Golf’s Most Difficult Water Hazard

July 1, 2002

The golf course industry is experiencing increased pressure from government and private environmental groups to prove that construction and maintenance activities do not waste or pollute our nation’s water supply. Many areas of the United States are suffering from drought conditions that will likely lead to increased water-use restrictions for all consumers. Golf courses are competing for the use of our water supply. Along with water-consumption issues, water quality is equally important. This article discusses current events and examples of how the golf industry is responding to the water crisis.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) has been the guiding force for legislation and laws designed to protect water quality for almost 30 years. New regulatory framework expands USEPA’s power and introduces many new regulations. The result is a barrage of requests for environmental plans, reports, and data that until now has not been part of the golf course construction process. The number of regulatory agencies that might be involved during a golf course construction permitting process ranges from a few to as many as 15 (Table 1). There is high variability in the permitting process from state to state and from county to county. The reason boils down to funding. Congress is passing environmental bills without considering the cost of funding the programs, and states are required to develop and enforce these plans without the funds for hiring new staff. Some projects are very simple to permit, and all that is needed is a grading permit. Other projects have so many agencies involved that the permitting process is like peeling an onion: Keep peeling off layer after layer, and eventually you are going to cry.

Water protection is of concern to many government and private agencies. The golf course planner must understand, and sometimes anticipate, the requirements each agency will have with regard to water use and protection. When planning a golf course construction project, the first step is to make a list of all government, private, local, state, and federal groups that might influence or have interest in the project. When the permit application is submitted to a single agency, that agency may forward the application to another agency, which in turn may forward the information to another agency, and so on. I was involved with one project in which a historical preservation agency was somehow left out of the process. After the project had started, a stop-work order was filed until the site could be thoroughly inspected for historical significance. Construction scheduling for a golf course is a touchy business. Some activities, such as seeding, have very narrow time windows and cannot afford to be delayed. A one-month delay in seeding can cause a one-year delay in opening the golf course, resulting in a huge loss of revenue.

Water Quality and Golf

One means of preserving water quality, of course, is by preventing erosion and the resulting sediment movement into waterways, streams, and lakes. Another water-quality issue that golf course developers must address is the potential impact of turfgrass. The golf course industry is responding to water-quality concerns on several fronts. The United States Golf Association (USGA) funds research on the fate of pesticides and fertilizers applied to turfgrass. The resulting data, although useful and informative, have been limited to university trials under controlled conditions. According to Michael Kenna, research director for the USGA Green Section, the focus for future research should be on breeding new grasses that use nutrients more efficiently and research projects on golf course sites that will yield practical real-life data. Examples of current research projects include The Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, Colbert Hills, Purdue’s Kampen Golf Course, and projects in Georgia and Texas.

Research findings at The Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course in Coeur d’Alene, ID, show that, under normal management, leachate water traveling through a high-sand-profile putting green does not present an environmental hazard. In this research, nitrate concentrations were seldom more than 3 ppm and never exceeded the EPA limit of 10 ppm nitrate. Nitrate levels in the groundwater were highest during the winter when turfgrass was not actively assimilating the nitrogen in the soil. These results support the current best management practice (BMP) of limiting nitrogen applications in the late fall and winter. This information, along with other research data, is valuable for developing an environmental management plan.

Purdue’s Kampen Golf Course is the site of another study being funded by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the USGA. The objective of this study is to determine the effectiveness of created wetlands in filtering water runoff from commercial, residential, and golf course areas before the runoff enters high-value environmental areas. The project was started in 1998, and it is too early to draw conclusions as the created wetlands are still maturing. Some trends are appearing, however, that reveal many positive effects on water quality as the water circulates through the golf course wetlands.

Research at the University of Georgia, in cooperation with EPA, will evaluate the accuracy of current models that make assumptions based on crop information. Engineering models are currently lacking accurate information and coefficients for mature turfgrass. Current runoff models do not accurately predict runoff rates through dense, healthy turfgrass. The new models will be turfgrass-specific and improve the accuracy of modeling for turfgrass applications.

Golf Course Construction and Water Quality

Construction and erosion control specialists are familiar with techniques to prevent the movement of sediment during the construction process. These construction BMPs will continue to be an important part of the erosion control requirements. The golf course industry, by nature of its comparatively small size, has always been a subculture of other, larger industries. For example, new developments in pesticide formulations occur first in the agricultural arena and then filter down to the golf course industry. The same is true with pollution prevention. Golf course construction applies industry standards, with modifications to fit the specialized business of golf course strategic design. In this age of pollution awareness, the golf course architect must incorporate erosion control features into the golf course design without creating a negative effect on the game of golf. Limiting the number of temporary BMPs can reduce the cost of construction. Finding BMPs that can be used during construction and remain as part of the golf course design is a challenge that requires experience and thoughtful planning.

