Better living through chemigation

How solving a freshwater mussel problem helped save water at Horseshoe Bay Resort.


Summit Rock at Horseshoe Bay
Summit Rock at Horseshoe Bay Resort is a Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course in Horseshoe Bay, Texas. Photo courtesy of The Club at Horseshoe Bay Resort

For Rey Gomez, the road to water-use reduction started with a freshwater mussel problem. Twenty-seven holes at the 72-hole Horseshoe Bay Resort are irrigated with effluent from an adjacent water-treatment plant, while 45 are irrigated straight from a man-made, horseshoe-shaped lake formed by damming the Lower Colorado River. So many shell fragments were coming through the system from the lake water that Gomez’s irrigation technicians spent half their time picking bits from clogged irrigation heads. By hand.

“I put a valve in, downstream, trying to flush them all out, but that didn’t work,” says Gomez, a GCSAA Class A superintendent who has been at the resort outside Austin, Texas, for 17 years, the last two as director of agronomy. “Having to clean literally hundreds of sprinklers a day is no way to be efficient. It was also just a terrible job for the crews. I was, like, there has got to be a better solution.”

That solution turned out to be a chemigation system that dissolved the shells into a mush that passes without incident through the irrigation system. As a game-changing bonus, the same hydrochloride formula Gomez now injects — via that chemigation capability — has also enhanced the porosity of his soils. He also believes it diminished localized dry spot, curtailed his fertilizer and wetting agent use, and reduced his consumption of lake water by 30%.

In the three years since installation, Gomez, a 26-year GCSAA member, has achieved and experienced all this with an added layer of perspective: He can observe what he spends today on water and inputs for those 45 holes, then compare those figures to what he spent pre-chemigation.

However, because only 45 holes at Horseshoe Bay are treated with the WaterSOLV product from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HCT LLC, Gomez can also lay those results beside what’s happening on the other 27 holes across the street, which have not been treated with the same hydrochloride solution. Not yet, anyway.

“We have a company that manages our lake system, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and we buy our water from them,” explains Gomez, a sitting board member with the LCRA Water Conservation Incentive Program. “So, I don’t need to estimate this sort of thing: I pay for my allotment, which used to be 1,475 acre-feet per year. Last year, for those 45 holes, I used 968 acre-feet. And we’re in a drought.

Rey Gomez, the GCSAA Class A superintendent and director of agronomy at Horseshoe Bay Resort, has been taking care of the resort's golf courses for 17 years. Photos courtesy of Rey Gomez

Rey Gomez

“We pay for water out of lake, so we saved 30% right there, and that’s been a consistent thing the last three years. That last two years have been some of the worst drought summers I’ve experienced here in Texas, and I’ve worked here my whole career, 25 years. To be able to show that kind of water savings overall? Without being asked or mandated to reduce usage? Well, that’s just so important. It shows we are responsible, as a facility and a neighbor.

“All the same, this is a high-end resort, and we have 6,000 members. Like anyone else in my position, no matter where you are, we’re expected to have the best conditions possible. Even with the drought, we’ve been able to give folks great conditioning. It feels like we’re onto something here.”

Two birds, one stone

Horseshoe Bay Resort, an hour’s drive northwest of the state capital, is massive. Its 2,500 acres accommodate 72 holes of golf, a 400-room hotel, a marina and yacht club, and a dedicated airport. In addition to those four courses, Gomez looks after a new 18-hole putting course grassed entirely with Trinity zoysiagrass, which “has worked out really well,” he says. “We can get those little greens rolling at 8 or 9.”

On the regulation golf holes, all 72 greens are 007 bentgrass, with collars of Diamond zoysia. Everything else is turfed with 419. Gomez says there is talk of two more regulation 18s and maybe a 13-hole, lighted par-3 course.

The man who looks after all this is a busy fellow, and he has built a massive, expert team to help him do so. That leaves him plenty of time to test the water quality from his dual sources.

“I am constantly testing the water because we do have high pH: about 8,” he says. “That’s what comes straight out of the lake, which is what they call a ‘constant-level’ lake. It surrounds the water-treatment facility right next to us. The plant treats the lake water, but it also uses lake water to recharge the pumps and keep them cool. That’s why it must be maintained at certain levels; if we get floods, we let water out downstream.

“Typically, effluent is bad quality. But I have to say, the city does a great job treating it. I tell people that, and they don’t quite believe me. You’d think the bicarbonates would be off the charts, but they’re not. Sodium levels aren’t as high either, compared to the lake water.”

Gomez was looking to kill two birds with one stone: deal with the mussel shells gumming up his irrigation heads and improve the lake water quality serving those 45 holes. He first heard of HCT from one of his vendors, a former superintendent at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale. That referral makes sense. At that stage, circa 2020, HCT’s uniquely prescriptive soil and water remediation services were used by only a few golf course superintendents. But all of them were in Greater Phoenix, which explains the Desert Mountain connection.

