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Research

Water conservation and Cooperative Extension turfgrass programs in the Desert Southwest

Golf facilities in Arizona that participated in Cooperative Extension programming adopted more water conservation practices and used 16% less water per irrigated acre than other facilities.

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Water audits allow superintendents to pinpoint deficiencies in their irrigation systems.
Photo by Kai Umeda


Water conservation is critically important in the arid southwestern United States. As some of the largest irrigators in urban areas, golf facilities in the Southwest must balance various pressures on their irrigation water use. Facilities must maintain the aesthetic appeal and playability of turfgrass nearly year-round to attract golfers, while also managing costs associated with water use. Not only is water conservation driven by a facility’s bottom line, but there is a strong public ethos demanding that the golf industry be a responsible steward of limited natural resources. 

Water conservation can be achieved through modifications to course design, investment in irrigation system upgrades, and the implementation of water-saving turfgrass management practices. For golf course superintendents throughout the country, Cooperative Extension (CE) is an important source of information about turfgrass management practices and efficient use of inputs, including irrigation water. This study compares management practices at golf facilities in Arizona whose superintendents have participated in University of Arizona Cooperative Extension turfgrass education programming with practices at facilities whose superintendents have not participated. This analysis relies on data from a recently conducted statewide survey.

Arizona golf facilities

Arizona is a popular golf destination, drawing visitors from around the world and offering golf to seasonal and permanent residents alike. A large majority of Arizona’s golf facilities are concentrated in the Phoenix metropolitan area and the metro Tucson area, both of which are in arid desert regions of the state. Many golf tourists visit during winter, which is considered the peak season for most of the state’s golf facilities. That said, golf is played year-round in Arizona, and irrigation occurs year-round. 

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When isolated areas of the golf course, particularly greens, are too dry, hand-watering can be an effective remedy, and one that does not waste water.
Photo by Kai Umeda

In 2014, Arizona’s 300-plus golf facilities used an estimated 167,397 acre-feet of irrigation water to irrigate roughly 34,000 acres of turfgrass. About a third of golf irrigation water use was effluent (1). Irrigation water source varies across the state. Some areas rely heavily on groundwater, but others have a more diversified portfolio of water sources, such as Central Arizona Project water, surface water and effluent. Reclaimed water is a strategic water source for golf course irrigation in many parts of the state, but increasing demand for reclaimed water by other industries necessitates achieving greater efficiencies through technology and management practices.

CE participation and adoption of management practices 

The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension’s turfgrass program connects experts in plant sciences, soil sciences, entomology and other specializations with turfgrass management professionals throughout the state. Extension outreach activities include presentations at seminars and field days, and providing publications and information resources, such as evapotranspiration (ET) data for irrigation. 

A statewide survey of golf facilities was performed by the University of Arizona Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension in cooperation with the Cactus & Pine GCSA. A portion of the survey collected information on turf management and resource conservation practices. Golf course superintendents were also asked to indicate whether they had participated in University of Arizona Cooperative Extension programs such as workshops, seminars or field days. Statistical analysis was used to compare the management practices of golf course facilities whose superintendents reported having participated in CE programming with practices at facilities whose superintendents had not participated.

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Superintendents can reduce water use by using in-ground moisture sensors and/or hand-held moisture meters to monitor the turf to determine whether it is receiving the correct amount of irrigation.
Photo by Brian Whitlark, USGA

Although this type of analysis does not establish a causal link between CE participation and management practice outcomes, it does reveal interesting differences in management practices and facility characteristics between the two groups. There was no statistically significant difference between facilities whose superintendents had participated in CE programming in terms of most basic descriptive characteristics of the facility, such as total number of holes, course type (public, private or semiprivate), location of the golf course (residential real estate development, resort, park, military base or tribal land), whether the facility is managed by a third-party management company, or whether the facility is located within a major urban corridor county in Arizona (Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties). Likewise, there was no statistically significant difference in total acreage of the full golf facility, acreage of the golf course, acreage of turfgrass, or irrigated acreage. There was, however, a difference in the year the golf facility first opened. Facilities that participated in CE programming were generally constructed more recently — on average, in 1989 — while facilities that did not participate in CE programming opened, on average, in 1978. Another difference was that facilities that participated in CE programming used, on average, less irrigation water per irrigated acre (4.8 acre-feet/irrigated acre) than facilities that did not participate in such programming (5.7 acre-feet/irrigated acre) (significant at the 94% confidence level).

The survey 

Questions

The survey asked respondents to indicate whether they had employed any of the following management practices associated with water conservation.

