Strategies for your fields

This close-up shot shows the multi-trajectory flow.

Water is an increasingly valuable resource closely watched by the public and restricted by governmental agencies. Budget cuts further impact water issues. We talked to three facilities facing water challenges to learn more about their water conservation strategies.

California State University, Fullerton

Steve Dugas is manager of landscape services for the 226-acre California State University, Fullerton campus. That includes nearly 40 acres for the sports complex with stadiums for soccer/football, baseball and softball, a softball practice field, a track facility with 72,000 square feet of turf and approximately 14 acres of active-use turf.

Dugas says, “Everything is native soil with a high clay content. Our turf is primarily a GN-1 hybrid bermuda base. We overseed key areas with a perennial rye blend, hitting the soccer field in early October while it’s still in play, and the baseball and softball fields in early November for winter and spring action.”

The university is a stand-alone system, subject to all restrictions from the state level down to ordinances of their source, the local water district. No nonpotable source is available. Three main feeds into the campus supply the buildings and grounds, and the grounds split-out backflow is protected. Dugas says, “We’ve never received a direct water reduction edict. We strive to be good stewards of this vital resource, and so proactive in our self-imposed water conservation program that our use is within whatever limits might be imposed.”

Cultural practices reduce water needs. On the athletic fields, frequent aeration and topdressing improve water infiltration and percolation. Granular fertilization allows targeted applications, with a move toward organics extending the intervals.

The bermuda base of Cal State Fullerton’s Goodwin Field is overseeded with a blend of perennial ryegrasses in preparation for early-season play, which increases water needs.

Dugas has changed to Hunter MP rotators for smaller expanses of turf, saving 30 percent on water use in those areas. Recycling mowers reduce fertilization needs. Climate-adapted plant selection, increased mulch depth and drip irrigation cut water use in beds.

Dugas says, “We focus on deep, infrequent irrigation, with water applied slowly in multiple cycles with soak time built in, and [we] make sure all of our sprinkler rates are matched. All of our grounds irrigation is tied into a central control system. A campus-wide water audit several years ago provides base data [which is] combined with daily ET input from California’s real-time irrigation management system to help guide adjustments for central control of about 90 percent of irrigated areas. Still, we let the turf tell us when it needs water. All of our staff carries soil probes for on-site checking and can alert our two irrigation technicians to override preprogrammed irrigation. Our sports field specialists call the shots for all irrigation on their fields.”

City of Tracy, Calif.

Don Scholl is superintendent of the parks, landscapes and sports fields division of the public works department for the city of Tracy, in northern California’s Central Valley. He faces the same challenges as many of his peers. His staff concentrates on the city’s 24 largest parks. Three are dedicated sports complexes, three others have multiple sports fields within them, and nearly every patch of open turf is used for nonscheduled soccer and baseball/softball practice. He also directly oversees multiple landscaped areas, median strips and sound walls, and collaborates with the city’s landscape maintenance district supervisor on the irrigation of the 50 smaller neighborhood parks, each ranging from .5 to 5 acres. The city is currently in the design process for phased development of a new 166-acre youth sports complex.

California’s new mandatory statewide water ordinance, SB 1881, which took effect January 1, requires every city to abide by the State Water Resources Board’s water efficient landscape ordinance or adopt their own ordinance that is at least equally effective. It dictates the design and construction of new facilities on residential, commercial and governmental properties with specific guidelines on soils, plant types, and irrigation system design and functionality.

Scholl says, “So many components affect water conservation on our sports fields: selecting the right site, proper grading and construction, using the most appropriate turf for the site and usage, proper design of the irrigation system, providing for the use of reclaimed water when possible and ensuring long-term maintenance for environmental sustainability, all within limited budget allocations.”

Approximately 95 percent of irrigation within the Surprise, Ariz., park system can now be monitored and controlled via computer for more effective water conservation.

Scholl’s horticultural practices focus on benefiting the turf and conserving water, with the sports field program adapted to the specifics of soil and turf type, the sports played and their use levels, the age of the facility and what the infrastructure can support. Field use has expanded greatly over the last 10 years, with the number of soccer leagues alone growing from two to 10. Scholl says, “Our department has developed close communication and cooperation with the parks and community services staff, which handles the reservations and assigns the fields, and the various field user groups to assure field safety and preserve quality playing conditions.”

