Posted by: Paul Woodham, Head of Agronomy

Climate pressures

With many areas of the UK experiencing heatwaves, and 11 of 14 regions being declared in drought conditions, golf courses and sports pitches are coming under increased scrutiny around water management.

The effect on turf of increasingly dry weather is significant, especially around in-play, high wear areas and prominent hot spots. In England, July was the driest in more than a century with only about 25% of expected rainfall. Provisional figures show the summer of 2022 had an average temperature of 17.1°C, tying with 2018 to be the warmest on record since 1884. This followed the driest winter and spring since the 1970s.

The need for irrigation

Investment in maintenance and renewal of irrigation systems has been lacking for years. There was a sharp increase in the upgrade and replacement of aging systems following the drought of 2018-19. A similar trend was seen following the drought of 1976, when installing automatic irrigation was new, and quickly realised as a necessity. Our most recent drought in 2018-19 was considered a one in fifty-year drought event, yet just a few years later, the climate models predict more frequent dry spring and summers with multiple heatwaves and more extreme weather events such as localised flooding and warm, wet winters.

The importance of sustainable water sources

Whilst investment in irrigation is needed, there is still little understanding on how the irrigation system can be sustainably supplied with the water sources available. We have seen golf courses starting to run dry, with a gap between the rate of irrigation versus the rate of infill to irrigation holding tanks (day tanks). There are also issues where irrigation is drawn directly from holding ponds and reservoirs when their water levels drop too low to draw water. Bore holes have been drying up or becoming close to exceeding their unlicensed abstraction agreement or licensed abstraction rates. The prospect of drilling additional bore holes for daily extraction during the summer months or applying for an increased abstraction license is not considered as a secure supply for the future. Furthermore, there is a move to actively reduce bore hole abstraction in the Southeast. Reductions leading to gaps will have a direct impact on the quality and presentation of the playing surfaces.

Restrictions and public perception

Several water companies have introduced regional restrictions (TUBs) to conserve water. There is an obvious threat to domestic and industrial water supplies, and the restrictions are in place to guard against a dry winter and the potential for main reservoir levels not refilling in advance of next year. Sportsturf was exempt from the full TUB hosepipe bans (as of August 2022) on the grounds of health and safety, although there are requests and constraints in certain regions not to use irrigation at peak use hours of the day. Whether we can use these health and safety concerns as a reason to irrigate the wider areas of the course is a question of conscience. Golf clubs must not appear to be tone-deaf to public perception with the use of water at a time of drought. However, it is important to remember that golf courses can be an important ecological corridor. There are great examples of how a course benefits and protects the environment, seen through initiatives such as STRI’s Golf Environment Awards which showcases clubs making extensive efforts in sustainability and ecology.

Sustainable drainage

Clearly, we are facing unprecedented climate pressures.  The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the UK will be experiencing hotter drier summers, longer periods of drought between rainfall events and drier winters.  The intensity of rainfall will become much greater, leading to more risk of flooding and greater volumes of water to be effectively managed to keep the surfaces open for near year-round play – a necessity for the business to survive. To achieve the objectives, we need the ability to implement good greenkeeping, often summarised in three words – good water management. Historically there has been more investment in course drainage than in irrigation, probably because the course will never close because of drought even though the playing conditions can be severely impaired.

Our industry is under threat here too as legislation with planners, local plans and Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFA) demand sustainable drainage (SuDS) or Natural Flood Management (NFM) schemes to protect the off-site environment and residences from downstream flooding. For many years, greenkeepers have installed drainage channelling into ditches and streams often without enough concern over where the water is ending up. Each individual pipe outfall generally produces a miniscule to moderate amount of water but there is a natural network of drainage and groundwater movement which can increase the risk of flooding downstream.

Golf courses are big areas of land which can temporarily or permanently attenuate drainage water if there is a focus on sustainable drainage schemes. This provides an opportunity to resolve compliance problems and use or reuse captured surface water as a solution for sustainable irrigation water, in turn offering significant water security to a golf course. A holistic view of the course should be undertaken; out of play areas such as car parks, pathways and roofs should be included as they are often perfect areas to capture water for re-use.  In addition, potential off-site water resources can be explored such as adjacent land, building developments and wastewater, further enhancing the security and sustainability of the golf course.

Water Security Audit – understand your current situation

STRI Group conducts audits which evaluate course water security and sustainability including drainage and water gap, risks, and on-site and off-site compliance and opportunities. The audit is agronomically led to align maintenance, performance and development strategies whilst utilising the expertise of our sportsturf design team to develop sustainable solutions.  Through the Environmental Protection Group (EPG), part of STRI Group, we have industry leading experts in SuDS, NFM and water security management.  EPG has state-of-the-art water modelling software and facilities, and is able to design for multi-functionality, enabling the club to improve water security and enhance its biodiversity.

Altering flow paths, installing drainage systems and building irrigation/attenuation ponds requires a critical understanding of water and engineering.  The consequences of making a mistake with water can be significant, and liability will sit with either the consultant proposing the changes or the golf club itself. Some areas to consider;

  • What is your gap analysis between predicted usage and the current supply of water (day/hour infill)?
  • How secure is your water supply? Understand the future of licenced and unlicensed water availability
  • What water is leaving the site?
  • Are there areas where drainage available or is needed and this be used to harvest water?
  • Is your drainage discharge compliant (new schemes and old). What restrictions are in your areas regarding downstream flood risks?
  • Identify a hierarchy of solutions for bridging an irrigation gap with a favoured outcome to pursue
  • Understand if solutions will be subject to planning permission

Sustainable water management (irrigation and discharge) will continue to dominate industry discussions at times when the climate extremes peak. Unfortunately, these peaks are going to occur with increasing regularity and the unseen effects will linger and result in damage to playing surfaces if the issues are not addressed. The next five years will be pivotal, as legislation tightens and we expect all courses will need to develop a future plan within this period, before the consequences of not doing so begin to have an impact.

To talk to STRI Group about water management, email or call us on 01274 565131.