Below the Cleats – Tales from a Sports Field Life: The Water is Green!
Tips From The Pros
Ross Kurcab is a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) and a professional sports field consultant with 30 years’ experience as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.
Below the Cleats – Tales from a Sports Field Life: The Water is Green!
“The original green industry” is getting greener. There is a growing awareness in sports field management of minimizing the environmental impacts of our operations.
“Going green” conjures up political divisions, but it really shouldn’t. Some see it as our moral and societal obligations as stewards of the land. To others, it simply means efficiency, managing our budgets to maximize output and organizational performance. How do we do that? We minimize and eliminate waste.
In my short time in the industry, I’ve see the issue go from a nothing burger to one our largest concerns. We now have organizations like the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), providing expert leadership and guidance in promoting this awareness in everything they do. You can now certify your venue or facility through the STMA’s Environmental Facility Certification program. Having done some attesting for facilities, I can tell you that it is a great template to begin greening up your operation, environmentally and financially.
Many facilities have leveraged novel university research in organic management of turfgrasses and playing fields and have developed their own organic turfgrass management programs, even as the green industry is working on several fronts to establish a national organic land care certification program similar to USDA’s (and others) organic food crop certifications.
We now have the Green Sports Alliance organization, with a stated philosophy of “leveraging the cultural and market influences of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play. We encourage the sports industry and its partners to measure, mitigate and advance their sustainability and social impact.”
No question, we’ve come a long way from “spray programs” to integrated pest management (IPM) strategies. Yet while we’ve come so far in so many ways in the last 30 years as land stewards, we too often miss the low hanging fruit in greening up any sports turf operation.
Dr. James Watson, the first ever turfgrass PhD from Penn State, is an absolute legend in the world of turfgrass science and management, a first ballot lock in any agronomy or turfgrass-related organization’s Hall of Fame. “Dr. Jim” passed away in 2013 at the age of 93. He was one of the very best teachers I have ever known, he was almost Socratic; it always seemed when you went to him for advice he would ask you more questions than you asked him. Afterwards you felt like you came up with the answers on your own! What a wonderful teacher and gracious man.
Not long before Dr. Watson’s passing, Dale Getz, CSFM and I were asked by the STMA historical committee to do a video interview with him at his beautiful retirement home in Littleton, Colorado. We spent the better part of the day with him, he insisted we let him buy us lunch. He amazed Dale and me with his knowledge, experience and kindness, but the thing I remember most was a most serious, almost grave look and a one word, emphatic answer when I asked him what he thought was the biggest issue facing the sports turf industry in the next 50 years.
“Water.” He didn’t have to think about the question or embellish it.
Many if not most sports field managers of all kinds also manage surrounding landscapes. Some oversee maintenance contracts, others do the work in-house, and many use a combination. In terms of water use, surrounding landscapes can often dwarf the playing field requirements, depending on the facility.
In my case, the landscape maintenance oversight had been recently added to the field staff’s responsibilities and so we took Dr. Watson’s words, more precisely word, to heart. Listen to the industry giants when they speak so emphatically, I say, and our first order of business was to attack landscape water waste.
The first thing we look at is how we controlled landscape/field water distribution and use. Our outdated control system needed a complete overhaul. Like too many I see even today, it was the old “set-it-and-forget-it” programming model that dominated the industry for 50 years. We needed to get programming on a base computer that would also allow us to control remotely from a phone or any connected device. This also required the dozen or so controllers that run hundreds of watering zones to communicate with each other as well as our base computer in the stadium office. This can be done through radio, cell data lines, hardwiring with buried cables or a combination of these as needed.
This part alone cost around $30K but was paid back in one year from lowered water bills and with Denver Water’s rebate system as part of the EPA’s Water Sense program. It was a pretty easy sell upstairs.
Don’t reinvent the wheel.
In the US, we are so fortunate to have many fine irrigation companies as a resource. They are almost singularly focused on efficiency and conservation. Their many distribution centers are loaded with local expertise and experience. Use this resource. I would be remiss if I did not credit Hunter Industries for their incredibly useful technical advice and guidance on this issue, and there are several other fine irrigation companies that will do the same for you. Another great resource for education in water efficiency is the Irrigation Association.
Taps, meters, flow valves.
We upgraded the meters on each tap to communicate directly with our base computer for both our field and landscape irrigation systems. Now if one of our thousands of irrigation heads was broken and flooding out a waste fountain, the system would recognize the increase from normal flow, shut that zone down, notify us by text or email that we had an issue, and continue the program.
Pipes, valves, heads and nozzles. A dialed-in, remote capable irrigation control system cannot make up for poor hydraulics. More time consuming than controller upgrades, hydraulic upgrades can really save a lot of water and promote better plant health. (image of hill, put higher capacity nozzles uphill to compensate for runoff)
We created and updated simple irrigation maps for the entire stadium complex showing color-coded zones, tap and valve box locations and mainline location. Nobody wants to dig through a stack of as-built blueprints to program irrigation. Use them for repairs.
We removed useless, small strips of irrigated turfgrass. These are big water wasters because they serve almost no purpose and are nearly impossible to irrigate without overspray. Skinny strips of irrigated turfgrass are big water wasters.
Increase dryland grass areas around facility.
Analyze the areas and use patterns of a sports field facility along with your local climate. There are likely more opportunities than you might think to convert from irrigated to dryland or reduced irrigation ground covers. Bonus: reduced maintenance costs.
Plan for future reclaimed water.
We made sure all upgrades would work well and comply with a reclaimed water supply, which Denver Water planned to supply to our area in a few years’ time.
Install shop compressor.
For routine after-use cleaning of equipment and tools, we would use compressed air to blow off mowers, carts and tractors, then sweep up the grass clippings or other debris. The idea is to use water for cleaning only as often as necessary and as little as possible. When we start looking at water like its cash, we will discover so many large and small opportunities to save.
Promote your efficiency.
Install some educational placards around your facility where guests can learn about your efficiency and stewardship efforts. The vast majority of sporting fields are publically owned. The private ones are usually very high profile, think pro sports. As the Green Sports Alliance says on its homepage “Leverage the cultural and market influence of sport to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play”.
Dr. Watson wasn’t only talking about our finite supply of fresh water resources, but also about water quality. Too often, water conservation efforts only focus on quantities, but we know overly salty or polluted water is useless in the landscape or on our playing fields.
Sanitary drains in shop. We reviewed and upgraded the sanitary drains in our maintenance shop as part of the overall stadium sanitary drain system that met all discharge regulations.
Retention ponds. Stadiums and other facilities tend to have lots of paved parking lots and hardscapes. Runoff from natural precipitation may wash a lot of nasties into our surface and even ground water resources. While most facilities have these water quality structures, not all of them are in a state of working repair. They require maintenance to work correctly. Water quality is a regulated science and it’s best to start by contacting your states water quality control department to ensure you are in compliance. Time and again I have learned how helpful and friendly regulatory agencies are when you contact them first with a sincere interest in doing your part compared to when they contact you first for violations.
Faced with the choice of cultivating healthy, attractive plants or finding other work, many of us land managers tend to overwater, especially some of us sports field managers. And while much of the discussion rightly involves the safety and fate of products we use, addressing water waste is likely the greenest thing you can do this year.
Is your water green? There’s no better way to build your professional development in irrigation expertise and promote your departmental cause than to embark on a serious water conservation project at your facilities.