Irrigation systems at Horseshoe Bay
Thanks to a chemigation system, Gomez has been able to reduce Horseshoe Bay's dependence on lake water by 30%.

“At first, we worked primarily in the well world, on behalf of municipalities,” says HCT founder and CEO Todd Eden. “Today we work with more than 220 golf course clients, and most of them come to us looking for better turf vitality and soil health. It’s no accident that we’re based in Scottsdale, where the water situation, in terms of quality and volume, is less than ideal. As for the shells, it’s a really big issue here, too. It’s an issue everywhere Colorado River water goes. We’ve certainly attracted a lot of golf course clients because of that capability.”

HCT serves soil, water and well clients via a brand called WaterSOLV, which provides proprietary chemical solutions that allow the sustainable treatment and remediation of water and, eventually, the soils absorbing that water. It’s a testing service that takes the next step: prescription.

“We test, then share exhaustive water and soil analysis with clients, measuring total soil composition, available plant nutrition and nutritional needs,” Eden says. “Our chemigation treatments are based around the injection of carefully calibrated doses of a proprietary blend containing hydrochloride in one and hydrogen peroxide in the other.”

HCT treats irrigation water that, in turn, with more finely tuned chemistry, remediates the soil. Its products are functional, like acids and antiseptics. “We sell through authorized, qualified dealers,” Eden adds. “Our job is making water, soil and nutrition more available for plant uptake, which naturally leads to lower sodium percentages, increased pore space, vegetation optimization, lowered costs and a more substantial ROI.”

The road ahead for Horseshoe Bay

Because of his busy schedule, Gomez nearly balked at the whole Arizona fact-finding mission. “I was skeptical,” he recalls. “It seemed sort of too good to be true. But this vendor friend was like, ‘Hey, I know these guys who are using it. Let’s take a trip.’

“And, man, I’m glad he convinced me. I talked to all the supers themselves, but I got as much feedback from the irrigation guys, especially on the water and soil side. They were like, ‘Man, this has made a world of difference with dry spot and compaction. When we run out of this stuff, things start firming up, and we tell the superintendent: Get more!’ That was enlightening.”

That was February 2021. Upon his return, Gomez pulled the trigger on a chemigation installation, serving those 45 holes, in September of the same year. WaterSOLV offers two formulations, one built around hydrochloric acid, the other hydrogen peroxide. Gomez has deployed only the former, which, according to Eden, is designed specifically to isolate or sequester sodium and bicarbonates, thereby making a host of nutrients — nitrogen and calcium among them — more available to the turfgrass plant.

“Look, I’m not a chemist,” Gomez says. “But what I’ve noticed is, on those HCT holes, I’m using less wetting agents. My fertilizer inputs are a lot less. And we’ve talked about the reduction in water use. I just think this increases the pore space in the soil. So, it helps with compaction, and the grass does better. It almost seems like it releases nutrients that I know are there but have been tied up in the soil profile for whatever reason.”

Irrigation systems at Horseshoe Bay
The crew at work on the course at Horseshoe Bay Resort. Gomez's solution to getting rid of mussel shell fragments has also helped the course conserve water and save money.

It almost feels like an afterthought today, but the shell problem also went away. According to Eden, shells are dissolved over time at 3 parts per million, or three gallons of product per a million gallons of water. What’s more, as shells are dissolved, they become soluble calcium for plant vegetation uptake while not adding scale-forming calcium to soils.

“We started out at a level of four parts per million,” Gomez says. “In time, based on results, we decreased it to two, 2.5 parts per million. Currently, we’re running at 1.5 parts per million, so our costs related to HCT have also gone down. … We continue to use the same cultural practices we always have, and to be honest, that has become harder: Golf really taken off around here since COVID. We’re super busy. But the turf quality we’ve been able to maintenance, considering all this? Well, I’ve been very pleased.”

At this stage, with 18 to 36 additional holes pending, plus that proposed par-3 loop, the question is, where else will Gomez deploy the chemigation? The long-term goal for all of Horseshoe Bay Resort is 100% treated water, he says. Gomez is convinced the 27 holes using the effluent today are getting more nutrients, at far lower pH levels, with no chemigation. His input levels over there are already lower, compared to the 45 holes across the street.

“But this chemigation process is something I will incorporate on the other side,” Gomez says. “That’s the plan. I’m curious to see how it will work over there, whether it helps with dry spots and overall turf health. The goal is to use effluent on all the golf courses eventually. That’s the future. But I’m curious. Water is such a big issue in the state of Texas. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

In the end, Gomez has irrigation options today he never dreamed he’d have three years ago.

“We had a supers meeting south of Austin yesterday,” Gomez said in early March. “I’ve mentioned what I’m doing with the chemigation to a bunch of those guys. People are starting to use it, too. I’ve got two colleagues who have just started with the WaterSOLV — one in San Antonio, another in Hutto, Texas. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.”

Hal Phillips is the managing director of Mandarin Media and a frequent contributor to GCM.