For a lot of people the biggest challenge of maintaining a lawn, golf course, or sports turf is the constant need of irrigation. Let’s face it, most lawn and sport grasses require quite a bit more water for their survival than other plants in the landscape. The most common lawn grass grown in the United States, Kentucky bluegrass, can require as much as two or more inches of water a week to maintain its lush, green appearance in the summer months. This water-hogging attribute of grass, combined with concerns of water shortages in some areas of the country, has made lawns and golf courses a stigma among sustainability minded folks, not to mention the rising price of water that has many homeowners looking for ways to reduce their consumption of this precious liquid. Golf courses in particular have been the subject of environmental criticism lately, being known for consuming large amounts of not only water, but synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It’s no wonder growing grass gets such a bad rap in environmental discussions.
Grass Plays an Important Role in the Landscape
A large portion of our fascination (or for some, obsession) with a perfectly manicured lawn can be found in our European ancestry. It was during the years of living in the English Midlands that I truly came to understand this cultural connection we have with beautiful green fields. When our ancestors migrated to the American continent they brought with them ideals on what a perfect landscape should look like, which included their fondness of perfectly manicured, green lawn grass. The trouble is their ideals didn’t work, and still don’t work, very well in some areas of the New World. The climate of the American continent and the British Isles is very different, a fact I quickly learned during the years I lived there. It rains in England. A lot. This produces an environment where grass plants can thrive. Here in America, it is not uncommon for some regions to experience long periods of drought. This leads to the need of supplemental irrigation, usually from already stretched culinary water sources. But should we be expected to give up our lawns, golf-courses, and sports turfs? Of course not. Lawns are important elements in the landscape, providing a unifying element and room to walk, run, play sports, and connect to other areas in the landscape. But we can all agree on the need to look at more self-sustaining irrigation solutions for an answer to this critical issue.
Harvesting The Rain
One such solution can be found in the principles of rainwater harvesting. It’s a simple enough concept. Just collect the water we receive naturally from the sky, and use it to irrigate our lawns. For a while that simple, logical practice was illegal is several states. In some western states rainwater was considered property of the state and a permit was required in order to harvest rain. With the recent relaxation of the laws regarding rainwater harvesting in many states, it's now possible to practice this self-sustaining irrigation method.
Practical in Any Area
Rainwater harvesting can be as simple as a 30 gallon barrel attached to the gutter of a roof, or as elaborate as a 3,000 gallon underground cistern. For larger buildings and complexes, giant underground rainwater storage tanks holding 20,000+ gallons are becoming popular. Whichever sized, they can all be attached to already existing irrigation systems or hoses, and can either supplement or completely replace existing irrigation water. When rainwater harvesting methods are used on an already drought-resistant grass species (like buffalograss seed), it is possible to have a totally self-sustaining irrigation system.
Rainwater Harvesting and Golf Course Management
Golf courses can also benefit from this practice, and many are beginning to experiment with rainwater harvesting methods. Brad Rozzelle, golf course superintendent at the Spring Mill Country Club, provides a great example of how golf course superintendents have embraced rainwater harvesting.
“We do not have any creeks or streams running through the course,” Rozzelle explains. “We have one well and use rainwater runoff to fulfill our H2O needs.”
Like many other sustainability-minded golf course superintendents, Rozzelle takes advantage of the rain by draining the excess water off the course and into storage ponds, where it can later be pumped out and used for irrigation.
As rainwater harvesting continues to gain interest throughout the landscaping industry, it’s important that we don’t ignore this valuable practice. While it’s true that grass has traditionally been seen as a large consumer of water and resources, it’s a misconception that you can’t have lawn and a sustainable landscape together.