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Golf column: Superintendents obeying thirst for water conservation

It's easy to forget about water conservation until you're thirsty, but golf course superintendents are working to get ahead of that game.

Even as spring rains follow on the heels of a soggy winter, superintendents along the Grand Strand and across the Carolinas are waging an in-house campaign to make every drop count.

In partnership with university researchers including those at Clemson in the Upstate and the Pee Dee Research Center in Florence, superintendents have developed a new program to measure how efficiently golf courses use water and where they might do even better.

First, superintendents are using an online service to effectively provide an inventory of everything they do with water, how much they use, how often and with what equipment over what acreage.

As that data is tabulated on the Best Management Practices Scorecard, the reporting golf course will accrue a score.

That score will help inform an action plan and recommendations for future adjustments or overhauls that courses might employ.

The final phase of the water conservation program will center on water quality management.

"Water conservation might seem about as much fun as the debate over health care at the moment," Clay DuBose, certified superintendent and general manager at the Tradition Golf Club, said.

"But the fact is both subjects are pretty important. Water is a little like health insurance, I suppose, in that you can be in all sorts of trouble if you haven't got it."

DuBose adds that the fact golf is working on water conservation, even in times of plenty, is a sure sign of the industry's commitment.

"Some people are under the misapprehension that the industry is wasteful with water," he says.

"I think a lot of that is simply a result of how visible golf is when it turns on the irrigation.

"There are other industries that use as much or more water but it's not in the public consciousness because it happens behind a factory wall."

DuBose said golf has been a good water citizen for many years and wants to be better still.

"Apart from sound environmental sense, reducing water use makes good business sense," he said.

Today's computerized irrigation systems are expensive to buy, install, run and repair.

But they do get more out of the water they disperse.

Sophisticated sensors and remote capabilities allow superintendents to make myriad adjustments in flow, timing and spread patterns at a moment's notice.

The United States Geological Survey estimates that the U.S. consumes 408 billion gallons every day.

A landmark national survey by the Environmental Institute for Golf released in 2007 found that nationally golf course irrigation accounts for one-half of 1 percent of that amount.

Moreover, more than 85 percent of golf courses fulfill their irrigation needs using non-drinking water supplies such as wells, storm water, on-site ponds and lakes and recycled water.

That's a significant statistic in that it speaks to how little golf actually draws on municipal drinking water supplies.

The same 2007 survey found that about two-thirds (65 percent) of golf courses nationally had upgraded their irrigation systems in the previous past decade.

Over a similar period, almost half (44 percent) the golf courses in the nation converted an average of almost 10 acres of maintained turf to non-irrigated natural areas.

A similar percentage (51 percent) introduced native plant materials best-suited to the local climate.

"Superintendents are as aware as anybody that droughts are a fact of life, so the more efficient we are with water today not only saves water for tomorrow, it makes us less vulnerable when drought does hit," DuBose says.

The work of Clemson researchers in the water conservation program is along the lines of research efforts that will benefit from proceeds of a major online golf auction starting April 7.

Rounds4Research.com offers golfers the chance to bid and buy foursomes at more than 650 courses across the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas and Virginia.

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