The state’s sports turf managers are making the best of water restrictions

For those in the rest of the country who have undoubtedly seen numerous news reports on the water shortage and conservation mandates taking place in California, it may be difficult to know if this situation is truly serious, or just an overblown story.

“I think it’s as serious as it’s ever been. There’s real pressure being put on water agencies to cut back,” says Patrick Crais with Blue Watchdog, a water conservation consulting firm in San Diego.

While the specific reduction targets vary between water suppliers in different parts of the state, in April, California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent reduction in urban water use statewide by 2016 (versus 2013 levels).

“The California Water Reduction Order” requires water suppliers to report their water reduction to be sure these water savings are met, and to encourage customers to do their part. Lawn watering has been banned within two days of a rain event, and steep fines have been imposed for those individuals and businesses found wasting water.

A soccer field, suffering from extremely dry conditions, in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego, California.

Taking it to the field

Even before these latest mandates, the impact of the water shortage has been seen on California’s athletic fields. Last year, for example, the University of California at Santa Cruz had to close its main recreation field after it became too dry and unsafe for play; the football field at Santa Cruz High School was also taken out of play, with the team practicing on the baseball field and playing its home games on the synthetic fields of neighboring schools.

More recently, Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo has stopped irrigating seven lawns on campus and scaled back watering baseball, softball and soccer fields to the point they are dormant. Only one soccer field has been preserved in playable condition. These same decisions are being faced at schools, parks and sports complexes across the state, where many athletic fields have been converted to synthetic surfaces.

Read more: the ironies of drought

This is not to say that every part of the story is doom and gloom.

The City of Los Angeles, for instance, has restricted irrigation to two days per week, but has made special allowances for swimming pools, golf courses and sports fields.

“Water conservation doesn’t mean the erosion of our quality of life,” stated Councilman Felipe Fuentes, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee. “We should not consider everything that’s green as something to go brown.”

Indeed, that’s the attitude being taken by many sports turf managers in the state, who have been finding creative ways to keep the playability of their fields up while getting their water use down.

The story at U.C. Davis

Department-wide, including campus landscaping and athletic fields, the University of California, Davis has already been asked to cut water use by 30 percent.

“We exceeded that, and next year they’re asking us to reduce another 25 percent of overall use,” says Kore Higuchi, sports turf manager at the university.

That means cutting water use by more than half in a two-year span.

Higuchi says that on the school’s three stadium fields – for baseball, soccer and softball – water savings have been achieved largely through focusing on cultural practices.

“We used a lot of surfactants and wetting agents,” he explains. “We audited the irrigation system to make sure we were running it as efficiently as possible, and then just smart watering practices, taking into account evaporation, what time of the day we watered, as well as humidity, not watering to the point of run-off, and all those sorts of things.”

On the skinned areas of ballfields, he has experimented with polymer-coated sand products on infield surfaces, as well as other products such as Lesco’s Moisture Manager, which helps to maintain moisture in the root zone of turfed areas. Wetting agents, including AquaDuct [by Aquatrols], also were utilized, and Higuchi says they helped tackle a lot of localized dry spots.

“So we didn’t have to overwater everything to compensate for those, allowing us to save a little water that way,” he explains.

At U.C. Davis, there has been no big change made in terms of irrigation controllers or adopting new technology, “it was more just a matter of fine-tuning what we have,” says Higuchi. He is envisioning having to make more substantial changes in order to meet future water conservation requirements.

“I’ve got three test plots with different types of perennial ryegrass that I’m monitoring to see how they do as far as drought resistance and handling the heat,” he explains.

The university overseeds its bermudagrass fields, and having a perennial rye that uses less water would help as far as achieving the overall annual water conservation requirements. He’s also experimenting with additional moisture retention products in the hope he can get by with less water on baseball and softball fields.

But, aesthetics have taken a bit of a backseat.

“We have to let the grass grow a little longer during stress periods, or wait a little longer before we hit the fields with water,” says Higuchi. “Everyone has to do their part. But we have to keep the fields safe for the athletes – that’s number one.”

U.C. Davis sports turf manager Kore Higuchi has experimented with (and seen good results from) several different soil conditioners and amendments designed to help maintain moisture on the skinned areas and in the root zone of turfed areas.

Conserving not just on the field

Consultant Patrick Crais says this is typical of the situations he’s seen, and notes that he’s worked with a number of sports turf managers who are looking for guidance in how to conserve water not on their athletic fields, but on the rest of the grounds they’re charged with maintaining.

“They know how to manage their turfgrass; it’s the landscaping and other plants that they want to know about,” he observes.

Learning how to do that effectively is going to be a critical skill, he feels, because most won’t be required to reduce water specifically on their fields, but in their overall usage. School districts and rec parks, in particular, will have to try to eke out the most possible water savings from the landscape in order to minimize the impact on the sportsfields.

Many times, these turf managers are given the blanket advice to get an irrigation efficiency audit done, or that they absolutely need a weather-based irrigation controller.

“That’s ridiculous,” Crais says. “A sports turf manager is (his) own weather man; they eat, sleep, and breathe that. They’re kind of like ground hogs; they’ll go chew on the soil and can tell you if water is needed. You don’t need 3,000 different automated ways to control things.”

Crais does recommend making sure that a basic rain sensor is installed to shut the system off if someone is gone over the weekend or during the off-season.

