Hitting the green
It’s not easy being green.
Kermit the Frog was singing the blues with the above lament, but for local golf course superintendents, being green means keeping courses as lush as possible despite heavy play and lingering drought – and doing that in an environmentally responsible way.
It’s hard work, but just part of the job. So is battling a lingering public perception that golf courses do more harm than good to the environment through their use of water and chemicals.
John Martin, golf course superintendent for Eagle Ranch, has fought that perception most of his career.
“PR (public relations) is a big thing for us,” he said.
That’s why more courses around the country, and most courses in the Eagle Valley, participate to some degree in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, a project of the environmental organization Audubon International.
Eagle Ranch has an application pending for inclusion in the program and Martin said he expects to hear later this summer whether the course has met all the criteria for inclusion.
Golf courses that earn the certification must prove compliance with standards including wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, and water quality management.
“It’s a way to show we are beneficial to the environment,” Martin said. Craig Cahalane, Martin’s counterpart at the Cotton Ranch Golf Course in Gypsum, agreed. Cotton Ranch’s application for certification has stalled over the past year or so – it was a project of former superintendent Wade Vecchio – but Cahalane said he and his staff are nearly ready to submit an application.
The criteria are tough to meet, and some requirements for improvement are even tougher for new courses like Eagle Ranch, said Martin, mainly because those facilities were designed to be more environmentally friendly. Still, he added, Eagle Ranch has been able to show a reduction in water and chemical use over the past few years as it went from its “grow-in” stage to a more mature facility.
Water use has also been cut due to the state’s historic drought. Watering was cut to a bare minimum last year, and many of those practices are being followed this year.
Both Martin and Cahalane control the sprinkler systems at their respective courses from their desktop computers. Those controls can precisely set watering times based on daily heat, humidity and how much play the course is experiencing from day to day.
In addition to that fine control, course employees at the courses in Eagle and Gypsum spend a lot of time hand-watering brown spots around greens, tee boxes and fairways. While that requires more labor, it’s also a more efficient use of water, especially when the brown spots are within, or just at the edges of, a specific sprinkler zone.
“It’s definitely the hard way to do it,” said Martin.
But given improvements in technology, Cahalane said, the overall labor needed to maintain a golf course is about the same today as it was when he started in the business as a teenager.
The grass is greener
Improvements in fertilizer and chemicals also help course superintendents keep grass green while protecting wildlife and maintaining water quality.
Eagle County Environmental Health Director Ray Merry said herbicides and pesticides have evolved over the past 30 years or so.
“It’s more friendly to the environment than it used to be,” said Merry.
Golf courses locally also have fewer problems with insects, weed and fungus because of the area’s semi-arid climate.
Fertilizer, too, has improved. Martin said he uses a time-release fertilizer that dissolves slowly over the course of a season. Eagle Ranch got one application early this spring, and will get another in the early fall, and that’s it for the year.
Safer chemicals, combined with smart fertilizer and more judicious use of water culminates in less runoff into streams.
Part of the Audubon program involves testing water quality in streams as they enter golf courses, in the middle of the course and in the stream past the course.
“Our water is cleaner going out than it is coming in,” Cahalane noted.
Caroline Bradford, director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, said that local golf courses do an “efficient” job of using water and chemicals, and that efficiency is reflected in water quality in streams that run through those facilities.
“There’s a new generation of golf course managers who went to school at a time when conservation and stewardship is just a fact of life,” said Bradford.
Keeping healthy streams pays off for wildlife as well. The Cordillera Mountain Course three years ago submitted a case study describing new work around a pond at the 16th hole. Course designers originally planted sod right up to the water’s edge there. Steve Visosky, who was then course superintendent, tore up a four-foot ring of sod around the pond and replaced it with native grasses and plants. Course managers also adjusted three sprinkler heads that were originally watering the lake.
After a season or two of grow-in, two nesting pairs of ducks began using the pond, and other waterfowl began stopping at the pond. In addition, water use in the area was reduced by half.
The courses in Eagle and Gypsum were designed with wildlife protection in mind.
“We actually improved the riparian and wetland areas from the time it was a ranch,” Martin noted. “We had a staff ecologist for a couple of years when we were building.
“It’s been hard to quantify our impact, because we already had critters out here,” Martin added. “But we have plenty.”
At Cotton Ranch, which is a few years older, Cahalane said some wetland areas have been replaced and restored over time. And he noted, local Boy Scouts and club members have built numerous bird nesting boxes to put in areas along Gypsum Creek. Many of those boxes are being used.
Driving along the cart path back to the maintenance shop, Cahalane noted it’s expensive and time consuming to do what the Audubon program requires. However, he added, “It’s well worth the effort.”
“We don’t really have to do this (certification), but people want to see it, and they have a right to have a golf course that does the right thing. We understand that,” he said.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise