Watering golf courses

April 1, 2016

More than 1.1 billion gallons. That's how much water golf course superintendents in Oakland County reported pumping out of rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater aquifers in 2014, according to records provided by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's (MDEQ) Water Use Reporting Program. With more than 60 golf courses in the area, Oakland County alone accounts for about 14 percent of all water withdrawals in the state for golf course irrigation – more than any other county in Michigan. In comparison, together, Macomb, Wayne, Kent, and Kalamazoo counties account for about 18 percent of water withdrawal.

Using water pumps capable of pulling more than 70 gallons per minute from wells or the shallow surface of ponds, lakes, streams or rivers, local golf courses pump millions of gallons each season to maintain their green areas. However, such large water withdrawals can have negative consequences on individual aquifers and waterbodies, as well as the watershed basin as a whole.

In extreme cases, large water withdrawals from ground wells have lowered the levels of neighboring aquifers or disrupted the water quality of nearby wells. In Ottawa County, on the western side of the state, groundwater withdrawals about three years ago were taking water from aquifers faster than it could be replaced, forcing salty brine at the bottom of the aquifer to be sucked into drinking water and irrigation wells.­

Excessive withdrawals also may lower water levels to the point where sensitive ecosystems can no longer survive. High-quality, cold-water streams, such as the Paint Creek sub-watershed in the Clinton River Watershed, are especially sensitive to temperature changes that may be exacerbated by water withdrawals. Yet, competing interests and a lack of research continue to muddy the clear impact of water withdrawals in Oakland County and across the state.

Scott Brown, executive director of the Michigan Lakes and Streams Association, said lawmakers need to take serious steps to protect the state's water resources. Brown, who serves on the state's Water Use Advisory Council, said those steps include providing funds to study the impacts of water withdrawals.

"You can't make generalities. Every instance – whether it's a surface or groundwater withdrawal – is completely different, depending on the quality and volume of groundwater, the aquifer, and precipitation, in terms of surface water," he said. "It's very tough to say 'x' withdrawal will have 'y' impact on a water resource. It's just very tough to do."

For instance, Brown said, a massive water withdrawal at one location may have almost no impact upon the ecosystem, while the same withdrawal may have dire consequences 15 miles in another direction.

The Water Use Advisory Council was created by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 to advise the MDEQ, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Department of Agriculture on the state's water usage. Members appointed to the board included those representing industry, farming, conservation groups, water recreation and riparian property owners, as well as golf courses. In 2014, the council issued a report that included 69 recommendations, including nine that called for new staff support at MDEQ.

"One of the important conclusions that the advisory council came up with was that every instance is going to have to be investigated," Brown said. "There isn't a lot of data available. I think the other members of the council were very surprised on how little data there is. We have a long way to go in Michigan. Our Department of Environmental Quality and water resources managers don't have the data they need to make adequate and accurate forecasts for water withdrawals."

In addition to the lack of data on withdrawal impacts, Michigan lacks monitoring or control measures regarding water runoff at golf courses. In fact, the state's laws and regulations regarding water efficiency and conservation earned the state a "D" grade in a 2012 state scorecard conducted by the Alliance for Water Efficiency and Environmental Law Institute. Overall, the state scored just 3 points out of a possible 20. Points were given for having an assigned state agency in charge of drinking water conservation; conducting conservation activities as part of the water permitting process; and providing state funding for urban water conservation programs.

"The academics involved and state resources agencies have undergone a lot of budget restrictions. It's no surprise. We feel they haven't been given the adequate resources they need to protect our water resources," Brown said. "With this much water in Michigan, only 15 percent of our inland lakes have been assessed. The vast majority haven't been surveyed for water quality or invasive species. We are way behind the curve for investigating such an important resource.

"It's scary. We need to open our eyes and recognize what a valuable resource we have here in Michigan, and we haven't invested properly in protecting it. If we don't start investing, knowing, preserving and protecting, we are vulnerable. The state legislature needs to step up and appropriate more dollars."

Under state law, property owners that meet certain withdrawal criteria must either report their withdrawal amounts or seek a permit authorizing large quantity withdrawals. Property owners who pump 100,000 gallons a day for 30 consecutive days or more, as well as property owners who have the capacity to pump 70-gallons per minute or more, must register with the state's Water Use Program. Property owners pumping at least 2 million gallons per day, or have the capacity to pump more than 1,389 gallons per minute, must acquire a permit from the MDEQ.

The Water Use Program is responsible for registering large quantity withdrawals, collecting annual water use data, making determinations on the potential impacts of water resources as a result of a proposed withdrawal, and issuing water withdrawal permits.

Andrew LeBaron, an environmental quality analyst with the MDEQ's Water Use Program, said no golf courses in Oakland County withdraw enough water to require a permit.

