Water works

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Goose Hummock Golf Resort (Dale MacMillan/ Golf Canada)

Water is a touchy subject for golfers. The beauty they see in a sun-drenched pond or a swiftly flowing creek is often matched by the frustration they feel when their shot lands in unreachable territory. However, the issue of water features on the golf course extends beyond aesthetics and playability for superintendents. While the keepers of the course spend a large part of their time making sure the turfgrass is healthy, they also must have one eye on managing the creeks, ponds, lakes, rivers and marshes that sit on their properties.

Peering into a water feature is like opening the door to a world of information about the successful management of the whole golf course. At Southwood Golf and Country Club in Winnipeg, all the water that falls on the 200 acres of turf drains into the course’s five ponds, via over 200 catch basins. This gives superintendent Dustin How and his team the perfect opportunity to measure how their inputs are affecting the property.

“Our pond health is an indication of the overall health of the golf course and our management programs,” said How, who has been at Southwood since 2009.

“Our pond quality is really an indication of how our fertility program is doing. If we were over-fertilizing or had some issues, everything runs into the ponds and we’re going to see it,” says How.

The story is the same at Legends on the Niagara, Battlefield Course, where superintendent Tom Newton frequently examines the site’s various large ponds and Usher Creek for red flags.

“Testing the water features helps us determine whether our management strategies are impacting the environment and if we are impacting it positively or negatively,” says Newton, who played a large part in helping the course become Audubon certified.

There are a few telltale signs that can help a superintendent determine if there is something amiss with the water quality. One of these indications is the appearance of algae blooms, says How. When he sees a bloom in a pond, it is usually a symptom of a larger problem somewhere else on the site. This allows the turf care team to begin searching for the problem and rectifying it sooner.

While six-legged pests are usually frowned upon in the world of golf course management, the team at Legends embraces them when it comes time to determine the health of their water features and, by extension, their turf. As part of his water management strategy, Newton and his environmental intern test for certain bugs in the ponds to tell them if the water is fit as a fiddle or in need of some love and care.

“There are different bugs or macroinvertebrates that tolerate different levels of pollution,” says Newton.

“You can use the variance of species to determine the health of the water features based on what you find. It’s just another tool we use to verify that what we’re doing is not having a negative effect on the water quality.”

Tracking water quality on the property is especially important to a site like The Rock Golf Course in Minett, Ontario where superintendent Deni Terenzio must monitor nine ponds and 12 interconnected wet meadows that drain in two separate lakes. These water features act as drainage basins for the course. They also contain isolation valves from draining the water that falls on the site to drain into the lakes, which is crucial in lowering the potential for negative effects on the environment.

“If those features weren’t there, we’d be free draining into the lake without any sort of buffer zone,” says Terenzio.

“We as turf managers place a lot of inputs on our turf and most, if not all, of those inputs are consumed before they exit our property by different types of plants that grow by the water.”

The wide range of plant life that grows around The Rock’s water features is a common sight at most golf courses. Water gives turf managers an opportunity to incorporate native species, which can be beneficial to the course, but it also gives Mother Nature a chance to sprout invasive species that wreak havoc. This double-edged sword adds a whole other element to managing large swaths of H2O for superintendents.

One of the major native species that grows around the ponds at Legends is called green arrow arum. The plant is not only an aesthetically pleasing feature, but it is also a very useful tool for the course maintenance team, says Newton.

“It’s a good plant that shows if you have healthy water features,” says Newton.

“Before the construction of the golf course, Usher’s Creek had very little of the green arrow arum in it and now it’s loaded with it. It helps us gauge the health of the water on the course and the other plant life in and around the water.”

Newton attributes the amplified growth of native species to the increased sunlight that now touches the creek.

The native species also help the team at Legends ensure a proper buffer zone around the course’s water features, further minimizing the chance of unwanted runoff into the ponds. On the road to Audubon Certification, this was one of the biggest steps for the Niagara site, says Newton.

“(Establishing the vegetative buffer zone) was a joint effort before me and the golf pro to implement the measure without affecting the playability and aesthetics of the holes too much,” says Newton.

“The biggest factor was determining how to implement it without ruining the golfer experience, but also ensuring a proper buffer.”

While it seems the more vegetation, the better when it comes to water features, that’s not always the case. Invasive species can cause more than a few headaches for turf managers who venture near their sites’ ponds, streams or marshes.

At The Rock, invasive species that flourish near the property’s approximately 20 acres of water can have a devastating domino effect on the course’s overall health. Bulrushes are the major worry for Terenzio and his crew, says the superintendent. The bulrushes grow tall and block light from reaching other, more beneficial plants around the water’s edge, while debris, such as dead leaves, can impede the flow of water through the course and cause a drainage backup.

“It’s important to manage debris, like leaves and fallen trees, because they impede proper flow,” says Terenzio, “and because the wet meadows are shallow, this will cause certain parts of the course to flood, which will affect the drainage system as a whole.”

