Dealing with drought

By combining an understanding of Mother Nature’s patterns, technology, the right grass types and a willingness to innovate, turfgrass managers can survive — and thrive — during times of water shortages. 


photo illustration of golf course and drought
Golf courses around the country — but particularly in the American West — routinely face drought conditions. Technology and the right turf types can help superintendents manage these situations. Photo illustration by worradirek/

Water is the lifeblood of a golf course. But as any golf course superintendent can tell you, the use and management of water is a complex issue, and each golf course has its own unique situation.

Complicating things even more is the occurrence of droughts. Drought has been defined as a deficiency of moisture that results in adverse impacts over a sizable area. Or more simply, is there enough water to meet the need? This is certainly a question that faces those in golf course management.

Drought can affect any region. Abnormally dry conditions occur sporadically with no obvious cycle. Even regions that are typically dry or have seasonal dry periods can face times when water is even more limited than normal.

Cause and effect

In terms of the meteorology and science behind droughts, the culprits are upper-level ridges of high pressure found thousands of feet above the earth’s surface. A ridge is a huge mound of warm air. It effectively blocks any storm systems from bringing clouds and precipitation. The air is sinking in these areas, warming and drying as it descends to the ground. Few clouds block the heating rays from the sun during the day. Droughts are typically associated with above-normal temperatures, sometimes record-breaking heat in the summer. For droughts, the ridge pattern is semipermanent; often, one ridge may move out or dissipate only to be replaced by another one. And this pattern can persist for months or years.

To quantify drought severity, the Drought Monitor was developed. It utilizes a variety of numeric inputs and data that experts synthesize, along with their own experience and expertise in the field, into a representative value. The results are typically displayed in map form. The U.S. version can be found at, while the Canadian map is at

Drought conditions are broken down into two categories — short term and long term, with six months being the dividing point between the two. For golf courses, short term would apply to watering or irrigation needs and drawdown of smaller water reserves. Long term would impact overall water supplies in an area and native vegetation.

A forecast of future drought conditions in the U.S. can be obtained at For Canada, go to

However, one should remember that long-term weather patterns like a drought situation are notoriously difficult to forecast.

The drought in the Western U.S. started in 2000 and is now referred to as a “megadrought,” defined as one that lasts for decades. Even more concerning is the fact that in a recent study, researchers determined that this is the worst drought in the West in at least 1,000 years. The winter wet season along the West Coast and the summer monsoon storms in the Southwest are no longer reliable.

The wet season got off to an early start this year with substantial October rains and heavy valley rains and mountain snows in December. But as 2022 started, the pattern abruptly changed, and this January to March was the driest ever in California and other parts of the West.

lake dredging project
A lake-dredging project at Leisure World Community Association in Mesa, Ariz., allowed superintendent Ryan Standifird and his team to collect runoff and flood waters to augment their use of ground water. Photo courtesy of Ryan Standifird

Trusted sources

Without consistent rainfall, turfgrass must be irrigated. Irrigation systems must be able to tap some form of water source.

Of course, drought conditions not only directly affect golf courses, but also their water sources.

At Leisure World Community Association in Mesa, Ariz., Ryan Standifird, GCSAA Class A superintendent and landscape manager, tackled his water-source challenges by contracting with a company that dug five wells on his property to provide the much-needed water. So far, the 17-year GCSAA member says there has been no problem with the lowering of the water table as a result of these new wells.

Other courses already have access to municipal water lines for potable water that they can use for irrigation. Sean Tully, the GCSAA Class A director of grounds at Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif., says his facility uses local municipal water, but to make up for shortages, it also purchases additional water. But potable water is often expensive, and if needed in great quantities, the expense can be prohibitive.

Reclaimed water — municipal wastewater or gray water that has been treated to varying degrees and can then be reused — is another growing option for golf courses facing drought.

But its use does not come without considerations. Dale Bremer, Ph.D., a professor and director of graduate programs in horticulture and natural resources at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., is an expert on turfgrasses and drought and says reclaimed water “must be safe with no biological activity in it.”

Scott Sutton, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at The Club at Sunrise in Las Vegas and a 31-year member of the association, says his course has always used reclaimed water.

In Nevada, wastewater is graded from A to E in terms of quality and potential use. A+, the most treated, is potable. Golf courses can use water rated down to C. Today, he says “almost every golf course in the valley is now on reclaimed water.”

And the reclaimed water in Las Vegas is not just given to the golf courses: They must pay for it.

Another significant consideration when using reclaimed water is how to get it to the golf course. It must be transported separately from potable water, which means a separate, clearly labeled pipeline.

“We are in a unique situation given our location that makes our course special on the shoulder of Mount Tam (or Mount Tamalpais),” says Tully, a 24-year GCSAA member.  “At the same time, that makes access to reclaimed water an expensive proposition.

Although the quality of the reclaimed water is much better now than in the past, Sutton says salinity is a real problem. Part of this is due to the increase in population, but recently the decrease in water levels in Lake Mead due to the drought has concentrated the salt content.

