This was a year of extremes, with flooding in many parts of the country and drought conditions ranging from moderate to exceptional in others. Whether water was plentiful or scarce, sports field managers sought the same goal: responsible stewardship and conservation of this valuable, finite resource.

Water conservation is ongoing for the Albuquerque Isotopes’ grounds crew, shown here wrapping up pregame preparations, including hand watering, under this spectacular rainbow

Eric Fasbender, assistant director of athletic facilities and grounds for Louisiana State University (LSU), had both. Three days of rain the week of June 13 were the first substantial rainfall for five weeks. There had been a few light showers during that interval, but the region’s typical heat left any nonirrigated surfaces dry and hard, with surface moisture from a light rain evaporating within 10 minutes. Fasbender says, “The situation was surreal, because through Memorial Day we were under a flood warning due to rising waters in the Mississippi River.”

LSU has seven grass field sites for a total of 18.5 acres. The two newest fields – baseball at Alex Box Stadium and softball at Tiger Park – are 100 percent pure sand. The football practice fields and soccer practice field are native soil, black jack clay, with a sand cap. LSU has a magnet school on-site, kindergarten through 12th grade, providing student teaching opportunities. The LSU staff also maintains the two athletic fields for that high school, one baseball and the other a combination football/soccer field. Those fields and the track and field throwing area are all native soil.

All of these athletic facilities are clustered near the river, with Tiger Park within 300 yards of the levy and Tiger Stadium about three-quarters of a mile away. Fasbender says, “We were walking the fields daily, looking for sand boils (water eruptions on the land side of the levies caused by the high-pressure force of the river on the groundwater).”

The groundwater level is just below 2 feet during normal conditions. The added pressure raised that, causing the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a ban on all digging near the river. That halted all construction on campus, including construction at the soccer complex. Fasbender says, “The groundwater kept the soil profiles rather damp at the lower levels, which provided some water for the turf roots, and our typical high humidity helped, but we still needed to irrigate to compensate for the heat and drought.”

These Hunter I-20 heads cover a 180-degree angle to irrigate only the infield turf, and the degree of arc can be adjusted for optimum water conservation.

Even typical desert regions like Albuquerque, N.M., took a harder hit this year. Shawn Moore is director of field operations for the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He says, “By the end of June, we’d received only .14 of an inch of natural rainfall. Usually we’d be at 2 to 3 inches by then. Water is such a high priority here; use at public sites is always under scrutiny. Drought conditions make that even more stringent.”

The field has a 10-inch soil profile of 92 percent sand and 8 percent peat. Moore says, “Our elevation is 5,000 feet, making our nights so cool the growing season is too short for bermudagrass. We’d only get about 1.5 months of active growth from it. Our blend of Kentucky bluegrasses handles the cool nights, but is pushed to the limit of heat tolerance during much of the year. Still, we get 10 months of active growth and good color. The leaf tips go dormant during December and January, so we do have the brown look, but the crowns stay green and the root system is still functioning. Our infield material is 60 percent sand, with 20 percent clay and 20 percent silt. That ratio works extremely well, as long as we keep it moist.”

Irrigation strategies

Growing grass in the desert limits the water conservation steps available to Moore. Turf irrigation takes place late at night or very early in the morning to take advantage of lower evaporation rates. The irrigation system uses Hunter I-40 heads for most of the turf and I-20 heads on the sidelines. “We do a heavy cycle at night, getting the water into the rootzone. Our system is set up for head-to-head throw, but spring winds are so bad, with gusts ranging from 40 to 60 mph, at times we’re only about 50 percent effective. We use wetting agents during that part of the season, but can’t stretch our budget to use them all the time. We’ve implemented some conservation strategies in the past, switching to more efficient heads and dialing down our gallons per minute. We track turf trial results for drought resistance and consider that when selecting our seed blend.”

