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Hamptons Life

Jun 11, 2018 12:22 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

How Golf Course Greens Management Has Changed

As the water travels through the golf course, it enters this pond at the last hole. This pond is also surrounded by a planted and unmowed vegetative buffer that provides further filtering of any surface flow from the course into the pond. Testing of the water exiting the course from the left side of the pond has shown dramatically reduced levels of several pollutants than the same stream water as it enters the course.  ANDREW MESSINGER
Jun 11, 2018 12:32 PM

As you may have noticed, there’s a little golf activity on the East End this week.

I need to admit that I’m not a golfer. I’ve gotten more poison ivy on golf courses than I’ve gotten pars. But I do have some golf course history. For 15 years I lived on St. Andrews Road West in Shinnecock Hills, which was once the woman’s course of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Years later I worked for a company that supplied golf courses with seed, soil, fertilizer and pesticides throughout the metropolitan area.

Up until about 20 years ago, golf courses were one of the worst environmental polluters you could find. Pesticides were drifting off the courses, fertilizers were polluting the groundwater and the amount of water used to maintain the courses, by today’s standards, was unconscionable. How times have changed.

Golf courses have now become nearly, but not quite, environmental havens. Course superintendents need to have college degrees, and those degree curriculums teach the need and give the tools for good environmental stewardship. And yet, out here in our sandy soils, there is still good reason for concern and we need to make sure that our local governments, club memberships and local environmental organizations give these courses kudos where deserved but still maintain vigilance in light of potential and ongoing issues.

First, consider what a golf course is. It’s a hundred or more acres of grasses that require high amounts of human input because they are monocultures of four basic turf groups: Bluegrasses, fescues, bentgrasses and ryegrasses. The bentgrasses, usually found on the greens, are the highest in terms of maintenance and constant care with often daily cuttings, frequent sprayings for diseases and high nutrition needs. Then there are the bluegrasses of the fairways, the grasses we all wish our lawns were made of and the way we wish our lawns looked. Ryes and fescues are used in other parts of the course and these days you can find tall fescues in the roughs that are disease resistant and drought tolerant and need little care. There’s been years of research into all these grass types, but most notably the bents and bluegrasses in attempts to make them insect and disease resistant as well as needing less water and less fertilizer.

At one time, most of the fertilizer used on golf courses was chemical based and applied in a granular form. These granules often ended up “offsite” and their distribution was somewhat difficult to control. Many courses have dramatically reduced the chemical fertilizers they use, but with the addition of organic fertilizers there was an unintended consequence, the return of earthworms that began to thrive in the naturalized soils. There’s also a new tool being used, and these are liquid applied fertilizers that dry on and are bound to the grass blades so that runoff and leaching is often less than from granular fertilizers.

And what about water? A golf course can use more than 20 million gallons of water a year. That’s right, 20 million. That’s about the amount of water that 250,000 people in the U.S. would use in a day. It’s a lot of water, but keep in mind that 20 years ago that number was even higher and it’s falling, not increasing. And fertilizer? Twenty years ago you might have found a course applying 5 to 6 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet but today that number is closer to 3 pounds per 1,000.

But there are potential dangers. No one goes around and keeps an eagle eye on pesticide use on the courses and certainly there are course superintendents who cheat and cut corners to keep the membership and the greens committee happy, the greens fast and the fairways beautiful. One would think that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation would be watching out for us, but in July 2016 it was reported that a mysterious green residue was coating golfers’ shoes at the Rye Golf Club in Westchester. It turned out that a pesticide, illegal to use in New York, was used on the course and an investigation led to other revelations about the lax oversight of pesticide use in New York. You can read more about this at lohud.com.

But there’s better news, from a bit further north in Westchester, that East End residents should be interested in. The Town of Bedford has two golf courses. Bedford also has one of the only municipal wetland commissions in the state and this commission has regulations that control the use of pesticides and fertilizers in wetlands and wetland buffers. Both of the golf courses have wetlands and wetland buffers and for more than a decade these two courses have had to abide by protocols and conditions set up by the town wetlands commission that requires strict reporting of all pesticides used on the courses as well as independent testing for certain chemicals and nutrients in the water that passes through the courses. Without a permit from the wetlands commission, neither course would be able to use pesticides or fertilizers on broad areas of the courses.

Ongoing testing has shown that both courses have nutrient and pesticide levels within acceptable state and federal perimeters and at one of the courses the test results have continuously shown that the stream water leaving the course is actually cleaner than the stream water that enters the course. How can this be?

Good planning, good course management and independent testing! Years ago the courses set up plans to mitigate several course projects that called for the installation of planted, vegetated buffers that act as bio-filters for any runoff that moves across the course toward its ponds and streams. The plantings are not only functional but beautiful, and work exceptionally well. During the growing season, the planted areas are magnets for bees, dragonflies, a wide variety of birds and the areas are also the home to several varieties of frogs, toads and turtles. Now that’s how to operate a golf course.

This is actually a trend and not a fad. Through the efforts of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Cornell University and many of the state’s golf course superintendent associations, there’s an ongoing and evolving effort to establish BMPs, or best management practices, for pest management, cultural practices, nutrients and irrigation on courses on Long Island and throughout the state. You can take a look at their website,
 and when you look through the site take a look at the video in the pollinators section where there is a piece on a club that has actually installed beehives as part of its stewardship. The video has some interesting information on pollen that was tested from the bees in the course’s hives and not a single pesticide used on the course showed up in the testing.

You can download a copy of the program's brochure and if you are a member of a course out here you might want to share it with your course superintendent and ask if he or she is participating in the project. Encourage local courses to mitigate their use of fertilizers and pesticides by using buffers and plantings that treat any course runoff before it reaches streams, ponds, bays and the ocean. Offer to help. Also make your local politicians on the village, town and county level aware of the project and encourage them and the course neighbors to push for the community to keep the impact of our golf courses to a very minimum.

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