Clearing the bulrushes and other material is a time-consuming task as it needs to be done manually. Terenzio says his team tries to cut all the bulrushes down to size by July and then monitor them until winter.

As much as invasive species can be a curse, native species and the water itself can team up to be quite the blessing when it comes to attracting wildlife to golf courses. There aren’t many other features of a golf course that make animals feel at home as much as a well-maintained pond or creek.

The wildlife that appears on a regular basis at Southwood would not be nearly as diverse without its multitude of water features, says How.

“We went from having a farm field here five years ago to having basically a small wildlife sanctuary,” says How about the water’s effect on drawing animals to Southwood.

Wild turkeys, deer, coyotes and a variety of ducks are just a few of the animals that How has seen flock to the water features within the property.

“The wildlife we have seen on the property would not have been there five years ago when it was just an open field and it all stems from the bodies of water that we constructed.”

The influx of wildlife at Southwood extends to the water itself where flooding in the course’s first season after construction brought some unexpected house guests with it.

“The La Salle river flooded in 2009, which was the first year the ponds were in existence,” says How, “and with the water that backed up into these ponds came fish.”

The ponds are now full of species like jackfish and carp simply from the flood.

“It was really neat to create something and then see nature move in given the opportunity in such a short time.”

The march of wildlife to the water features at Legends is a similar marvel.

“The biggest thing we see from (the ponds) are the benefits they provide for the aquatic wildlife,” says Newton, “whether it’s a food source or a nesting area or a cover from predators.”

Newton says the list of wildlife that comes to the ponds is endless and includes deer, turtles and too many species of birds to count. Usher’s Creek is also home to a run of grass pickerel in the spring, which is a point of pride for Newton and his team as the fish is a species of special concern in Ontario.

Water features bring animal life, stunning views and benefits to the turfgrass, but they are also delicate parts of a golf course’s ecology. Lots can go right with ponds, creeks and marshes, but lots can also go wrong.

Newton’s biggest challenge at Legends is tweaking some of his cultural practices to match the oft-changing needs of one of his water features.

“We have one water feature that tests significantly higher for nutrient loads than the rest,” says Newton.

“It’s a challenge for us to determine why this is happening and where these inputs are coming from – whether it’s something in the soil to begin with or if it’s something we’re doing.”

Newton and his team have taken several steps to reduce the possibility of their contribution to this increased nutrient load. The first was to increase the buffer zones in the areas around the water feature. Newton’s crew has also raised the height of cut to three inches or more for the maintained turf around the feature. They also attempt to spoon-feed nutrients around that part of the course instead of going out with a tractor-mounted sprayer.

Maintaining the area around the ponds is also a tricky endeavor at Southwood where How and his crew must constantly track their activities around the water.

“The most challenging part about managing the ponds is making sure we’re maintaining our buffer zones. Those are the biggest things we keep an eye on,” says How.

16-04-28 - Water works Story

Water features are as unique as the ways to manage them. Just as each water feature has its own special place on the course, its own wildlife, its own vegetation and depth, its own stories from unfortunate golfers and hardworking turf managers, each superintendent has their own advice on how to maintain these features best.

“Try to incorporate as many native grass and plant areas as possible to encourage wildlife,” says Terenzio on the words of wisdom he would give on managing water features.

For Newton, a keen eye and attention to detail are key to having a successful water management strategy at any golf course.

“The biggest thing is to establish baselines or understand what your features have to begin with,” says Newton.

“There are visual inspections, but there are other ways to get this information, whether it’s testing for macroinvertebrates or water quality testing. It sounds daunting, but a lot of the time it just means an investment in a meter and familiarizing yourself with how to use it.”

Newton also says that having a dedicated area to store and mix pesticides is critically important to ensuring the health of all water features, as well as the groundwater, at any course.

How has a unique perspective on the maintenance of water features, having been at the course when earth made way for water and the ponds were constructed out of a farm field. He says one of the most crucial aspects of managing any H2O happens before a drop of water even appears on the scene.

“It all starts with construction,” says How.

“It’s making sure that the ponds are built correctly and you have enough depth to get rid of issues like algae blooms before they happen. The shallower the water feature, the warmer it’s going to get and the more algae blooms are going to appear.”

Once the water features are up and running, or flowing, it’s important to have a controlled exit point, says How. This will help turf managers to ensure that if anything ever does go wrong, they can stop the water from exiting the property with potentially hazardous materials in it.

Despite the trials and tribulations of maintaining a pond, stream or marsh; the exact science, the murky depths and the careful observation; a golf course just isn’t a golf course without at least a little bit of water, says Newton.

“Missing that water feature is going to remove a lot of your wildlife and a lot of those natural elements in general,” he says.

“And I’ve always believed that golf is a game that’s played in nature.”