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San Diego
Thursday, May 30, 2024
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Waterwise Fairways, Greens as a Matter of Course

GOLF RESORTS: Fairbanks Ranch, Fairmont Grand Conservation Investments Net Big Savings

RANCHO SANTA FE & DEL MAR – Keeping grass lush and green is no easy task, and especially in California, where water is at a premium, and where doing so can be very expensive.

Golf courses are known for their acres well-kept lawns – and are some of largest water users in California, with the state’s more than 900 courses using untold billions of gallons of water annually.

Golf courses spend thousands of dollars a year on water, taxing reservoirs, rivers and other resources’ water coffers, with water supplies dwindling even as the price of water rises exponentially.

According to the California Alliance for Golf, an average 18-hole golf course in the state, typically from 110 to 115 acres (about half of which is maintained turf) needs about 90 million gallons of water annually – enough to fill nearly 140 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In the U.S., average daily water uses for all golf courses combined accounts for around 1.5 billion gallons daily, according to the United States Golf Association, which two years ago reported that 21% of all water applied to U.S. golf courses is recycled.

In 2022, the USGA began accelerating its work toward reducing golf’s use of water with a $30 million commitment over the next 15 years. The USGA wants courses to advance underutilized strategies and technologies to reduce their use of water by 45%, with a focus on irrigation optimization, advanced conservation innovation and water sourcing and storage.

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America reported in 2020 that 22% of golf courses surveyed reported using more drought-tolerant turfgrasses– a 4% increase from its last survey in 2013.

Cody Layton
SVP, Operations
The Bay Club Company

Most golf courses have left potable water in the dust, says Cody Layton, golf superintendent at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe and SVP of golf course operations with The Bay Club Company.

Bay Club has a collection of private golf properties in Northern and Southern California. Fairbanks Ranch, which has 27 holes and 250 acres over three golf courses on its premises, is Bay Club’s lone San Diego asset.

“All golf courses have pretty much gone to an alternate source such as reclaimed water, reclaimed wastewater in the last 10 years,” said Layton, who has been in the golf industry for 23 years. “A golf course that is just on potable water these days is a rarity.”

To that end, many golf courses have also taken on technology and the iOT to help them conserve water and save money, including Fairbanks Ranch and Fairmont Grand Del Mar.

“In the last decade, the technology piece is probably the biggest part of what we do,” Layton said. “The amount of information that superintendents have at our fingertips to make needed decisions on a daily hourly basis has really come a long way. By implementing weather stations, turf conversions, and advanced irrigation systems, Bay Club has successfully reduced water consumption by over 20 percent year over year across the Bay Club portfolio of courses.”

Layton said the savings is 30% at Fairbanks by completing turf conversion of one of its three courses. (The other two courses are already warm-season turf.)

Fairbanks Ranch uses soil sensors that are manual and not permanently placed in the ground and Layton said the course implemented Toro irrigation weather stations to provide the information needed to make important decisions on watering practices. Those have made a tremendous difference in water usage and savings at Fairbanks Ranch.

“With the installation of the Toro stations, I’m able to base the watering needs on scientific evidence as opposed to human judgment ensuring proper water distribution,” Layton said. “These weather stations provide me with detailed information, which facilitates precise measurements of irrigation — saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day. Through this technology which measures wind, solar radiation, humidity, precipitation and temperature, Bay Club has the capability to calculate exactly how much water to put back into the soil without overwatering.

“With 2,000-3,000 sprinkler heads on each course, every second matters.”

Grand Plans in Del Mar

David Yanez, director of agronomy at Fairmont Grand Del Mar, and superintendent of the golf course, has been on site since 2001, just two years after the golf course with its hybrid Bermuda grass was built, and six years before the rest of the resort opened.

Yanez said incorporating water saving measures has been and will continue to be one his biggest focuses for the 18-hole, 7,160-yard golf course.

David Yanez
Agronomist, Golf Superintendent
Fairmont Grand Del Mar

“It’s doing the right thing for the environment,” he said.

Fairmont Grand moved from 100% potable for most of its tenure to nearly 100% reclaimed water today, which it buys from the city of San Diego. Yanez said only for a couple of months in the summer does the resort use potable water, taking on enough reclaimed water to keep its needs met for the rest of the year.

He said Fairmont Grand’s golf course has about 115 acres of irrigated turf, plus 24 acres of landscaping at the resort.

“When we had water restrictions and they were affecting us six years ago, we started looking more closely at reclaimed water,” Yanez said.

When Yanez started at Fairmont Grand in 2001, recycled water was 80 cents per 100 cubic feet (748 gallons), and he recalls the cost of potable water at about $2.35 for 100 cubic feet of water. Over the past 10 years, Yanez said the price for potable water increased about 300%.

According to the City of San Diego, the cost of recycled water in the city as of Jan. 1, 2024 is $2.39 per 100 cubic feet of water; potable water is $8.20 per 100 cubic feet of water for irrigation customers.

“I’m not going to overuse the reclaimed water because we have sound agronomic practices – and it still costs us money,” Yanez said. “But it’s good to have those savings.”

Yanez said that one of the first things Fairmont Grand started doing to conserve water was to change out all of its sprinklers on the fairways with newer models that are more water efficient, then went through the entire golf course and changed the rest to similar updated sprinklers.

In 2020, Yanez said Fairmont Grand changed its central computer system to help regulate irrigation needs, like Fairbanks Ranch using Toro water management solutions, which includes a central control system that merges irrigation information and a wireless soil monitoring system.

“We now have two different weather stations on the property that we pull daily data from, so we know what the evapotranspiration is,” Yanez said. “That helps us determine how much we’re going to water.”

Yanez said Fairmont Grand also started a partnership with Chula Vista-based GroundWorx, which installed IoT-powered soil sensors in the fairways that provide data to recognize when, when it comes to water, enough is enough.

“We know our facilities, we can walk and feel it and have an idea, and it’s almost like we have another sense,” Yanez said, “but GroundWorx offers us a number that we can say, ‘OK, you know, I think that we can skip irrigation tonight because there’s enough moisture in the ground based on our sensors.’ It backs up what you’re doing in a very user-friendly system.”

He said an irrigation cycle can mean anywhere from 200,000 to 550,000 gallons in a night, so skipping a cycle, or just irrigating one or two holes makes a difference.

“Using tools like this that are available, and these are evolving more, with more and more technology coming out, and doing the right thing for the environment by decreasing the water consumption, especially the potable water consumption, those are important,” Yanez said.

He said in 2015, before the resort started using reclaimed water, its annual water bill was a little more than $1 million. He said even though water rates have gone up, using reclaimed water and other conservation efforts has resulted in a bill closer to $650,000 last year.

More Tech Solutions for Greener Golf

According to research shared in 2023 out of the University of Arkansas, as a scouting tool, unmanned aircraft systems – drones — offer an opportunity to survey a lot of land in a short amount of time and can help a golf course superintendent make informed decisions about where to direct his labor.

As a water management tool, the thermal and multispectral cameras on drones go beyond what the human eye can see to help efficiently apply water to the places which need it most, before stress causes serious turf injury, researchers at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station reported.

Both Yanez and Layton said they were aware of unmanned aircraft systems and their use in assessing water needs on golf courses and elsewhere, but neither has taken the plunge on drones.

“Drone technology could be the next tool to assist us in making more informed decisions,” Layton said. “It is still new, but it could be something that adds another layer of data to the mix.”

“Some of that technology here in the in the near future” but with all that is being developed, “don’t think we want to be the first ones to go to market with it,” Yanez said.

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