course Maintenance Chris Dalhamer, who has lived for than 40 years in central California, knows the drought is one for the books.

“This is historical,” he says.

So historical that Dalhamer plans to take classes this spring to become a certified irrigation auditor to learn more about how to deal with it.

A bad thing about the drought is that it forces high water prices – people use less when it costs more. “And those high prices force everybody to think long and hard about every decision they’ll make about water use,” Dalhamer says.

Pebble Beach irrigates with reclaimed water supplied by the Carmel, California, area wastewater district, which operates a reverse osmosis plant built a few years ago. That the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District built a few years ago. Because of the drought and increased water prices, residents have cut back on their water use and are creating less wastewater. Hence, Pebble Beach has a limited supply of reclaimed water for irrigation.

“If the people who live on the Monterey Peninsula cut back water use 20 percent, then we have 20 percent less to use for irrigation,” Dalhamer says. “Even though were on 100 percent reclaimed, we’re feeling [the shortage] big time because we don’t have enough reclaimed water to irrigate. It’s a vicious circle.”

SOURCE: THE U.S. DROUGHT MONITOR IS JOINTLY PRODUCED BY THE NATIONAL DROUGHT MITIGATION CENTER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA-LINCOLN, THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, AND THE NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION. MAP COURTESY OF NDMC-UNL. 

Setting the bar

While California superintendents are accustomed to watering wisely because of recurring droughts and high prices, this mother of all droughts has forced them to take water management to a new level.

The turf removal program that Barrier oversaw at his course is happening throughout the state, with local water agencies offering rebates to courses that do so. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California paid the entire $1.2 million cost for Rancho Santa Fe’s turf removal program.

Sinclair says Woodland Hills was one of the first groups of golf courses in California to remove turf when it replaced 7 acres with drought-resistant native plants and non-irrigated grass, going from 70 acres of maintained turf to 63. Sinclair plans to remove 4 acres more.

“The turf areas we’ve taken out are mostly out-of-play areas,” he says.

Sinclair realizes there will always be people who want a parkland-style golf course with grass, grass and more grass.

“But that’s just not reality here,” he adds.

California superintendents also may know the art of pushing turf to the brink better than their peers. At Rancho Santa Fe, Barrier will push the Poa annua greens three to four days without watering them. When the greens reach 14 percent moisture on the moisture meter and are foot-printing, Barrier will bring out the hoses and syringe them. He’ll hit them with a deep irrigation cycle that night.

“We have a solid plan in place,” he says.

Technology is key

Barrier, Dalhamer and Sinclair utilize all the tools possible to water efficiently, which means keeping their courses’ irrigation systems up to date.

Two years ago, Pebble Beach installed a new irrigation system with single-head control.

“Not everybody has that luxury, so you have to manage to the strengths of the technology when you do,” Dalhamer says.

With single-head control, Dalhamer can pinpoint areas on the course that need more water than others. To pinpoint means to scout, and Dalhamer and his two assistants each oversee six holes at Pebble Beach. They study areas that need more water than others and set the single-head control accordingly. The goal is to provide excellent playability while saving as much water as possible.

“We challenge each other to manage on the edge a bit,” Dalhamer says. “You want to push turf to the point where playing surfaces are acceptable and you’re being as efficient as you can with your water. You have a much better chance of doing that successfully with new technology.”

Twice during Barrier’s jurisdiction at Rancho Santa Fe, the course’s irrigation system has been retrofitted, including with a new control system.

“We’ve gradually been developing the golf course to be more drought-resistant,” Barrier says, noting that a drought-resistant course equates to a more durable course.

Barrier’s strategy is to water deeply and infrequently and use plenty of surfactants and wetting agents to control water.

In 2010, Woodland Hills received a new irrigation system, which also features single-head control. The head times are adjusted as the sun changes position in the sky throughout the year.

Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in San Diego recently removed 18 acres of turf and planted drought-resistant native plants and grasses in its place, which will save about 17 percent of water a year.PHOTO COURTESY OF RANCHO SANTA FE GOLF CLUB 

“The winter months are completely different from the summer months because of the angle of the sun,” Sinclair explains. “There are areas that will get too wet if we irrigate them the same percentage in the winter that we do in the summer. In the spring, when the sun starts getting higher, we have to make percentage changes on those heads again to adjust for the sun being higher in the sky and the more sunlight in those areas.

“We’re always adjusting. It’s never ending.”

Irrigation audits help

Sinclair says superintendents can improve irrigation efficiency by having a third party conduct an irrigation audit at their courses. Most golf courses haven’t had an irrigation audit, but it can be revealing. For instance, an audit could reveal that irrigation distribution uniformity can be improved by 25 percent with improvements to the irrigation system, Sinclair says.

But irrigation audits, not to mention new irrigation systems and upgrades, cost money. Dalhamer says superintendents need to look at the return on investment when considering a new irrigation system or a partial upgrade. They can’t just look at the price.

“If you have an old, aging system and you’re losing 10 percent of your water, and water prices are going through the roof, then you could probably pay for your irrigation system by becoming more efficient,” he says.

Dalhamer is thankful that Pebble Beach had a new irrigation system when the drought hit.

“If we still had the old system, I would have a lot more challenges, and the turf quality wouldn’t be what we’ve been able to achieve,” he notes.

Barrier’s goal is to stay ahead of water issues, be it in a drought or not. He plans for the future, which means setting aside funds for irrigation upgrades and other water-saving projects. Barrier advises superintendents to micro-manage their irrigation systems, if they’re not already doing so.

“If you’re not paying attention to it, it can completely flip your budget upside down,” he says.

Education and more education

While superintendents have heard it before, it’s vital to educate owners, members and others about the importance of efficient irrigation in alliance with everyone’s expectations. Everyone must be on the same page, Dalhamer says.

“As superintendents, it’s our job to provide them as much information as possible about climate, our challenges, how much water we’re using and how up to date a course’s irrigation technology is,” Dalhamer says. “They need to know these things so they can make educated decisions. And we need to tell them about new technology that could be a good investment.”

Superintendents also need to be transparent in their water use. For instance, in Los Angeles nobody is pointing fingers at golf courses for sucking up the water, Sinclair says, noting that area superintendents have themselves to thank for that. About five years ago, during a minor drought, Sinclair and other superintendents met with brass from the L.A. Department of Water and Power to educate them about their water use.

“We wanted to show them how efficient we are,” Sinclair says.

Sinclair says he and his peers convinced LADWP officials that they would never overwater their courses simply because they couldn’t afford to.

“We had to educate them that we were in this with them, and we want to save as much water as possible,” Sinclair says.

Los Angeles-area superintendents and the LADWP have formed a trusting relationship, Sinclair says. In fact, many superintendents accepted an offer from the LADWP to take seminars on becoming better water managers.

“We have an open dialogue with their water cops,” Sinclair says. “We have a good relationship with them.”

Some say trends begin in California and head east. If that’s true, will golf courses in the Midwest, South and East someday be taking out turf so it doesn’t have to be irrigated?

“There’s only so much water on this planet that’s usable, and the population continues to increase,” Sinclair says.

About half the country is in some form of drought – from “exceptional” in Southern California to “abnormally dry” in central Pennsylvania – according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Golf courses across the U.S. already are experiencing increased prices with potable and reclaimed water, and experts say the days of courses receiving free water will soon come to an end.

There’s something to be learned from the water management ways of California superintendents.

COVER PHOTO BY LAWRENCE AYLWARD