"The permit criteria is fairly new," LeBaron said. "Before that, there wasn't a permit or threshold limitation on any water withdrawal."

Prior to 2006, there was very little oversight regarding water withdrawals in Michigan. The first laws passed went into effect in February of 2006, and prohibited new or increased water withdrawals that would cause an "adverse resource impact," or any withdrawal resulting in a specified percentage decrease in fish populations. Existing withdrawals weren't included in the law, unless they increased withdrawals over that pumped in previous years. Additional state laws were passed in 2008, further defining adverse resource impacts. As of July 2009, new or increased withdrawals were required to use the state's "water withdrawal assessment tool," which determines whether the withdrawal would be harmful or should be limited.

LeBaron said withdrawals existing prior to 2009 still have to report amounts to the program, but are essentially grandfathered into the system under the pre-existing, or baseline, amount.

"They can basically use up to that amount," he said.

While there are strict penalties for exceeding baseline or authorized amounts, figures received by the MDEQ are self-reported by property owners. To date, there haven't been any enforcement actions taken for exceeding withdrawal figures.

"We don't see much in the way of self-reporting that exceed their limited numbers," LeBaron said. "There's not a lot of auditing that goes on, and the state doesn't have the resources to double check every one of those things. We haven't sought any fines on water users."

A key factor in creating the state's water use law was a Mecosta County court case in mid-Michigan involving the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation group and Nestle/Ice Mountain. The group started in late-2000, after citizens learned that Nestle//Ice Mountain was running a spring water mining and pumping operation in Mecosta, which was blamed for a drop in lake and stream levels.

Action taken by the conservation group resulted in a 19-day trial that led to the temporary shutdown of the Ice Mountain plant in the village of Stanwood. The plant was allowed to continue under a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling, which found the water interests of Nestle/Ice Mountain had to be balanced with the interests of other property owners. In a 2009 out-of-court settlement, Nestle's new withdrawal permit was reduced by almost half, and the company agreed to lower its spring pumping to earlier in the spring in Mecosta, and to continue low pumping during summer months to protect the already stressed stream and lake.

Spring water diverted for consumption, however, is different than water withdrawals that returns water back to its original source. Some golf courses, such as Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, is designed to capture any runoff from the course and reuse it in irrigation.

Oakland Hills Country Club Superintendent Steve Cook said about 200 of the 270 acres of the club are able to be irrigated. In 2014, the club pumped about 42.6 million gallons of groundwater for course irrigation, according to MDEQ records.

"We have one pond on the south side that takes drainage and well water. We have an underground water storage system, and a cistern on the north course," he said. "We aren't drawing water constantly."

The course has also been environmentally certified by the Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program, which is intended to organize the efforts of state agencies, Michigan State University, and environmental advocacy groups. The program was developed at MSU with support from industry, state departments, and the the Michigan Water Stewardship Program. It's based on 12 modules that must be completed for certification, including site evaluation, well head protection, fuel and pesticide storage and handling, irrigation, and other categories. The certification is a voluntary program that covers laws, regulations and best management practices for environmental stewardship.

Best practices includes taking measures which focus on knowing where and when to irrigate. Doing so can reduce runoff and chemical leaching, as well as conserve water. Using low volume, automated sprinklers that water slowly can also prevent runoff and reduce wind evaporation.

"Technology has changed, and help how we cut down on water use," Cook said. "We have soil monitoring systems in the ground that read moisture content and water saturation, and give data on dew points and humidity. That has all decreased our rolling water usage over 10 years. We track actual usage every month, every year, and our rolling average has decreased by about 10 million gallons over 10 years, and we anticipate that to continue. Our policy is to look every day and every year to decrease water usage by 10 percent. In a super hot year, it's more difficult. We also communicate to members that green isn't always good."

Cook said the club has also planted more native vegetation, which has helped to eliminate about 40 irrigation heads because the plants need less water.

"We are trying to do our small part, considering who we are and where we are," he said.

Forest Lake Country Club in Bloomfield Township, waters about 80 acres of its 120-acre property. The club withdrew about 23.5 million gallons of water from Forest Lake in 2014 for irrigation purposes.

"We are blessed by having our own water source, which would be Forest Lake," said course superintendent Ryan Moore. "It has a minimal effect to water levels. Most of what we use goes directly on the turf. We have become better at using less and less water. It's a craft."

Moore said the club pumps water as its needed, as it doesn't have a well system on the property to hold water. He said the course also has a bit older design in terms of capturing runoff, but soil moisture monitors are used to reduce overwatering and runoff. “Runoff has a lot to do with irrigation design, and we are an older system, but have improved that," he said. "There are a lot of advancements, and now you can water to a percent of an inch. We have learned to turn the taps off."

Dr. Steven Grekin, president of the Forest Lake Association, said there is a positive relationship between the homeowners and the golf course. "It's my understanding that we send more water downstream than we are taking out," he said.