Moore floods the skinned areas at night, leaving standing water all the way across. He says, “We’ve gone to high speed I-25s for the skin, which cuts down our watering time there. We’ll do about half as much water during the noon irrigation, slowly cutting that back. By game time, we’re just touching up the infield moisture and hitting any hot spots in the turf by hand watering.”

The city’s potable water is Moore’s only available source now, and it has a high salt content. “We count on natural rainfall during the monsoon season to bring our moisture levels back to normal and flush out some of those salts,” he says. “So we welcome them, even though they can really mess up our game schedule. We probably tarp 15 times during the monsoon season and about five times the rest of the year.”

Each LSU athletic facility has a designated manager with Fasbender and his assistant, Eric Harshman, providing oversight. “We don’t have a defined irrigation strategy for specific amounts of water during a cycle or preprogrammed irrigation days because our weather conditions are so variable,” says Fasbender. “We monitor field conditions, confer with the on-site managers and make an assessment at the end of each day whether to irrigate or push the turf a bit longer to conserve water. On the pure sand fields we’ll put down up to .5 inch of water each time we irrigate. We do about half as much, around .25 inch, on the native soil fields, since the water holds well in the soil profile.”

During the summer, irrigation is more aggressive because of the vulnerability of the bermuda after the transition out of overseeding. They used to overseed all the fields except the soccer game field. They’ve now eliminated overseeding on the football practice field and both of the soccer fields. Overseeding on Tiger Stadium depends on the condition of the turf and the home game scheduling. They do overseed both the baseball and softball fields.

Fasbender says, “We hit the 80s at the start of April and the 90s by the end of that month. Weather triggers our transition from rye in June, either at the end of the scheduled season or just as regional or super regional play begins. So when our fields should look their best, they’re in the midst of transition. This year, we backed off on our overseeding rates after seeing the results at the Texas A&M soccer field and discussing the strategy with Leo Goertz and Craig Potts. They overseed the soccer field with just 4 pounds of perennial ryegrass per 1,000 square feet. We didn’t go that low, but made a significant reduction. The fields looked the best they have in my three seasons here.”

Though their major goal was aesthetics, benefits in water conservation were a byproduct. He says, “It required less irrigation to hold the rye as temperatures rose. With less competition, the bermuda transitioned back smoothly, requiring less water to promote growth.”

Handling public perception

Sports fields are always in the public eye. Dealing with the public perception of excess water use when irrigation systems are in operation during drought situations makes getting the good stewardship message across even more critical.

Albuquerque is strict about wasting water, fining violators for runoff. Moore is extremely careful with irrigation of the turf and landscape outside the stadium, because that’s the irrigation the public sees and bases its perceptions on. He says, “We never run water during the day when people are going to be coming to the stadium. We also avoid irrigation the night before an event the next morning. We want all the surfaces to be dry.”

People are passionate about LSU athletics, the facilities and fields. Fasbender says, “Though we’ve not faced irrigation restrictions, even within drought conditions, we’re very sensitive to public perception. The little things do matter. We never water when it’s raining.”

Because of gusty spring winds and the rapid evaporation during summer heat, Shawn Moore constantly monitors irrigation cycles, adjusting as needed to fit changing conditions.

Reclaimed water

Using nonpotable water is conservation in action, an environmental plus that also translates to positive public relations, demonstrating the facility’s smart stewardship within the community. There’s a financial benefit, too, as reclaimed water costs are lower than those of potable water.

Albuquerque is in the process of working out the details to bring reclaimed water to the stadium. Moore says, “We anticipate availability in the next season or two. Once it’s accessible, we’ll switch to reclaimed water for the majority of our irrigation. We know we’ll be getting even more salts than we’re dealing with now, but we’ll find a way to make it work.”

Though there is currently no infrastructure in place to deliver reclaimed water, the proximity of the LSU campus to the water treatment plant would make it a likely recipient should that occur. Fasbender says, “We’re open to that. Every sports field manager will need to look at it in the future. Just because a potable water source is available to us, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider alternate sources. Conserving water is everyone’s responsibility.”

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.