The human brain is 95 percent water — which means that just thinking about how important water is requires water. Of course, there are a whole host of reasons beyond mere human survival to conserve water, ranging from drought-induced irrigation restrictions to the high cost of water to a general environmental ethos. But, really, every conservation action starts with just a basic understanding that water is a valuable, and limited, resource that should not be wasted.

“We’re all responsible for conserving water,” says Mark Holder, parks coordinator for the city of Roswell, Georgia recreation department and president of the Georgia Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) chapter. “After our people, I think water is the most important resource we have.” Drought cycles come and go, but if sports turf managers are dedicated to conserving water all of the time, they’ll be in better shape when droughts do occur, he points out.

Irrigate intelligently

One tool that Holder says has helped in his operation is a soil moisture sensor system from UgMO. Holder and his team have programmed a soil moisture level into the system that’s sufficient for both plant health and field safety. They’re able to monitor levels on their phones, and when the moisture dips below the set threshold, the irrigation system is triggered. Once the moisture levels are back above the minimum range, the irrigation system is automatically locked out to prevent unnecessary overwatering. He says the system has resulted in a very large water savings — “hundreds of thousands of gallons,” says Holder. “That represents a big cost savings, plus being able to conserve a lot of water by not overwatering, which can be just as harmful as underwatering.”

Holder’s local Atlanta metro area is in a severe drought. Athletic fields have been given a variance to be able to irrigate, which is sometimes the case even when other water uses are restricted. “We can water as needed for player safety, and we’re appreciative of that. But sports turf managers are obviously mindful that we’re in a drought, and the public is going to be walking by — they don’t need to see the sprinklers running constantly,” says Holder. So, the challenge is to walk the fine line between applying enough water to ensure safe field conditions without applying any more than is needed — conserving for both environmental and public relations reasons. “You just don’t want to get that phone call…” he says.

Tom Shannon, water conservation advisor with Ewing Irrigation, says that correcting some common mistakes made with irrigation system design can be a great way to help to conserve water. Head placement and the zoning of the valves are two key areas to examine, he says. “For instance, on a baseball field, the ‘hips’ behind first and third bases should be zoned separately…when you don’t do that, and you put it on another zone, it just overwaters those areas.” The hip areas with half-circle heads require far less run time than full-circle heads elsewhere on the field. “So that’s one area where you conserve water — just by adding a couple of valves and doing it right,” says Shannon.

A similar principal can be applied in other athletic field applications. “On soccer and football fields, the center of the field should be valved separately,” he explains. That’s where most of the wear and tear takes place and where sports turf managers are frequently forced to renovate. Being able to water just those areas, without also having to run (and overrun) the half-circles along the sides at the same time, helps to save water and prevent the host of turfgrass problems that can come from overwatering.

In addition, just doing basic irrigation audits can highlight areas where a nozzle can be changed or a head moved just a few feet to improve distribution, which in turn can help prevent overwatering, says Shannon.

Comprehensive turf management

Dr. Jim Baird, extension specialist in turfgrass management and assistant turfgrass horticulturist at the University of California, Riverside, says that water conservation begins with choosing the right grass. “One of the things that we really try to preach, and I hope that, especially in Southern California, a lot of field managers are already implementing this, is to start with the grass,” says Baird. That means selecting a turf species that uses less water and is better able to perform in hot, dry conditions.

While there are many different climates even within California, he promotes the use of warm-season grasses, primarily bermudagrass, as opposed to cool-season grasses like tall fescue, which may be able to stay green in the winter but can require twice as much water in the summer. So, converting to warm-season turf should be step one to conserving water for any facility that’s able to do so, Baird explains. “The challenge is that many athletic fields are used extensively during the winter months,” he acknowledges. Many golf courses in the state have gotten away from overseeding with thirsty cool-season grasses — that can be harder to do on athletic fields because heavy play on a dormant field means there’s not the necessary recovery taking place. But perhaps eliminating overseeding is an option for warm-season fields that don’t get a lot of use in the cooler months.

Water conservation in sports turf management requires a multifaceted approach.

