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Thirsty courses improvise to stay green

One uses treated wastewater. Some use less fertilizer. Still others pump as much water as they can in one day, sometimes exceeding their permits.

By ALEX LEARY and BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000


CRYSTAL RIVER -- On the eastern border of the Plantation Inn golf course there is a row of homes with lawns as brown as paper bags.

Just a few feet away, weekend duffers drive balls on lush fairways and putt on tightly clipped greens that make the ball roll ever so sweetly.

With all the talk about the worst drought in years, things could be a lot worse at the Plantation. There are spots of brown here and there but for the most part, the course looks and plays fine, golfers say.

Despite a few angry calls from water-envied passers-by, the course is not violating emergency watering restrictions as set out by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Rather, the Plantation is getting by on circumstance -- it helps that the course is a mere 3 feet above sea level and that the intense summer heat has passed -- and a few tricks of the trade.

Throughout the summer, the use of chemicals that help soil retain moisture increased precipitously. Grass is cut less frequently because a longer leaf structure allows for more moisture absorption.

Elsewhere in Citrus County, course managers this winter are spreading less ryegrass seed, which produces deep green turf but requires a lot of water to get started. Fertilizer, which also requires plenty of water, has been reduced because of poor growing conditions.

At least one course, Point O' Woods in Inverness, is using treated wastewater on its tees and greens, a practice that has yet to catch on but water activists say is vital.

If anything else, the restrictions, which limit watering of fairways to once per week and greens three days, are forcing course managers to better budget their resources.

"Golf courses have a tendency to over-water," said Glenn Oberlander, superintendent at Plantation. "We're trying to keep the customers happy by keeping it green, but green isn't always good."

Some of his counterparts are under scrutiny for trying too hard to keep their course in a condition worthy of a magazine photo.

El Diablo, Black Diamond Ranch, Inverness Golf and Country Club and Skyview at Citrus Hills have all been cited by Swiftmud for using hundreds of thousands of gallons per day more than their permits allow.

Course operators meeting the regulations say they could just as easily be on the other side.

"You go just about as far as you can go without having them on your doorstep," Chuck Barclay, superintendent of Twisted Oaks and Pine Ridge golf courses, said of Swiftmud.

"People paying prime rates that are historically charged this time of year don't want to find the conditions they are finding," Barclay said.

One way Barclay keeps water use in check is a soil moisture meter, or tensiometer. The probe is inserted in the ground and tells Barclay when he should turn on the sprinklers and when the course can go without water.

"They are highly accurate and they are extremely useful," said Phil Leary of the Florida Farm Bureau, which has urged Swiftmud to promote the use of tensiometers.

Leary said only 10 of some 4,000 agricultural permits issued were found to be in violation of water restrictions and attributed the success rate to the probes, which cost about $60.

"You just look at the number of permits that over-pump and the majority are golf courses," Leary said.

Excessive watering can hurt a golf course, making roots shallow and weak and thus more susceptible to sun and wear and tear from players, he added.

A better solution?

Even though they are coping with them, golf course operators say there are serious problems with Swiftmud's restrictions.

Limiting watering to one or three days per week has made the courses dry and brown but has not reduced consumption, said Stuart Bozeman, general manager of Seven Rivers Golf and Country Club in Crystal River.

"If I had the pumping capacity, I could put out as much water on my fairways in one night as I could in three nights," Bozeman said.

Many of his colleagues are trying to do just that, he said, adding, "let's face it, we've got jobs to do and bosses to please."

"How are you saving any water?" asked Bozeman, who is on Swiftmud's water conservation task force. The restrictions are actually making matters worse, he said.

"One night a week doesn't cut it because soil dries out too easily."

Consider a pile of dry sand. If you try to pour water on the sand, the liquid beads up and runs off. The same thing happens to soil that is dried out from once-a-week watering, Bozeman said.

Bozeman said the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association is proposing a different, "more realistic," regulation method.

The group wants to be able to water any day of the week but agrees to a percentage reduction in the daily allowance. "It makes a heck of a lot more sense," Bozeman said.

Water reuse: an expensive but bona fide alternative

At Point O' Woods, manager Barry Banta is watching his ponds shrink. "They very well could be dry if we don't get any rain," he said.

The situation could be more severe if it weren't for some innovative thinking.

For years, the course has tapped into a nearby water treatment plant. Reclaimed wastewater is becoming increasingly popular nationwide but few courses in Citrus County use it.

Plantation uses treated water from its hotel on its driving range, but there is not enough water produced for the entire course.

Which is why Oberlander has tried to convince the city of Crystal River to divert wastewater to his course. "They just ignored me," he said. The city instead pipes it to a spray field.

But with additional sewer lines being planned, City Manager David Sallee said the idea may be considered.

"It's definitely worth looking into, without question," he said. "It's something we've been discussing among staff."

Cleaning up wastewater and pumping it to a golf course can be an expensive proposition, said Lauren Walker-Coleman, a reuse specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

If no golf course is interested in paying for the treated effluent, the treatment plants simply cannot afford to provide it, she said.

"Sometimes (golf courses) don't want to pay for reclaimed water when they can put pipes in the ground and get practically free water from their wells," Walker-Coleman said.

Swiftmud has aggressively promoted reuse. As part of its $1.8-million investment in Citrus County's central sewer project in Homosassa, Swiftmud has required that the county get a reuse program up and running by October 2005.

The county plans to connect its major wastewater treatment plants -- Meadowcrest and Brentwood -- and pipe the treated effluent to neighboring Black Diamond Ranch.

"The best user of reuse water would be a large golf course," assistant public works director Ken Frink said. "It's almost natural to give it to them."

Black Diamond has shown interest in the concept, but the project is still several years from becoming a reality, Frink said.

The county is finishing drafting its reuse master plan, and it still needs to find a way to pay for treating and transporting the effluent, he said.

Residents who use county water and sewer may bear some of the cost. The county has asked a consultant to review its 11-year-old utility rates and recommend increases to help pay for future projects, such as reuse facilities, Frink said.

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