Be prepared for limited use

It’s a simple concept. Water is essential for plant growth. Turfgrasses are plants. Turfgrasses provide the playing surface on the majority of sports fields. Turfgrasses on sports fields need water. Try selling that concept to governmental agencies when water supplies are short and water use restrictions kick in and you may find, as many sports field managers have, that your fields are not included among the group of “necessary users.”

Water restrictions

What could you face if water restrictions hit your area?

The San Antonio (Texas) Water System (SAWS) athletic field variance contains the following statement: “Drought restrictions may affect schools that need to irrigate athletic fields in order to maintain safety. Schools must have their current annual irrigation audit on file with SAWS before any variance will be considered.”

Be sure to include watering of skinned areas in negotiations for water use when irrigation is restricted.

The standard plan guidelines allow for each athletic field to be watered once a week between 8 p.m. and midnight or between midnight and 8 a.m. When multiple fields are involved, and the water pressure and time factor don’t allow for all fields to be irrigated on a single day, the cycles can be spread throughout the week. The cycles must fit into the prescribed times, and each field is to be irrigated only once. Under this program, field managers are allowed to use hand-watering, drip irrigation or soaker hoses every day, as long as the use fits within the designated time frame.

Under the advanced plan guidelines, a single field may be irrigated three times a week for 40 minutes each time. The proposal for use of the advanced plan must be submitted in writing, along with a completed copy of the athletic field irrigation audit.

When planning irrigation system modifications, consider all potential water needs, including overseeding and sprigging.

Working within the parameters of the SAWS variance using these guidelines, with the ability to supplement irrigation system output with hand-watering and soaker hoses would be difficult, but doable.

In other areas, the restrictions are more stringent. The South Florida Water Management District issued commercial water use restrictions on January 15, 2008. For more information, go to The section for Tennis Courts, Sports Turf and Other Athletic Facilities states: “To maintain safe playing field conditions, sports turf can be watered 20 minutes anytime between 11 p.m. on the preceding day to 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. For example: watering can occur between 11:30 p.m. and 11:50 p.m. on Monday night, or from 7 a.m. to 7:20 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Infields can be watered twice daily, once before 9 a.m. and once after 4 p.m. for up to 10 minutes.”

In some cases, restrictions allow no irrigation of athletic fields from city water supplies and limited use of water from on-site water resources such as holding ponds.

Water audits

In most cases, a water audit will be mandatory in earning authorization to irrigate during water restrictions. In any case, it’s the best way to gain information you need to assess the efficiency of your irrigation system for each field. Properly conducted, it gives you a means to measure the precipitation rate and the distribution uniformity.

The process involves first checking all irrigation heads to make sure they are set correctly and operating properly, then placing a series of identical containers at specific intervals within the throwing radius of the irrigation heads; operating the system for a specific time under normal operating conditions at normal pressure; measuring and recording the results; and plugging the figures into a formula to calculate the precipitation rate and the distribution uniformity. Recommended water audit guidelines can be found on the Irrigation Association (IA) Web site,

Photos by Steve Trusty.
Maintaining the irrigation system for optimum performance is a key point of irrigation best management practices.

The Texas A&M University AggieTurf Web site,, suggests conducting an audit during the same time period that you regularly irrigate. It also recommends working with a diagram of each field and recording the container placement on it along with the amount or depth of the water each container catches.

It also recommends an additional step, taking soil cores to determine the depth the water has penetrated and the root development within the core. This will help you discover any wet or dry spots and identify any soil variations, such as layering, that affect water penetration. You’ll also see if the water is reaching the full root depth or extending beyond it.

Monitor closely to detect any areas of potential runoff or overspray onto non-turf surfaces. You’ll want to eliminate any possibility of water waste.

Compare the audit results with what you would consider the ideal irrigation program for each field. In some cases, you may find that changing a few irrigation heads will accomplish your goals. In other instances, the audit may define inefficiency in the overall irrigation system design or the setup of specific zones due to changing uses of a field or the addition of multiple sports to a field originally constructed for a single sport.

Best management practices

The IA addresses best management practices on its Web site. The homepage lists turf and landscape irrigation best management practices under the “Industry Standards” section ( The site states: “The Irrigation Association has developed turf and landscape irrigation best management practices (BMPs) for policymakers and professionals who must save and extend our water supply while protecting water quality. The BMPs will help key stakeholders—policymakers, water purveyors, designers, installation and maintenance contractors, and consumers—to develop and implement appropriate codes and standards for effective water stewardship.”

Sports field managers may fall into several of the stakeholder categories, sometimes as designers, more frequently as the installation and maintenance personnel for their facilities, and always as the consumers of water for their fields.

The five points of the BMPs are:

• “Assure overall quality of the irrigation system;
• Design the irrigation system for the efficient and uniform distribution of water;
• Install the irrigation system to meet the design criteria;
• Maintain the irrigation system for optimum performance; and
• Manage the irrigation system to respond to the changing requirement for water in the landscape.”

By taking the proactive approach, you’ll be able to present a demonstrated and documented assessment of your irrigation program showing that you are a wise steward of this valuable resource. That, in combination with supporting input from others who have made the case for the importance of irrigation in maintaining safe sports fields, should help put you into the essential user category.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management