A Watershed Moment: Golf, Communities and Stormwater October 17, 2017 By George Waters, USGA

Utah's Murray Parkway Golf Course filters stormwater from a nearby highway, and also uses stormwater for irrigation. (Murray Parkway Golf Course)

Discussions about water and golf often focus on water shortages, but many golf courses find themselves dealing with a different issue: too much water during and after rain events. Recent hurricanes have brought devastating flooding, but more typical rainstorms can also cause serious issues. Stormwater management is a significant challenge for golf courses and communities everywhere, and the more extreme weather patterns of recent years are not making it any easier.

According to a 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, “The prevalence of extreme single-day precipitation events remained fairly steady between 1910 and the 1980s, but has risen substantially since then.” The EPA further noted that nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990. Extreme rain events generate more runoff and flooding because soils cannot absorb the water quickly enough.

Growing communities also contribute to the challenges of stormwater management. Impervious surfaces such as roofs, roads, driveways and parking lots all increase the amount of runoff, adding to the risk of flooding and reducing water quality as runoff gathers various contaminants.

As communities work to improve stormwater management, golf courses can play a valuable role. Dr. Michael Kenna, director of USGA Green Section Research, explained how golf courses can help themselves and their communities handle the increasing demands of modern stormwater management.

“Golf courses can gather stormwater and slow the flow before it continues downstream, lessening its destructive power,” said Kenna. “Golf courses also can help filter and clean stormwater. USGA-funded research has demonstrated that stormwater runoff exiting a golf course property is often cleaner than the stormwater entering the course. The key is the retention time created by swales, creeks, wetlands and ponds designed into the golf course.”

The Murray Parkway Golf Course in Murray, Utah, provides an excellent example of the role that golf courses can play in community stormwater management. The city-owned public golf facility is consistently one of the busiest in Utah, while also serving an important stormwater management function.

“Stormwater from Interstate 215, one of the major highways in our area, is piped through a series of ponds on the golf course,” said David Carruth, golf course superintendent at Murray Parkway. “The first pond captures any silt and trash in the water, and it also has a feature that allows us to contain oils from the roadway. A secondary pond provides another level of filtration before water flows into a third pond that we draw our irrigation water from. Between ponds the water travels through a surface water system that is planted with aquatic vegetation to provide yet another level of filtration.”

Extreme weather and expanding development make stormwater management difficult for golf courses and nearby communities. (USGA/Joe Murphy) 

“The golf course serves an important environmental function by receiving and filtering stormwater from the highway before it reaches the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake,” said Carruth. “At the same time, using runoff from the highway to supplement our irrigation supply is a tremendous cost savings and the water features add interest to the golf course.”

Murray Parkway Golf Course was built with stormwater management in mind, but golf courses can also be modified to address changing stormwater management needs. The Village Greens Golf Course in Port Orchard, Wash., is a county-owned public golf course. In addition to managing drainage from the golf course itself, stormwater from an adjacent 30 acres of homes and roadways also drains through the property.

USGA agronomist Larry Gilhuly conducts Course Consulting Service visits at Village Greens and is very familiar with the stormwater management issues.

“The golf course was built in the 1950s and the drainage system was not adequate for today’s stormwater demands,” said Gilhuly. “The community grew around the golf course and so did the amount of runoff flowing through the property. Areas of the course flooded after it rained and playing conditions were suffering. There was also an increased risk of downstream erosion, flooding and reduced water quality.”

To solve these problems, Village Greens worked with several county departments to build a natural stormwater management system through the golf course. The previous drainage system was replaced with a series of interconnected bio-swales and retention ponds that help control runoff from the golf course and adjacent neighborhood. Turfgrass and other vegetation was planted in these areas to filter and clean stormwater as it passes through the golf course.

Superintendent Brian Hauschel worked closely with the municipality throughout the process. “The new stormwater management system eliminated flooding on the golf course and reduced the risk of flooding downstream,” said Hauschel. “Water quality improved thanks to the retention ponds that gather sediments and heavy contaminants. We are also helping to recharge the aquifers.”

Another initiative is front and center for golfers who arrive at the facility. “We created a rain garden to filter runoff coming from our parking lot and installed an educational sign so golfers and community members could see how we’re helping to clean stormwater that passes through the course before it reaches nearby Puget Sound,” said Hauschel.

The USGA’s Kenna is excited about the growing role that golf courses can play in community stormwater management.

“The USGA has a long history of funding research that studies golf courses and stormwater management,” said Kenna, who cited studies dating to the 1970s. “We are currently working with the University of Minnesota on a Natural Capital Project that will explore the environmental value golf courses bring to their communities; stormwater management will be an important focus of that research.”

Around the Association