Preparing your golf course for reduced irrigation water

By Alistair December 15, 2019 08:50 Updated

Water is essential for maintaining a golf course but our changing human consumption, agriculture, industry and, of course, climate, means water is likely to become more scarce in the next decade. Dr Christian Spring looks at what can be done now in preparation.

One thing is for sure, water is one of the most important molecules for a grass plant. Water has many critical roles for life within the plant:

  • Water is the agent of transport of nutrients into and through the plant
  • The pressure caused by water in cells, is what gives grass plant tissues their strength and allows leaves to remain upright. When plant water content is low it starts to wilt
  • Water is the medium in which all of the plant’s biochemistry takes place
  • Water is one of the important fuels used in photosynthesis. It is the splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen being combined with carbon dioxide to form carbohydrates, the main building block of most plant tissues. The oxygen is released, which maintains life on earth as we know it.

Water is one of the key molecules to support life.

The turf

However, in a sports turf surface context, water also has other roles and impacts. The amount of water in the soil directly impacts on the performance and playability of sports surfaces.

Wetter surfaces tend to be softer and drier surfaces tend to be firmer. Wetter surfaces tend to become damaged more quickly through usage and can encourage shifts in the turf composition.

Drier surfaces increase the risk of plant stress and for contact sports, such as football or rugby, there can be player comfort and safety concerns.

Typically, our response to mitigating the effect of water on the playing surface has been three-fold:

  1. Improved drainage to allow excess water to be removed from the soil as quickly as possible.
  2. Irrigation systems to apply water in a targeted fashion as and when it is needed.
  3. Turf maintenance operations such as aeration, scarification, sand topdressing and use of wetting agents.

All these approaches have been shown to work and give turf managers a high degree of control over surface water content. However, there are other issues now coming to the fore which add another layer of complexity.

Golf ball on grass with water drops and bokeh

Climate change and water availability

The R&A has recently published its Golf Course 2030 Initiative Water Action Plan for Great Britain and Ireland. In this document, potential risks of water scarcity and water excess have been analysed, as well as outlining the next steps on how to tackle this issue. This is recognition of the critical role that water plays in managing our turf surfaces and the pressures we are going to have to overcome now and in the future.

Undoubtedly, climate change will have, and is having, a significant impact on UK weather. The most recent predictions from the Met Office on the implications of climate change for the UK highlight that weather will become more changeable and less predictable, and this will occur differentially across the country rather than as a uniform effect everywhere. This will mean that at times, we will experience significant increases in rainfall and at other times, a higher risk of drought.

To add into the mix, the competition for water supply for human consumption, agriculture and industrial use will increase. This could be partially as a response to climate change pressure, but also regional demographic change across the UK. All this means the security of water for sports turf applications will come under significant pressure.

What does this mean for my sports surface?

The implications for sports surfaces are clear. We need to identify the risks at a regional and facility level, whether this is how we deal with excess water or situations where there is not enough. There is a need to build resilience into our sports facilities to account for both too much and too little water all in the same year.

So, what does this mean? A starter for ten is to think more holistically about the water demands and the needs of our sports facilities. What are the challenges we face and do we start to implement plans now? We need to look at water use demands, drainage requirements and potential storage capacities of our whole sites, and not just focus on the sports surfaces. For example, how do we deal with drainage on wet areas of the golf course and how can we store and reuse that water on course?

Or how can grey water or rainwater from clubhouses be recycled for use on the course or landscape plantings?

We need to make sure that we have audited our water demands and likely issues on site. Where is drainage the main issue and where is water availability most under pressure? Have we optimised our maintenance regimes to help mitigate, as far as possible, these issues?

One case in point that has struck me recently has been the programmed and early use of wetting agents. Again, we seem to have transitioned straight from winter into summer this year.

A dry April and early May led us to irrigate turf more frequently than normal at our research facility in Bingley. However, what was clear was that several trial areas where wetting agents had been tested last year (with no additional applications since the end of September 2018) fared much better in terms of drought stress reduction.

They also recovered more rapidly when rain came as water was able to enter the dry soil more rapidly and evenly. Food for thought!

We know how integral plant hydration and surface moisture management are to maintaining a quality playing surface. There are forces already at work that will require us to evaluate water resources and demands of our facilities much more closely. We cannot take water for granted. We must plan our water management now to ensure that when the crunch hits, our facilities are robust and resilient to these issues.

Plan for change now to safeguard the future.

Dr Christian Spring is the STRI’s research operations manager


By Alistair December 15, 2019 08:50 Updated

Follow us on social media

Join Our Mailing List

Advertise with Greenkeeping

For editorial enquiries in the magazine or online, contact:

For advertising enquiries in the magazine or online, contact: