Many regions of the country faced record, or near record, precipitation this past spring. In Cooperstown, N.Y., we had snowfall into mid-March, with brutally cold temperatures and no melt. When the frost finally moved out of the ground, the rains had started, giving us the second wettest April on record. So sports fields with drainage problems had an even greater than usual impact on practice and game schedules, forcing many field managers to adopt short-term fixes.

Saturated sports field

A footstep test on the surface of the skinned area shows it has reached the saturation point.

The biggest issues in cancellations are baseball and softball infields. Those involved in soccer and lacrosse, like those in football, have a higher level of tolerance for less-than-ideal playing conditions. Use when the field is too wet will make a bad situation even worse. On the bright side, the poor conditions helped some of those in control of field management budgets realize that the problems need to be addressed, and they became more open to exploring long-term solutions.

Short-term fixes

With standing water in isolated areas, consider these quick fixes to make the surface playable. A field “sponge” or “puddle pillow” can soak up an impressive amount of water in a short time. Create a plywood pathway for the wheelbarrow or utility vehicle used to remove the saturated sponge to avoid rutting the field surface. Small pumps also do a great job of removing water quickly without disrupting the field surface. You can channel the water to a spot away from the field by using a hose or form a brigade of players with 5-gallon buckets to carry it to the dumping site.

If the area of puddling is in the turf, use some of the soil profile material to fill the depression temporarily. When time allows, lift that section of sod to fill in the material to the correct level and replace the sod. To finish off the quick fix in that spot, or for larger areas of lightly wet skinned material, apply calcined or vitrified clay, allow it to absorb the remaining moisture, and then rework the surface to level the area and match that section of the surface to the rest.

Standing water baseball field

Much of the surface of this skinned infield is overly wet with a few areas of standing water. Absorbent infield material is staged for use.

We carry the sponges, pumps and extra infield material with us as we do field maintenance to be prepared for such situations. The big don’t on the infield clay – all too often performed by a well-meaning coach or volunteer – is using a broom to sweep the excess water out of the puddle onto the adjacent grass. Along with the water, sweeping moves some of the infield material onto the grass, which creates a wider lip and traps even more water during the next rain event.

If conditions allow equipment access on the turf, core aeration, or a combination of core aeration and deep-tine aeration, along with sand topdressing will help open some channels to move water from the field surface and improve percolation to some degree.

Long-term solutions

The first step toward a long-term solution for drainage problems is identifying the source. Work with qualified individuals who are experienced in sports field maintenance and construction to research existing conditions now so you can explore the options and be ready to act when the conditions are conducive for it. Look at all possible solutions, from the least to the most expensive, and consider the pros and cons of each. Effective drainage will save you money over time, not only in labor, but also in materials.

Check out the surroundings. Many fields, especially in parks and elementary or middle schools, were built in the only available flat space with areas of higher elevation around them. Excess water flows to the lowest level. If the field in that spot has reached the saturation point, the excess water will remain on the surface until enough percolation has occurred to allow the soil profile to absorb more water. You can’t make water flow uphill without a system to move it, so channeling the runoff to another location is one of the first options to consider.

Next, check the consistency of the field surface. If it is sloped for surface drainage, the percentage of slope dropping from the high point to the low point should be consistent as it extends across the field. If inconsistent, water will channel away from the high spots and puddle in the low spots. The pattern that develops from this checkup may indicate a need for regrading, or it may point to a more serious problem, such as poorly installed subsurface drainage that is sunken in some areas, or a broken drainage pipe, requiring you to excavate to diagnose.

Correcting the surface drainage, with a specific percentage of slope, may be the only change needed for some fields. For soccer, lacrosse and football fields, a center crown, angling the water flow to both sidelines is the most-used choice. It is workable if that water can be quickly and effectively channeled to a drainage ditch or retention pond or, if no other option is available, to a sewer system. The percentage of slope will vary from .5 to 2, depending on the uses of the field and the amount of water to be moved.

baseball field puddling

Isolated areas of the skinned section of this baseball field show puddling, so check the consistency of that surface to identify high and low areas.