Salt tolerance can be a major concern in turf selection and will be discussed later.

The Club at Sunrise
The Club at Sunrise in Las Vegas has long used reclaimed water as a part of its operations, a common tactic to defend against drought in that part of the world. Photo courtesy of Photos courtesy of Scott Sutton

Turning to technology

Technology can help manage irrigation and conserve water. Bremer says we’ve come a long way since irrigation was just done on a set schedule with no allowance for actual conditions. “With soil moisture sensors, you’re actually measuring the amount of water in the soil,” Bremer says. “And soil moisture readings almost always let you use less water.” 

The latest development is the use of drones with special sensors that can determine plant conditions, including water stress. Bremer advocates for “a data management system that incorporates all available observations and helps control the irrigation system.”

Soil moisture tools are a key part of Tully’s arsenal. “We use TDRs for wet/dry areas and hitting goals for soil moisture. We moved Soil Scouts to our managed areas, had drone flights to support hand waterers, and managed any leaks in a timely fashion.” Crew members monitor the greens daily and scout tees and fairways two to three days a week. And finally, “Adjustments are made to our database in an effort to have as much control as possible.”

Standifird has a Field Scout TDR and goes out in the morning to monitor moisture levels. He adjusts the watering amount and makes further adjustments during the day, going out again in the afternoon. “With today’s technology, whatever irrigation system you’re using you can control easily,” he says.

Sutton, like Standifird, closely monitors his turf’s moisture, going out first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon to see how things have changed. He “fine tunes” the irrigation process so as to “only use as much water as the turfgrass needs every day.”

The Club at Sunrise
Dealing with drought has become a way of life for turfgrass managers in Las Vegas, where the Club at Sunrise is located, as well as many other areas along the West Coast and in the Southwest U.S.

Making the right call

With water issues becoming more prevalent, the choice of course turf is even more critical. The turf needs to use less water overall and be drought tolerant. Bremer notes that drought resistance in grasses can come in a variety of ways. “Bermuda generally has a deeper rooting system, so it can mine water from deeper in the soil profile, and this is also true of tall fescue.” Others, such as Kentucky bluegrass “go dormant fairly quickly,” decreasing the need for water.

Generally, Bremer states that warm-season grasses are more efficient in terms of water usage and generally better for drought resistance. He adds that zoysiagrass is “able to tolerate cooler temperatures and can be used for drought resistance in more northern areas.” He does note that bentgrass, a favorite in cooler climates, has a shallow root system and uses more water.

At Leisure World, Standifird maintains common bermudagrass. In Las Vegas, Sutton opted for seashore paspalum at the Club at Sunrise because of its tolerance to high salinity mentioned earlier, making him the first superintendent in the area to make that move. In the cooler climate near San Francisco, Tully tends to a mixture of turf types at Meadow Club but says he may consider a switch to bermudagrass that he says “could reduce water use by 20% to 30%.”

Making the right choice

One of the most effective ways of reducing water usage is by eliminating nonessential turf areas that require irrigation. Of course, this can be an expensive and work-intensive endeavor that should not compromise the playing integrity of the course. Sometimes, the reduction of irrigated acreage has been mandated by local authorities.

Sutton said when the crew renovated the Club at Sunrise a few years ago, it was limited as to how much turf area it could have. “Nonplayable areas were left as desert or converted into a xeriscape, and the fairways were made narrower.”

Standifird faces similar mandated limitations in Mesa. “Arizona has limited golf courses to 90 acres of irrigated turf per course,” he says. Facing a loss of 30% to 35% of its allotted water by 2025, the course applied for a state grant to make the changes but received only enough money to do about one hole. Without more state money, staff members must complete the project on their own.

When they do, they’ll again capitalize on technology to help inform their decisions. Players are currently using GPS transmitters to track where they hit shots and where they go on the golf course. “We’ll use that data over the next few years as we continue to convert turf to desert landscapes,” he says, “particularly rough and perimeters, while limiting the impact on playability.”

At Meadow Club, Tully and his team have made progress in reducing water use and lessening the effects of drought. “We had a 40% reduction based on our water use in 2020,” he says. “Over the past 15 years, we have been identifying areas that had been irrigated and out of play and have slowly taken these areas out of our irrigation pattern. This has helped highlight the natural aspect of the course.”

Lessons learned

All three superintendents think the trials, tribulations and triumphs they’ve experienced in relation to drought and water shortages can offer lessons for other turf managers around the country.

“We’ve developed our practices and have all the tools in place to manage our water the best way we know how,” Tully says. “Even with our evapotranspiration rates going up the past 10 years, our water usage is basically the same.”

Standifird adds, “People have to be smart with water. It could run out, and restrictions need to be across the board.” Having been in the business for 30 years, he says it is “unbelievable how much water is now being saved.”

Ed Brotak, Ph.D., was a longtime professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.