- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

Water conservation is the key to the future.

“There’s no question that water is the biggest issue,” says Frank Rossi, associate professor of turfgrass science at Cornell University. “As the population grows and climate changes make water more scarce, we’re going to have to adapt. I think out of sheer necessity, the golf course industry is going to need to be at the fore of some of these conservation efforts.”

Over the last two days, this series has noted the ways the industry is attempting to protect the water table from chemical pollution by limiting its synthetic input. But that is only the first step. If golf hopes to survive the coming water crunch, the industry needs to learn to use the planet’s most valuable commodity more efficiently by limiting irrigation, maximizing nonpotable water irrigation and reducing the carbon footprint - which pollutes the atmosphere and contributes to global warming, poor water quality and water scarcity.

Though it might seem like a paradox given the large acreage often maintained by golf courses, the expense of irrigation long ago forced the industry to the leading edge of conservation techniques.

“In a lot of ways, golf courses are part of the water conservation solution,” says Ronald Dodson, the founder and president of Audubon International, an organization that has promoted environmentally sound golf maintenance practices for two decades. “Many, if not most, rely largely on effluent [waste water] or onsite water in the form of lakes or ponds. In contrast, consider how the general population handles irrigation.

“Take Florida, the most golf-dense state. There are 146,000 acres of managed turfgrass on golf courses in Florida. In that same state, there are also 5 million acres of residential real estate. Not only are all of those homeowners using potable water to irrigate, they are the same people who go down to Home Depot and buy whatever fertilizer they want, don’t calibrate their spreaders correctly by and large and spread chemicals all over their driveways and streets, where it washes right into the storm drains and into reservoirs. Now, which party do you think is more of a threat to our drinking water?”

One of the most exciting innovations in the industry concerning water conservation is the development of newer strains of Paspalum grass, a turf that can be irrigated by saltwater. Already popular in some seaside environments, Paspalum is moving inland as golf’s likely primary turf of the future.

Toro, one of the industry leaders in irrigation and maintenance equipment, is developing soil-moisture sensing technology that will enable superintendents to irrigate more efficiently.

And both Toro and Jacobsen are leading the charge when it comes to producing nonpetroleum-based equipment. Jacobsen has produced its E-Walk line of fully electric green and tee mowers for more than a decade. All of the company’s mower models use fully biodegradable hydraulic fuel. And Jacobsen vice president of marketing Joe Cunningham thinks the era of completely noiseless, fully electric mowing and maintenance equipment is quickly approaching.

“Right now, the number of facilities that use electric equipment is less than 25 percent, but I think it’s getting ready to take off,” Cunningham says. “It’s not dissimilar from the auto industry. For a long time, the paradigm for powering automobiles has involved gasoline, but that’s obviously going to be changing in our lifetime. I think we’ve reached the tipping point, and petroleum-based products are on their way out.”

Most facilities haven’t shifted to electric equipment because of battery life. Lithium-ion technology limits the run-time of batteries.

Toro has addressed that problem by developing motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells; three Toro Workman utility vehicles powered by fuel cells will be deployed at Niagara Falls State Park this summer. The technology is cost-prohibitive.

But Dana Lonn, the director of Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology, considers golf courses the perfect vehicles for pioneering fuel-cell technology.

“You can make a very strong case that the golf course industry is ideally positioned to be a leader in fuel-cell technology for two primary reasons,” Lonn says. “First, the main issue with hydrogen fuel cells has always been developing a refueling infrastructure. Say you have a fuel cell car. Until the technology improves, you have a limited range. So where are you going to stop and refuel? Gas stations are everywhere but not hydrogen stations. At golf courses, you don’t face that problem, because the vehicles aren’t going to be leaving the property.

“Second, customers in the golf industry are going to really value the other attributes of the fuel cell machines. They are quiet. They don’t leak and pollute the environment. And generally golf people tend to be more environmentally conscious than your average corporation or individual.”

That consciousness must continue to expand if golf hopes to flourish amid the current and future environmental challenges.

“I think those within the industry have a pretty good handle on the changes that need to be made to sustain the game, but players need to modify their expectations accordingly,” says John Burns, the superintendent of Augustine Golf Club in Stafford, Va. “Superb and consistent conditions on greens are a must, but elsewhere the game is moving toward a less-manicured, more natural look.

“[At Augustine], we have Bermuda fairways that require no chemical input and minimal irrigation - that’s 40 acres or a majority of our primary playing surface, which requires very little other than mowing. We’ve grown up about 10 acres of turf in out-of-the-way places. We just don’t cut it anymore, and I love that Shinnecock [Hills] look. I think that’s the trend everywhere as golf moves back toward its play-it-as-it-lies roots. I don’t think there’s any question that golf is headed in a direction that is purer for both players and the environment.”

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