Howard Reeves with the U.S. Geological Survey said withdrawal rates are typically small compared to flow rates of a larger waterbody.

"Generally, irrigation rates are smaller than local flow rates. There's never no impact, but I would think it would be small," he said.

Forest Lake is one of many in the county that uses a weir to maintain a court-ordered lake level throughout the year. Such controls may play a part in disrupting flows in a watershed, according to a 2009 study headed by Lawrence Technological University Professor Don Carpenter.

The study set out to assess the biological impact of changing flows in the Clinton River Watershed, which accounts for 10 percent of all water withdrawals for golf course irrigation in the state. While his study didn't address golf course withdrawals specifically, he said interrupting the natural flow of the river and its tributaries can disrupt plant and animal life. His findings indicated that court-ordered lake levels across Oakland County are harming the overall health of the watershed. He said more natural flows in the river would improve water quality, plant communities, fish spawning and endangered species, and species of concern found in the watershed.

"The biggest issue is not looking at the watershed as a whole. They look at one municipality, one golf course – not the watershed as a whole," he said.

A watershed is an area of land that separates water flowing to different rivers and/or lakes. Oakland County is the headwaters for five major watersheds or drainage areas, including the Rouge River Watershed in the south-central portion of the county; the Clinton River Watershed in the northeast part of the county; the Huron River Watershed in the southwest portion of the county; the Shiawassee River Watershed located in a small western portion of the county; and the Flint River Watershed in the northern part of the county.

In terms of water flow, the baseflow of a river refers to the amount of groundwater that discharges from an aquifer into the river. Baseflow occurs throughout the year, but fluctuates seasonally depending on the level of the water table. The overall flow of a river can be impacted greatly by runoff during, or immediately after, precipitation or snowmelt events. Rivers that are dominated by runoff have low baseflow, and are typically "flashy," and tend to flood and dry quickly.

"We haven't seen too many problems related to golf courses," said Michigan Environmental Council Executive Director James Clift, who serves on the state's Water Advisory Council. "They could have tight water conditions in the late summer, but golf courses, in general, try to create ponds or holes in the spring when water is abundant and use that for irrigation later in the summer.”

Clift said larger, warmer rivers tend to be able to take more impact than cold water rivers and streams, which can't handle as much variation.

One of the high-quality, cold water streams in the county is in the Paint Creek sub watershed area of the Clinton River Watershed. More than 11 million gallons of water were withdrawn in 2014 from Paint Creek, according to the MDEQ. However, what impact the withdrawals had upon the creek is uncertain.

"We haven't looked at withdrawals much," said Matt Einheuser, a water ecologist with the Clinton River Watershed Council. "If they get to a certain magnitude, they can have an effect because it takes a balance away from the groundwater inputs, and then you get more surface water input, and that could effect the temperatures and lower flows."

Still, Einheuser said there have been issues in the watershed.

"Historically, over the past couple of years, there have been times when levels are low and you lose habitat during those times," he said. "It can have an effect on the ecology of the system – usually that means you have low flow, and then you have a rain. The Clinton River watershed is really flashy, where in a groundwater-fed system, it's pretty consistent."

Sally Petrella, with the Friends of the Rouge Watershed Council, said golf courses likely contribute to the issues in the watershed, but aren't the largest source of problems. Intense industrial use and urban stormwater runoff are large factors. "We have huge problems from runoff," she said.

Yet, some superintendents say irrigation may help improve water quality, as opposed to urban runoff that isn't filtered through grasses and other vegetation.

"It's retained on site, and it's all basically filtered through grasses before it's discharged," said John Gray, course superintendent at Stonycroft Hills Club in Bloomfield Hills, which used about 3.1 million gallons of water in 2014 from the Upper Rouge River. "Surface runoff is minimal here. It's contained to a drainage system that intercepts water before it reaches the creek."

Don Knop, course superintendent for Great Oaks Country Club in Rochester, said the course is built to receive runoff. The course withdrew about 13.1 million gallons of water from Sargent Creek in 2014.

"We have three ponds on the course that hold water. There are no wells. We have a stream that runs through the golf course, and all the road salt and silt from the road runoff is held and we use that for watering," he said. "We screen what we can, and we test quality on and off the property, and it never leaves worse. The course feeds into a trout stream, so we need to be on our toes all the time."

Kate Moore, executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Owners Association, said best practices recommended by the environmental stewardship program helped to reduce the impact of water withdrawals and runoff. Educating golfers themselves has further helped to alleviate the need for greener courses, she said.

"You hear 'brown is the new green,'" she said. "Overwatering and the desire for a perfect emerald green – consumers have become more aware of that, as well," she said. "You train the consumer and the operator to expect changes in course condition. Depending on where they are located and the weather, it's OK that it's not perfect all the time." ­

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