What are golf courses doing today to demonstrate environmental stewardship and reduce the risk of water pollution? Architects, superintendents, and golf associations are involved in funding education and research programs that address pollution control during construction and after the golf course is open. The American Society of Golf Course Architects stresses environmental planning in its publication Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States.

Many leading golf course designers in the US have taken steps to become more involved in the installation of BMPs during the design and construction process. For example, the Town of Pound Ridge, NY, wanted strict mitigation measures designed to minimize the impact of runoff to identified areas. Dye Designs of Denver, CO, developed a concept to clean golf course and other developmental runoff water. The runoff and drainage water is directed through a series of cells that contain wetland vegetation. The vegetation cleanses the runoff by absorbing toxins and other harmful materials that are present in the water.

The filter design, or bioswale, operates by draining water into the first cell, where it is detained amidst wetland flora until it is transported through a 4-in. pipe into the second cell. The second cell also detains the water in wetland flora. The water eventually flows into a drain inlet. Turf mounds or walls are created around the second cell, allowing more water-detention volume in the case of storm events. The drain inlet sits about 1 ft. above the cell bottom, allowing the water to slowly release into the concrete vault below. The water is then pumped back up and released into the first cell, and the process is repeated. The objective is to hold the water within the cells as long as possible so that natural cleansing processes can work to remove harmful nutrients and trap sediment.

Thoughtful Planning

Before erosion control methods can be used, the golf course project must complete the long permitting process. A well-developed environmental management plan consists of a detailed description of the features and physical setting of the golf course layout and surrounding property. Drawings developed from aerial photographs and showing existing and future plans best suit this purpose. The description should also include details of the topography showing the project’s relationship with natural areas, surface-water flow, and drainage direction. The soils mapping should be included, which classifies the native soils and gives an indication of fertility, percolation, and depth to bedrock and/or groundwater. Surface-water features should be described and located. Data on the climate should summarize conditions that relate to growth of turfgrasses at the course and impact pest management strategies such as temperature, rainfall, potential evapotranspiration, length of growing season, and mean first and last frost dates.

Preconstruction Requirements

One of the recent changes in permitting is the requirement for a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) before golf course construction begins. NMPs are required as part of the permitting process for many new golf courses and are required on some existing golf courses under the auspices of the CWA. Each state has different regulations. Some areas of the country enforce very restrictive regulations on which chemicals and fertilizers can be used. As the name implies, an NMP deals with the amount, placement, timing, and application of nutrients to control or reduce pollution to surface water and groundwater. The NMP also suggests construction methods and BMPs for the cost-effective control of pollutants. The components of the plan are extensive and include a complete discussion on agronomics, environmental issues, soil science, nutrient studies, plant physiology, and site-specific data. A more complete list of NMP components and procedures is available from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service or your state Department of Agriculture. For more information visit

The NMP may also be part of a more comprehensive environmental management plan that includes stormwater permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, pesticide management, or an environmental impact statement. The future for golf course construction is not so much a change in existing regulations but an addition to what is currently required. Existing facilities might have to prepare plans when requested by a government agency. They might fall under the regulations adopted by the local government’s Watershed Management Plan or Critical Ordinance or a number of other programs designed to address nonpoint pollution issues.

Qualifications necessary to write the NMP will vary from state to state. The Mid-Atlantic states require state certification for nutrient management planners. For example, Virginia requires Nutrient Management Certification through the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Pennsylvania and Maryland have similar programs. The Virginia certification program requires either a college degree in agriculture or some combination of education and experience in nutrient management. The person seeking certification must pass a test that addresses the elements listed in Table 2. Other states are currently adopting similar procedures for certification of nutrient planners. States that have not yet developed a certification program may require that NMPs be written by a certified agronomist or certified crop advisor who has obtained certification through the American Society of Agronomy.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a BMP whose strategies have been applied in agriculture for more than 30 years. USDA launched an initiative with the goal of implementing IPM methods on 75% of the total crop acreage by the year 2000. EPA supports this effort, and the Office of Pesticide Programs has been instrumental in helping golf course superintendents find ways to incorporate IPM strategies into their programs.


The growth of golf during the last 10 years has been phenomenal. More than 300 new golf courses open every year. The continued growth of golf course construction will require more interaction among golf architects, civil engineers, pollution planners, environmental consultants, and construction companies as regulations become increasingly diverse. The golf course construction industry must strive to:

  • ensure that sufficient professional, scientific, and practical analysis of water use and quality is provided and maintained in construction and management of golf courses;
  • maintain an open dialogue among golf, industry, and state and federal environmental agencies;
  • stimulate a conscientious effort from all parties involved to ensure that golf courses are an enhancement to our environmental and national heritage.
    About the Author

    Jim Connolly

    Jim Connolly, a certified professional agronomist and president of JJC Ltd. in Spokane, WA, has written Nutrient Management Plans for golf course projects in several states.