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May 6, 2014
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Amid drought, Tahoe golf courses doing best to conserve water

TRUCKEE, Calif. — In the early morning, streams of water fly out of sprinklers with droplets falling onto a green golf course below.

“A lot of times people think ‘green’ means putting on water every night, daily and lots of it,” said Scott Bower, director of greens and grounds at the Martis Camp golf course.

But that’s often not the case.

Tools such as an on-site weather station; in-ground sensors that measure soil moisture, temperature and salt content; soil probes that can extract soil samples; and individually controlled sprinkler heads help prevent excess watering of the 18-hole private course in Truckee, Bower said.

“Water is such a precious commodity,” he said. “None of us want to waste water.”

Over-watering a course is bad for the game, said Jeff Clouthier, grounds superintendent for the Incline Village Championship Course, which in turn can be bad for the Lake Tahoe economy that thrives off golf as one of its main streams of summer recreation revenue.

“Our main goal is to keep the golf course as playable as we can, which tends to be on the dry side as opposed to being on the wet and soft and lush because that doesn’t make for good golf,” he said.

The 18-hole golf course operated by the Incline Village General Improvement District annually uses roughly 45 million to 50 million gallons of water to maintain the grounds, depending on the year, he said.

While Clouthier agrees that’s a lot of water, it’s in the context of maintaining about 90 acres of turf.

“We’ve got to keep the course healthy, so it’s not like we cannot water,” added Dan O’Gorman, recreation superintendent of the Truckee Donner Recreation & Park District, which runs Ponderosa Golf Course in Truckee. “People like it to be clean and green — that’s the perception, and that’s what we’ve tried to maintain there.”

‘perception IS VALUE’

Ponderosa, a 9-hole, public course, uses between 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of water a night, which comes from a pond by the Truckee rodeo grounds, said Mike Stemen, TDRPD turf foreman.

Yet in late summer, brown spots usually appear on the course, O’Gorman said — and Ponderosa is not alone.

Old Brockway Golf Course in Kings Beach also allows brown spots to appear.

“Condition-wise, if we have a couple more spots than you’re used to, please just roll with us,” said Dave Laurie, golf course superintendent for the 9-hole course. “We’re trying the best we can, but we’re trying to conserve water, too.”

While a brown spot here or there doesn’t impact business, he said, anything more is not good.

“Brown does not sell,” Laurie said.

“Perception is value,” added Michael McCloskey, senior head golf professional for the Incline Champ Course. “Perceptions may not always be the right perception, but perception is always value, so you’ve got to take that into consideration.”

Last year, 23,300 rounds of golf were played, he said. For fiscal year 2012-13 (July 1-June 30), the course generated $2.5 million in revenue.

“We have people who travel from around the world to come play our golf courses because Tahoe is a location where people come to play golf,” McCloskey said. “… You come to Tahoe to do recreational pieces, and golf is a large portion of that.”

That attraction, in turn, is part of what helps the larger economy churn in the summer, since visitors will stay in lodging establishments, dine at local restaurants and shop in local stores.

Yet, industry-wide, golf has seen a decline in users. The national average is a 4.9 percent decrease from last year, McCloskey said.

“Our challenge as golf professionals is to create this fun environment in a beautiful golf course and try to draw people to come back to the golf industry,” he said.

‘ALWAYS CONSCIOUS’

As with any business, the bottom line is key, with water and the power needed to pump it serving as expenses.

“So it’s in (golf courses’) best interest to pump (water) efficiently and disperse it efficiently,” Bower said.

Older golf courses that update their water systems can experience a 15 percent to 20 percent water savings, he said.

For example, officials are looking to update Ponderosa — established in 1961 — by replacing its plug-in sprinkler system with an automatic irrigation system and soil moisture sensors, O’Gorman said.

But that’s not likely to happen soon, since it’s an estimated $800,000 upgrade, he said.

In the meantime, hand watering will continue at the course, along with taking advantage of inclement weather in an effort to limit water use.

While an automatic system helps in the precision of watering courses, close monitoring and adjusting are also needed.

“We don’t flip a switch and walk away,” Bower said. “We’re out there monitoring it on a daily basis and adjusting on top of that.”

Doing so saves water.

“Whether there’s a drought or not, we’re always conscious (of water),” said Lane Lewis, owner of Old Brockway.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated May 7, 2014 11:44AM Published May 11, 2014 01:31PM Copyright 2014 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.