Multiple water sources supply the city’s various sites. Scholl says, “We have a central irrigation control system that covers 95 percent of our parks and sports fields. It tracks usage and provides an alarm when breaks occur. We extrapolate ET data from one weather station to make daily adjustments. Two irrigation technicians and our sports field crew continually monitor for system efficiency, runoff and repair needs. Major modifications are scheduled during field-use downtime. We’ve reduced overall water use by nearly 15 percent over the last few years and are working toward even greater conservation.”

Surprise, Ariz.

Joe Kennedy III is parks maintenance division manager for the city of Surprise, Ariz., overseeing a program striving to meet the recreational needs of a rapidly growing community while maintaining environmental sustainability. At the center of the city is the Surprise Recreation Campus, spring training site for the major and minor league teams of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. Activity levels are high at the campus year-round, with 1,000 to 2,000 users on-site almost daily. Two years ago, Kennedy’s responsibilities at the campus were combined with management of the remainder of the park system.

The outfield spray pattern is designed for the efficiency of head-to-head coverage.

Kennedy says, “Irrigation system upgrades were incorporated into the overall resource conservation focus of the department merger, with the majority of the hardware purchased at that time, prior to the budget crunch of the down economy.”

Scott Bowen, senior maintenance and operations technician, says, “When the campus was constructed in 2002, they went with a state-of-the-art system designed for golf courses, using a Hunter VSX controller and a software operating system called Surveyor. When the campus and park system management were combined, we installed the Hunter ACC controller with IMMS software and have been updating the controllers throughout the city. Between the two systems, we now can monitor and control about 95 percent of the irrigation at all the facilities from our computer.”

The ability to pinpoint problems and track water flow throughout the system has dramatically improved operational efficiency. Nextel radios facilitate communication throughout the department, so any crew can report a problem. Bowen’s two irrigation technicians have full remote access to the controllers. Other personnel are cross-trained for access so they can shut down part or all of the system in an emergency situation. Other efficiencies, such as water-saving plantings; drip irrigation; restricting overseeding to sport fields, active-use areas and those contractually mandated; and an aggressive best management practices program, were already in place.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District sets water allotments based on acreage, whether the source is potable or nonpotable. So water-wise practices, such as xeriscaping in nonturf areas, are part of the conservation strategy.

The irrigation systems within the existing parks were a mix of components from all of the major irrigation suppliers. Bowen says, “As we work through the parks, when irrigation heads need replacing, we’re going with Hunter for consistency throughout the 400 acres. We’re using the same heads installed at the Surprise Recreation Campus, I-40 opposite for full circle, I-40 adjustable for part-circle, and MP rotators for the smaller areas. It will reduce our parts inventory requirements and make minor repairs easier at crew level, allowing our irrigation technicians to focus on breaks and other major issues.”

Data from a weather station at the campus is the base used to adjust for the specific irrigation applications needed to serve the multiple-use areas and microclimates at the different sites. Joey Brazil, parks maintenance superintendent, says, “For example, heavy field use creates a tight water window, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., to cover 170 acres of turf at the campus. We have a 10-inch mainline loop system with booster pumps that can put out up to 3,000 gallons a minute. Skinned areas also are irrigated during this period, supplemented by hand-watering during the day.”

All of the newer sites are built to take effluent water. Potable water is used only when no nonpotable source is available, such as the smaller, older parks in residential settings. Kennedy adds, “From both the water conservation and financial standpoints, it makes sense to switch where we can. We were able to convert one three-field youth baseball complex to nonpotable water at an annual savings of $68,000 in water costs alone.”

Surprise is in Maricopa County, the greater Phoenix area, and within the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD). Brazil says, “They set a water allotment based on acreage, whether the source is potable or nonpotable. We’re within 7 percent of our allotment, so it’s essential we have a digital source of data so we can monitor use. We’re seeing results now and will have supporting data from our quarterly and seasonal reports and in-depth comparisons at the end of our first year.”

Kennedy notes the close working relationship with the city’s water conservation department. “They are doing an excellent job of getting the word out at HOA meetings and sessions for the general public. The mindset is becoming more attentive to nature, with water conservation a big part of the equation.”

Water conservation will become even more important in the future. Follow the lead of these innovative managers by taking a proactive approach now to prepare for the challenges ahead.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.