For baseball and softball fields, the percentage of slope is usually .5 percent from the infield to the outfield, and 1.5 to 2 percent from the infield dirt to the outfield fences. There needs to be a combination of enough positive surface drainage and water infiltration and penetration to create playable conditions.
Precise measurement is essential in any field leveling situation, from creating the subbase to developing the proper crown and percentage of slope. Laser leveling, done precisely by qualified operators, can make sure this is achieved.

In some cases, lip buildup causes a dam effect that traps water on the base paths. Remove the lip to facilitate water flow. Plan to remeasure field dimensions and recut all the edges of the base paths and the arch in the fall. If a buildup of clay goes deeper into the surrounding grass, cut away strips of the existing sod, correct the soil level and install new sod.

Part of the research on drainage issues confined to the skinned areas of baseball and softball fields is testing of the infield mix by a qualified testing laboratory. You need a good balance of the silt-to-clay ratio and the correct sand sizing for the mix to function properly. Test results will reveal what changes might be required, from a minor tweaking to complete replacement.

If the problems are much more extensive, and field replacement is one of the options your facility wants to consider, consult with a qualified engineer who is knowledgeable and experienced in sports field construction. Too often, the engineer consulted is more familiar with highway and parking lot construction, especially at the municipal level, where that individual is on staff and the big construction equipment is already owned by the city. Putting a 10-ton roller on that field may be done with the best of intentions, but a misguided solution won’t correct the problem long term. Whatever the replacement decision, the key to success is a field that is properly designed and constructed.

A synthetic turf system will be the most expensive option initially, though in some areas it may be the choice most likely to be funded because of the long season of playability. Assess the pros and cons as related to your anticipated increased level of field use with a synthetic surface and the impact that would make on your other existing fields to determine if that is the best fit for your program.

If the existing field is native soil, replacing it with a sand-based field would be the second most expensive option, and in many situations the best choice. The sand-based fields that have been well maintained through a consistent management program that includes aeration remained playable through this past spring. In many cases, the field surface was ready for use within a half-hour of a heavy rainstorm.

Either of these two options would include installation of an effective subsurface drainage system. Check out and compare the costs and results of the traditional drain tiles embedded in gravel to the more recent options, including the vertical, flat-material systems such as the Multi-Flow and Hydraway or the American Wick Drain, as well as the self-contained collectors such as UltraBase systems, J-DRain Turfcore drainage mat, SportDrain and AirField systems. Ask for contact information for the sports field managers using these alternative systems and get their feedback before making your decision.

A less expensive option is the sand-capped field, which works well in some situations. Proper preparation of the surface, with laser leveling, is as critical in this method as it is in field replacement. The right choice of sand type and particle size is essential. The depth of the sand cap must be great enough to allow the water to percolate down through the sand and away from the playing surface.

plywood path sports field

Crew members create a plywood path for the truck and other heavy equipment to avoid rutting the field surface.

Research the Spartan sand cap system introduced by the turf research group at Michigan State University. It converts a native soil field to a type of sand-capped field through repeated aerification and heavy topdressing with sand. Again, talk with a few of the sports field managers that have made the applications and are working with the completed system.

Another less expensive alternative is installation of a slit-field system into an existing native soil or augmented native soil field. There are several choices of systems here as well. For baseball and softball fields, where infield drainage is the problem, installation of subsurface drain pipe embedded in gravel in the foul territory along the first and third base lines may be an adequate solution.

Start right

The take-home message on drainage and field-use cancellations is to start right. Tackle those major issues as soon as budgets and scheduling allow. Do as much of the field preparation work as you can in the fall. Weather conditions and heavy use schedules combine for a time crunch that makes it much more difficult to accomplish in the spring.

Editor’s Note: March 2016 marks our 10th anniversary of publication. All month we’ll be dusting off our archives, highlighting some of our favorite work from the last 10 years. Happy anniversary to us, and cheers! #SFMTurns10

Joseph Potrikus, CSFM, is vice president of Greener World Athletic Turf Maintenance based in Cooperstown, N.Y.