On September 28, 2007, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) declared level-four drought response across the northern third of Georgia following a meeting of the State Drought Response Committee. In a press release issued that day, EPD Director Carol A. Couch stated, “The drought of 2007 has reached historic proportions, so it’s critical that we take immediate action to ensure that Georgians have a sufficient supply of safe drinking water.” Surrounding southeastern states were also affected, with parts of Tennessee, North and South Carolina and Virginia considering, or declaring, similar restrictions.

The remainder of Georgia faces a continuation of level-two restrictions, which limit outdoor watering to three days a week, with those at odd and even addresses watering on alternate days within the hours of midnight to 10 a.m. Under these restrictions, no outdoor watering is allowed on Fridays.

The level-four restrictions in Georgia hit the key metro areas of Atlanta, Athens and Columbus. Level four restricts all outdoor watering except for preset exemptions or situations as exempted by the EPD director. At the commercial level, designated as professionally certified or licensed landscapers, golf course contractors and sports turf landscapers, there are few exemptions, including only: golf course greens, newly installed landscape installations for a 30-day period following installation, watering in of herbicides and pesticides per label instructions, operation of established irrigation systems only for maintenance and adjustments, and newly installed irrigation systems only for testing during installation.

Gray water, cooling system condensate and storm water can be used for outdoor irrigation, but only in compliance with local ordinances, which vary by county and city and may be extremely restrictive. Sites with self-contained irrigation sources, such as facility-owned wells and holding ponds, will find even these sources restricted if there is outflow off-property, or potential outflow off-property anywhere on the site.

Working within restrictions

As with most sports fields within the level-four zone, the timing of the restrictions came at a critical point for the high-profile athletic programs at Georgia Tech. The football program was at mid-season, with daily action on the natural grass practice field and several home games remaining on the schedule. The baseball field would be hosting late fall games as part of a high school recruiting showcase weekend, and those potential students and their families would be touring all of the athletic facilities.

Jon DeWitt, athletic fields manager, says, “Grant Field, the football game field, has a straight sand profile with bermudagrass turf. My predecessor, Kris Harris, oversaw a major renovation of the field including resodding in the spring of 2006. Consequently, we have no organics built up in the field yet, and it got very dry very quickly. At the Virginia Tech game it appeared as though we had recently topdressed, but we hadn’t.

This shot of the football practice field shows the drought stress in the re-sodded section between the hash marks, where no organic layer had been established, as compared to the remainder of the field that had not been re-sodded.

“The practice field and baseball field were incredible examples of the impact of organics in a sand profile. Once level-two irrigation stopped, you could see how the degree of water retention varied where there were little or no organics built up in the 2006 and 2007 re-sodded areas as compared to the other parts of the field, which had never been re-sodded.”

The Georgia Tech Athletic Association and the field management program had operated as a separate entity from the rest of the university, which is an institution of the state. That changed in January, when the athletic association was absorbed into the university system. DeWitt says, “The campus maintenance department had been watering out of the condensate from the campus air conditioning systems. At the tanks near our shop, they were able to keep refilling their two, 1,500-gallon water tanks actually faster than they could use the water during the summer. However, when the temperatures cooled to the point where the air conditioning was no longer being used, those two tanks were emptied in one day, with no recurring resource to refill them.”

The search for an alternate, usable source of water became even more critical. DeWitt says, “The humidity levels kept tapering off until they became so low we weren’t even experiencing morning dew.”

DeWitt has put down light applications of fertilizer on the football game field to provide a minimal level of nutrients. He says, “We’ve been very cautious with any applications to avoid further stressing the turf. We have been focusing on potassium to harden off the bermuda for winter and help it deal with the drought stress.

“When we finally did get a rain, one of our crew members went out in it to spray on a wetting agent that we’d wanted to apply earlier but hadn’t been able to get enough water to soak it in properly. We tried Hydretain, a new product to me, that is designed to help combat moisture loss due to evapotranspiration. We added Precision Laboratories’ Duplex to the tank mix as a penetrant to move the Hydretain into the rootzone where it would be most effective.

Georgia Tech’s Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 29, at the beginning of level-four water restrictions.The field was in great shape in terms of playability and aesthetics. Water from the spring that flows beneath Bobby Dodd Stadium is now recaptured in storage tanks with some of it now channeled into the irrigation system that serves Chase Field, providing welcome relief to the drought-stressed turf. The lack of water affected the divots that had been pushed into place, but not irrigated.

Another water source

Exploration of water resources turned up an existing, but nearly forgotten, source. A spring runs beneath Bobby Dodd Stadium that would cause structural damage if the water were not removed. For many years, the spring water was simply pumped into a storm drain after it collected to a certain level in an old, abandoned sewer shaft. Plans to utilize this water started the day level four watering restrictions went into effect. The water is pumped at low pressure from the sewer line into seven, 1,500-gallon storage tanks, with five more tanks planned. The tanks are tied right into the irrigation system, although the water gets a boost from a high-pressure pump along the way. The equipment and labor needed for the project cost the athletic department about $25,000, but that will be recovered over time in savings on the cost of water used.

The high-pressure pump gives the recaptured water a boost as it is directed into the irrigation system. These tanks hold the water that is recaptured from the spring that flows beneath Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Using the rescued water at the other field sites is more complicated. The narrow tunnel system below Bobby Dodd Stadium restricts the size of equipment that can access the pump room underneath the stadium. DeWitt says, “We were able to rent a 500-gallon water rig that would fit through the tunnels, but even that’s a tight fit. Nothing else can squeeze by while we’re filling the tank or moving it through the tunnels.

“When we were able to begin using that 500-gallon rig to irrigate the baseball infield and skin, you could see little green rings emerge from where the hose leaked on the turf while we were watering other areas.”

The crew applies water to the baseball field using a hand-held hose attached to a 500-gallon water tank.

Looking ahead

With the newly available water source, DeWitt can see some relief ahead. “We’ll continue to explore all the options available in irrigation resources and remain judicious in our water use,” says DeWitt. “We’ll look at long-range methods for best use of our available water and will continue to use reclaimed water before using city water. It’s not only environmentally and economically beneficial; it’s also part of being a good neighbor within our community, our region and our state.”

To contact the author, e-mail suztrusty@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com