  • Used soil wetting agent
  • Adjusted fertilization practices
  • Eliminated irrigation in selected areas
  • Reduced rough or fairway irrigation
  • Aerified fairways and/or greens
  • Hand-watered greens and/or areas of fair-ways
  • Used in-ground moisture sensors and/or hand-held moisture meters
  • Modified current irrigation system
  • Installed or improved drainage systems on the golf course on fairways, greens or bunkers
  • Used a water treatment or recirculation system for fertilizer or pesticide applications
  • Raised mowing heights
  • Walk-mowed greens
  • Scouted for insect pests, weeds and diseases
  • Modified irrigation scheduling to manage insects, weeds or diseases
  • Used automated weather stations

Results

Facilities with superintendents who participated in CE programming had statistically significant higher adoption rates of use of soil wetting agents; hand-watering greens and/or areas in fairways; installing or improving drainage systems on fairways, greens or bunkers; and using water treatment or recirculation systems for fertilizer or pesticide applications (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Adoption of management practices associated with water conservation by golf facilities in Arizona whose superintendents did or did not participate in Cooperative Extension activities.
*Statistically significant at >90% level; **statistically significant at >95% level; ***statistically significant at >99% level.

Some management practices had near-universal adoption among all survey respondents, such as the use of soil wetting agents and aerification of fairways and greens. In all cases but one, facilities that participated in CE programming had higher adoption rates of management practices associated with conservation, though the differences in rates were not statistically significant in all cases. The single management practice for which facilities with nonparticipants had higher adoption rates was elimination of irrigation in selected areas — but the difference in adoption rates was not statistically significant. 

A count variable of the total number of management practices employed by respondents proved to be statistically significant at the 99% level, with CE-participant facilities implementing 10 management practices on average, compared with eight management practices on average for facilities that were not CE participants.

Conservation partnerships. Results showed that the difference in rates of participation in conservation partnerships was not statistically significant for CE-participant and non-CE-participant facilities. A common conservation partnership for golf facilities is the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf, which focuses on encouraging management practices that create suitable habitat for migratory birds and wildlife.

Overseeding. Overseeding is a common management practice in southern climates. A recent University of Arizona CE publication (2) states that “in the lower elevation desert of Arizona, the warm-season turfgrasses (ber-mudagrass, zoysiagrass, and St. Augustinegrass) become dormant and typically lose their green color during winter. Overseeding bermudagrass with a cool-season grass provides a yearlong green turf. An overseeded winter turf provides an aesthetic landscape and functionally provides turf for sports.” 

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Figure 2. Use of overseeding practices and painting or coloring of turf by golf facilities in Arizona whose superintendents did or did not participate in Cooperative Extension activities. *Statistically significant at >90% level.


Overseeding, however, requires significant amounts of irrigation water for turfgrass establishment. Therefore, selectively practicing overseeding in high-priority areas or avoiding it through alternative practices can help reduce irrigation demand. Survey results indicate that, at the 93% confidence level, CE-participant facilities less commonly overseed greens and more often paint or color greens instead of overseeding. All other overseeding practices showed no statistically significant difference between facilities that are CE participants and those that are not (Figure 2). 

Conclusions

Continued pressure on water resources in arid regions requires that golf facilities adapt by adopting water conservation practices. Superintendents stay apprised of best management practices through a variety of resources, one of which is Cooperative Extension. In Arizona, golf facilities whose superintendents have participated in CE turfgrass programming use more water conservation practices than facilities whose superintendents have not participated. On average, facilities involved with CE used 16% less water per irrigated acre. 

There is always the question of whether differences in practices can be fully attributed to CE participation. It is probable that participants use all available resources, including allied industry sources, that assist them in conserving and using water efficiently as it is. For example, superintendents that are conservation-minded might be more likely to seek out CE expertise and advice. Yet, across a broad range of facility characteristics, facilities with CE participation did not differ significantly from facilities without participation.

The correlation between CE participation and water-conserving management practices may be important to understand in developing research and education for targeting audiences in the future within the state. Additionally, identifying and quantifying adoption levels for specific management practices can be helpful to focus efforts on promoting relevant practices where gains in adoption and water conservation can be best achieved.

Acknowledgments

The survey data used for this analysis was collected as part of a study conducted by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension for the Cactus & Pine GCSA.

Literature cited

  1. Duval, D., A Kerna, G. Frisvold, K. Umeda and R. Li. 2016. Contribution of the golf industry to the Arizona economy in 2014. University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. (http://cals.arizona.edu/arec/publication/contribution-golf-industry-arizona-economy-2014) Accessed July 10, 2017.
  2. Kopec, D., and K. Umeda. 2015. Overseeding winter grasses into bermudagrass turf. University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Publication AZ1683. (http://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1683-2015.pdf) Accessed July 10, 2017.

Dari Duval and Ashley Kerna are economic impact analysts and George Frisvold is a professor in agricultural resource economics and an Extension specialist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Kai Umeda is an area Extension agent in turfgrass science at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa County Cooperative Extension office in Phoenix.