Irrigation technology, as far as automated delivery, is needed more at school districts and rec parks, where one or two people might be responsible for maintaining many acres of non-sports turf and landscaping, says Crais.

“Otherwise a lot of water ends up going to over-watered shrubs that haven’t been looked at for 15 years,” he says from experience.

If a school or college, for example, has a mandated goal for saving a percent of water (which is a far-from-perfect-but-nonetheless-common approach, he says), Crais recommends the following steps:

Step 1: Contact your water agency or city for a free water audit. They have an interest in helping their customers conserve water. “They will come in to do a survey,” he explains; this usually will be provided for large water customers. Also, ask for a report of your water history for the property.

Step 2: Locate the actual water meters on which the bills are based. “A lot of people don’t know where their water meters are,” says Crais. “You need to find out if they are mixed-use meters or dedicated irrigation meters.”

Step 3: Establish exactly how much plant material there is on the property. “That means the square footage of turf, and the square footage of shrubs. You need to do that in order to calculate an amount of water that’s needed to keep those things alive; there’s a little bit of science involved there, but it’s not rocket science,” he explains. “Only after you do that can you create a water budget for the property. And then you can start to prioritize: If you need to cut water use by 25 percent, you can do it by, say, taking out certain areas of shrubs, or stopping irrigation on a few other areas. Or you’ll know, for example, that you can preserve two soccer fields but that the practice field has to go.”

The bottom line, says Crais, is that you need to know how much water you’re using, and how much water you need to use, before you can make a conservation plan.

In cases of mixed-use water meters, where the irrigation system isn’t separate from water going to buildings, he recommends installing sub-meters that will provide an internal record of water used just for irrigation.

“At every backflow you have that’s an irrigation system shut-off, put in a $100 dedicated irrigation meter so you can track things,” states Crais.

Then take weekly meter readings in order to understand how efficient your irrigation system is; it doesn’t make sense to make decisions about installing a new irrigation system or a new high-tech controllers or soil sensors or nozzles or whatever without first getting this basic information, he emphasizes.

Municipal situations

Jeff Hendricks, parks maintenance supervisor with the City of San Luis Obispo, which has more than 160 acres of parks including athletic fields, is facing a 12 percent water reduction versus 2013. This is in addition to the city’s own cuts (two separate, 10 percent reductions in 2007 and 2011) in water usage in recent years due to budgetary considerations. So, in the span of eight years, Hendricks has been forced to reduce water use in the parks by more than 30 percent.

Even more than the limit on water use, “it’s actually the two days per week regulation that’s our biggest problem,” Hendricks states. The City of San Luis Obispo is on an ET-based central control system, but that technology is limited in some ways by the two-days-per-week restriction.

“The computer tells me how much water has been lost due to evapotranspiration since the last watering cycle,” explains Hendricks. “But if I’ve lost a half-inch since the last watering cycle, I can’t apply a half-inch in one day. So there’s a net loss.”

That means that Hendricks and his maintenance team have had to get creative to get the water into the ground as effectively as possible when they are allowed to irrigate.

While no major changes in irrigation technology have been made, U.C. Davis conducted an irrigation audit on its sports fields to help fine-tune the system to save every bit of water possible.

“What we’ve done is to step up our aerification in order to open up the ground a little bit, so that run-off and standing water aren’t problems,” he explains. The approach is sort of a double-edge sword, though, he adds: “When you’re not irrigating, the holes are allowing the ground to dry out.”

The solution has been to switch to a different style of aerator tines that produce smaller holes without pulling cores. “They allow water to flow in, without necessarily allowing water to leave through evapotranspiration,” says Hendricks. He’s also hoping that, by letting the water get deeper into the ground, the turf roots will chase it and grow deeper.

In particular, the maintenance staff has seen good results using an AerWay aerator equipped with shatter (or sports) tines.

“It uses a slicing motion; it’s very passive – there’s no core being removed, and it’s very quick; because it’s 6 feet wide we can do a large area in a short time.” (He adds that it’s important to mark irrigation heads and valve boxes, etc., so there are no holes punched in them.) This summer, he’s planning to aerate the parks – both sports fields and general turf – at least once a month.

With 12 percent less water to work with overall this summer, Hendricks also must prioritize where it is used. Some low-use areas of parks will have the irrigation shut off, for example. Ground-cover plants will be allowed to die out in these areas, while watering just large shrubs and trees.

“We’re treating sports fields a little bit differently. I have to keep them as lush as I possibly can due to safety concerns,” he explains. He says he’s fortunate to have an irrigation system with a central controller that allows him to easily create different programs for different parts of the parks.

Hendricks says that there was a discussion about raising mowing heights to help take some stress off the turf, but the decision was made to keep things where they are: “Right now we mow at 2 inches, which is sort of at the upper extreme. I think if we raised it to 2.5 or 3 inches, we’d start to have problems by the end of the mowing cycle. We mow once per week, and by the time we mow the grass is pretty long.” While they may opt to raise the height in some general turf areas of the park, it probably won’t happen on the sportsfields, where performance would be affected by taller grass laying over. “You want the baseballs and the soccer balls to roll properly,” he explains.

Field use is a subject that hasn’t been broached yet, but likely will have to be at some point, says Hendricks. “There will have to be discussions down the road, because I have to keep the fields safe,” he explains. “Water reduction is going to have an effect on the grass’s ability to grow. When it starts to take too big of a hit, our only option is reduce play…. When it comes to the conservation of water, you can only go so far.”