Have you ever really thought about where sports field management will be in the future? What will this industry look like in, say, 50 years? With our rapid pace of change in technology and techniques, who can say where it will go? Earlier this summer, I got one heck of a qualified glimpse from a legend in the world of turfgrass, Dr. James Watson.

Dale Getz, CSFM, of The Toro Company and I had the great privilege of interviewing Watson in a video production for the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) historical society. I could write a whole column just about the wonderful afternoon Dale and I spent with this pioneer, this teacher, this legend. But one topic during the interview really stuck out to me. “Water,” Watson said without hesitation and in a serious tone when we asked him what he thought would be the most important issue facing the sports field management industry in the future. We all know what a critical resource water is to our craft – there has probably been thousands of papers published on the subject – but have you ever really considered the trend lines?

There is a finite amount of fresh water available. The population keeps growing. Agriculture and industry will need more and more fresh water. In the southwestern U.S. it’s getting more serious every year. Many communities will soon be forced into making difficult decisions in allocating this most precious of all resources. Consider the mighty Colorado River. This “North American Nile” services over 30 million people in an area the size of France. It has to be one of the hardest working rivers in the world. Too many straws in the river have combined with 10 years of drought in the Southwest to cripple this once raging giant.

Continued development and a warming climate make the river’s prospects of renewal bleak. Since 1998, it no longer reaches the sea, ending rather in a foamy, trashy mess some 90 miles short of the Sea of Cortez. Think about that for a minute. For 6 million years this river has flowed into the sea and created one of the largest and most biologically diverse estuaries in North America, but now that’s gone. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., is projected to drop below power generation levels in 2017, and could go dry by 2021 if current trends continue. Can you imagine? What happens in Vegas will happen in the dark!

Water shortages are certainly not a problem unique to the southwestern U.S. In Florida, sinkholes are swallowing up buildings from so much pumping of ground water. In our nation’s breadbasket, the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted to historically low levels. Sitting under eight states, this aquifer was once one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Science now warns that its depletion is eminent. “Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That’s all we can do,” says David Brauer of the Ogallala Research Service.

We’ve all heard the warnings of researchers, and it’s not just about shortages. In many areas water quality issues are as serious as water quantity issues. This is a huge topic, much bigger than sports fields and their management, and impossible to cover in one column. However, it’s imperative that each and every one of us works to become more water wise and water efficient. Academia in agriculture and horticulture have been all over this issue for years.

From what I’ve seen, the golf turf industry has embraced this new paradigm far better than sports turf. Sometimes I wonder if we sports field managers really get it. It’s the water! We manage a vital resource more precious than oil. It is critical to sports fields, both natural grass and artificial grass. It’s going to continue to become increasingly scarce and more expensive, and we are headed for a water crisis in our country and in our industry unless we quickly wake up. It’s really only a question of when.

The turfgrass world will have to continue our education and increase irrigation efficiencies or start looking for our own “soft landing” in years to come. There is a lot of free material out there to educate yourself on turfgrass and sports field irrigation. Landscape and turfgrass irrigation courses are essential to a good turfgrass management education, yet many programs don’t really mandate these courses. I’ve often said that one should be required to carry an irrigation license before you can irrigate any crop, turfgrass included, commercial or residential. It’s that important of a resource.

There are several things sports field managers can do in striving every year to become better water stewards. Meter, sub-meter and meter some more. Until you know when and where your irrigation water is going, you can’t begin to efficiently manage it. Maintain your irrigation system properly and get remote access to it.

Do you have a water conservation program in place? It should be a “living” program that’s continually reviewed. Your water provider likely offers great resources for you to use in developing your program.

Part of your platform should be some public outreach. Most of us work on either public fields or high-profile private fields. Either way, we are open to a lot of public scrutiny and commentary, some of it justified. Maybe you could schedule some time once a season to visit the user groups and stakeholders and communicate to them how you are working to become more water wise, how they can help, and how important water is to the sports they love. Hang a few signs around your facilities to help express your commitment and educate the public.

If you haven’t already, get your arms around the idea of a water budget. Restrictions and rationing have become the new normal in many western states and communities all over the country. It’s the water, and it’s getting serious.

Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 29 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager. You can reach him at ross@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com.