UGA’s field overhaul saves a million gallons a year

The University of Georgia uses Match Play green turf paint to keep its football and soccer fields looking good without the need for overseeding.

The University of Georgia’s powerhouse athletic program is a source of pride throughout the state. For Kenny Pauley, the school’s director of athletic turf grounds, the pride is not only in the teams, but also the fields they play on. He’s particularly proud to be able to maintain top-notch NCAA conditions while at the same time conserving water.

In June the University of Georgia installed a new Toro irrigation system on its Sanford Stadium football field. The system will replace water cannons and result in a savings of about 1 million gallons of water per year.

“I tell my staff and other sports field managers whenever I give talks: We are environmental stewards. We deal with the environment every day. If I can be proactive and do something to help the environment, I’m going to do it,” says Pauley. “Especially at the University of Georgia. We’re the ones people see on TV; we’re seen as the leaders, and maybe if we lead other people will follow.”

To help set an example for others who care for sports fields, Pauley is taking a wide-ranging approach to water conservation, from advanced technology to basic cultural practices. He says the effort is paying off in terms of dramatically reducing water usage. “Water is a hot topic here in this area, and it’s important to conserve it,” he states plainly.

Some of the savings comes from high-tech tools, such as the UgMO soil moisture sensors he installed to help monitor and determine when the turf truly needs water. “We’ve been using them about two years on our stadium and our practice football fields,” Pauley explains. “We have a mounted box at each location and we can check those, which basically tell us when we need to water.”

That information often allows the grounds staff to “stretch it out an extra day or two” before irrigating, Pauley notes. They can feel confident in waiting that extra day because they’re relying on solid soil moisture data rather than worrying that the turf needs water and deciding to irrigate on a predetermined schedule. “We might be able to irrigate every three days instead of every day, for example,” he explains. “That saves us a lot of water – it really helps.”

Dramatic water savings have also been realized by changing the overall approach used to manage the school’s athletic fields. “I’ve used Match Play [from Pioneer Athletics] green turf paint for the last two years and that’s pretty much allowed us to do away with overseeding on the stadium field, the practice football field and our two soccer fields,” Paul- ey says. “The colorant has allowed us to conserve a tremendous amount of water because we’re not having to irrigate in the wintertime and spring. We put the Match Play on for the games and keep it green, and then after the games we just let it go dormant.”

Only a few sports venues at the University of Georgia are overseeded and include the baseball and softball fields and the track and field complex. “Those are spring sports, and you can’t play baseball on dormant bermudagrass – there wouldn’t be anything left of it,” he points out.

The newly installed irrigation system is put through its paces on the Sanford Stadium field at the University of Georgia.

Pauley notes that he waters based on the needs of the turf, rather than irrigating just for the sake of irrigating. “In this area with bermudagrass, once you get through August and about half of September, you can start scaling back the water because the plant’s uptake just isn’t as much,” says Pauley. Across all of the school’s athletic facilities, he estimates that he has roughly 420,000 square feet of fields that are being irrigated only about six months per year, and that’s at a NCAA Division I complex, where fields are maintained to the highest standards.

Included on that list is Sanford Stadium, the school’s high-profile football field. With the rainfall available this year, Pauley didn’t irrigate the stadium at all for six months, from the last football game in late November until late May. “We ran the system one time, and that was just to make sure it was still working,” he laughs. If the field had been overseeded, much more water would have been required, especially on hot spring days, Pauley notes. Instead, the field looked green and the turf even survived two major spring events: a Jason Aldean country music concert followed two weeks later by graduation ceremonies.

During the six months of the year when the Sanford Stadium field is irrigated, Pauley says the cannons typically have used nearly 2 million gallons of water. “The stadium is where we’re using the most water,” he notes. In part, that’s because the field has been irrigated using a cannon system. However, the school is currently in the process of installing an underground irrigation system to replace the cannons. “We’re putting in a conventional irrigation system. We estimate that we’re going to save about 1 million gallons of water,” says Pauley. That means roughly cutting in half the amount of water applied to the field.

Some of the water savings will come by ensuring that water is directed only where it is needed through strategically placed heads, rather than the old method of placing two cannons on the 50-yard line to water the entire field. “When you have to swing the cannons out that wide to get the whole field, you put a lot of water where it doesn’t need to be applied,” says Pauley. That includes the sideline areas as well as the stadium bleachers. “The water hits the stands and gets thrown up everywhere,” he adds. “That’s not an effective way to water.”

The University of Georgia’s Foley Field baseball complex is one of the few fields at the school that is overseeded. While overseeding requires added irrigation, “you can’t play baseball on dormant bermudagrass, there wouldn’t be anything left of it,” explains Kenny Pauley, director of athletic turf grounds.

The University of Georgia selected a Toro irrigation system for the stadium field, similar to what is used on its other athletic fields. “I use the Sentinel system, which saves us water … because we’re able to get on the computer and figure out where we can cut down run times or shut it off. We also have rain sensors installed,” says Pauley, emphasizing that this technology provides tremendous information and allows sports turf managers to reduce water if they use the data available. “We just have to do our part,” he urges. “Our county [Clark County] has always been very proactive about conserving water, and I want to do my part.”

According to Pauley, there was some initial resistance to installing an underground irrigation system in the stadium. “People have a notion that you shouldn’t have irrigation heads out on the field. But my argument was that we already had irrigation heads on the practice field and players practice there every day without any problems,” he explains. To help assuage concerns, smaller head sizes will be used when possible on the field, and larger golf course-style heads will be utilized on the sidelines. “And we asked Toro during the design phase to put as few heads as possible on the field,” adds Pauley.

The water cannons, which had been used at Sanford Stadium, used 2 million gallons of water each year. The inefficient system resulted in some water hitting bleachers and other out-of-play areas.

One way he was able to successfully push for the installation of the irrigation system was to demonstrate that there would be significant cost savings in addition to water savings. “By switching from the cannon system to the conventional irrigation system, we’ve figured that we’re going to save $35,000 a year in water costs,” Pauley notes. “That’s going to pay for the new irrigation system pretty quickly.”

Sanford Stadium is the only athletic facility at the University of Georgia not on a well, so it is the only field subject to irrigation restrictions during droughts. Fortunately, the field boasts a 144,000-gallon cistern equipped with a Rain Bird pump, which is used whenever possible for irrigation. “We catch all the rainwater from around that complex and dump it into there. And, one thing I really like, my drainage system on the field also dumps into the cistern. So, I water the field, it drains through, and I’m able to capture what is not being retained and reuse it,” he explains. Pauley also notes that the water quality is checked regularly.

Even for those sports field managers who aren’t fortunate enough to have such sophisticated irrigation and drainage systems, there are some basic steps that can help conserve water. “For example, when we’re ready to fertilize, we’ll wait to fertilize until it’s going to rain,” says Pauley, thus saving the irrigation water that would be required to water that fertilizer in.

Keeping turf healthy is another way to minimize the amount of water required. “You’ve got to use the cultural practices that we were all taught: You’ve got to aerate, you’ve got to watch your fertilizer amounts, mowing heights, everything. It takes a blended approach to make it work.”

Pauley says he’s seen a change over the past 10 years in the way athletic field managers view water usage, placing a greater emphasis on conserving this valuable resource. “I think people are taking more steps to reduce the water they use,” he states. “We’re trying to be proactive and be leaders, so hopefully others will follow.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.