Beyond turfgrass selection, Baird says that water conservation in sports turf management requires a multifaceted approach. He says that recent research has shown how three different products, working in combination, have proven the ability to maintain turf health even when less water is available:

  • The first is just fertilizer. “We’re not talking about overfertilization, but a field that receives sufficient fertilization is going to do better and look better when there are cutbacks in terms of water,” Baird explains. Basically, keeping the plant strong and healthy will help it better withstand drier conditions. “The turf just looks so much better under deficit irrigation,” says Baird of his research plots where turf is fertilized. Plots that haven’t been fertilized, on the other hand, are practically dormant when water is withheld, Baird says.
  • The next product, and the one that he says has shown to be perhaps the most effective, is the use of a good wetting agent. There are many wetting agent products on the market, some of which have shown in his testing not to work effectively. Others perform very well; Baird singles out Revolution from Aquatrols as a top performer in his trial. “It helps to distribute the water more evenly in the soil profile,” Baird explains.
  • The final “ingredient” in this three-product mix is Primo Maxx from Syngenta, a plant growth regulator that Baird says helps the plant to conserve its carbohydrates (energy). Baird notes that, again, not all plant regulators are equal and that, from a water conservation perspective, Primo is unique in how it works. “Primo has been shown pretty conclusively to improve water use efficiency in turf; it increases the density of the turf, and it reduces the overall evaporative water loss from the turf surface,” explains Syngenta technical representative Dr. Lane Tredway. In many cases, Treadway says, the water conservation benefits of plant growth regulators such as this aren’t always understood by sports turf managers: “Primo is a product that has become so much a standard part of most turf management programs that I think a lot of people use it without really thinking about a lot of the side benefits they’re getting, aside from the reduction of clippings and the reduction in mowing frequency.” Benefits like the plant being able to use water more efficiently and also being more cold-tolerant.

Another chemistry that can be helpful in water conservation, says Tredway, is Acibenzolar, an active ingredient found in Daconil Action and Heritage Action fungicides (both of which are registered only for use on collegiate and professional athletic fields). “It’s what we call a plant activator,” he explains. In addition to improving the plant’s resistance to certain pathogens, Acibenzolar helps to “improve water use efficiency by preventing uncontrolled water loss during periods of high evaporative demand,” says Tredway. Basically, during hot, dry and windy days when the turf “is transpiring like crazy, it goes into this uncontrolled water loss mode, and Acibenzolar can help to mitigate that and help the turf to conserve some water,” all while strengthening the plant from within, helping it to use what water is available more effectively, Treadway explains.

Tredway stresses that even before focusing on water conservation product solutions for the above-ground part of the turf plant, it’s important to address the below-ground growing environment. In fact, he says that water conservation starts with managing the soil. “That means reducing compaction and maintaining a good soil profile that is conducive to root growth — because turf with a healthy and strong root system is going to use water and nutrients a lot more efficiently than turf that is very shallow-rooted and weak and thin,” he says.

For Tredway, the next step is to effectively manage root pathogens and nematodes so that they don’t become a limiting factor in root growth. He says that the options for nematode control in athletic fields are currently limited to essentially just one product, a soil fumigant called Curfew by DowBut he adds that “nematode management is certainly a key area in research and development in crop protection companies,” so he expects that athletic field managers may have additional products to choose from in the future.

Maintenance matters

There are also cultural practices that can help when water is limited. “One of the major things, from an athletic field standpoint, is the compaction issue,” says Baird. It’s important at all times, but especially in periods of drought. “Aerating as frequently as possible is going to be very helpful,” he says. Along with the use of wetting agents, aerification can help distribute water in compacted soil conditions.

Another possible tactic is to adjust mowing heights. Baird says there are different schools of thought on raising mowing heights to help turf cope with reduced water availability.

“Raising the height of cut means more leaf area and therefore more water loss; but my experience has shown that raising the height of cut helps the root system and, therefore, helps the turf under limited water conditions. So, I would be more included to do that,” he explains.

In Georgia, Holder says that mowing heights on his bermudagrass fields have remained at 1 inch, but in the drought, they’ve tried to reduce mowing frequency slightly. “We had been mowing three times a week; we’re trying to cut that back to twice a week, just to reduce the stress on the plant,” he explains.

It’s important to address the below-ground growing environment when it comes to saving water.

Being proactive

Baird says that, at least in California, the prolonged and severe drought has eased recently. Rains earlier this spring have improved the situation (in some places, too much), so he predicts there will be fewer restrictions on water use this year. Still, says Baird, “I do hope that everyone, whether they’re forced to or not, takes a little more proactive approach in terms of water management.”

As an industry, it’s best to take this proactive approach, to show that sports turf management and water conservation can go hand in hand. Baird explains that he’s dismayed when he hears about natural grass fields being torn out and replaced by synthetic fields in the name of water conservation. Especially in warm climates, he says, “those fields get so hot…you have to put a lot of water on those fields just to keep them cool — I don’t think people realize that.”

Baird is hopeful that the water conservation lessons learned during his state’s drought will be remembered there and elsewhere. “I hope people will be mindful that we need to conserve water at all times. We don’t need to have a knee-jerk reaction when we do get into a drought situation.”

Holder agrees. “We shouldn’t be conserving just when we have a drought,” he emphasizes.

“It’s something we should be doing every day, every year.”