My main expertise is in water movement and wastewater treatment in the field; I especially love applied science that works for the professional in the field. I invented the Aardvark Borehole Permeameter and Soilmoisture heard about my invention and contacted me. I was truly impressed with their flexible technical staff who, after much work on their part, turned my design into the world's only automated Borehole Permeameter: tough, portable, reliable, highly accurate, and complete with software. Still known as the Aardvark, it is now sold worldwide through their extensive global network. I am proud to have my name and invention associated with Soilmoisture Equipment!

Thomas Macfie,
Inventor of the Aardvark Permeameter

Home :: The Greening of America

The Greening of America

excerpt from the Soil Report Newsletter of Soilmoisture Equipment Corp.
At last count Palm Springs, California, (pop. 40,144) had 57 golf courses, surely making it easy for even the occasional duffer to get in an early morning round. Nationwide there are 15,000 golf courses, about half the worldwide total. If put together, those 15,000 courses would cover the state of Delaware. And new courses are opening at (forgive the pun) roughly one a day.

An estimated 25 million Americans play golf, making it one of the largest participation sports in the country. No one knows the dollar value of the golf "industry", including equipment, courses, attire and such, but it is believed to be many billions annually. The employment thus provided cannot even be estimated. Golf courses boost the local economy through resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops and tourism. And a major tourney, attracting tens of thousands of spectators, is a community gold mine.

A golf course, any golf course, is a community asset, 160 acres (on average) of pristine grass, molded and mowed to perfection, studded with trees, shrubs, flower beds, even a pond or two on which water fowl float -- all creating a lovely sight on a summer day, a peaceful oasis from the crowds, traffic and hectic bustle of urban life. No wonder golf courses so often attract housing developments nearby--and enhanced property values.
With all this going for the golf course, surely there can be no problem. Unfortunately there is. To understand it, imagine that you decide, in pride of ownership, to have a proverbial "putting green" lawn at your home. Further imagine that your lawn measures about six acres--typical amount of greens on a golf course. You prepare the soil and plant bent grass, keeping out all other weeds and grasses that might intrude, as well as bugs, bacteria, fungi and diseases which might damage the grass. Having accomplished all that, you keep your lawn mowed to one-eighth of an inch--and expect it to prosper and always look immaculate, despite lots of foot traffic.

This is a problem faced daily by golf course superintendents. And it is not just the greens. Maintaining the acres and acres of fairway grass at a height of a half inch or so hardly qualifies as a walk in the park. As Pat Jones of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America puts it, "The grass is under stress. Some spoon feeding is required". No wonder a degree in agronomy is required to be a superintendent! And no wonder the Augusta National Course in Georgia shuts down for six months after the Masters tourney--in part to let the grass recover.

So, how is it done? How do you get grass to grow so beautifully in such an unnatural state? With lots and lots of water, for starters. If it doesn't rain every day--preferably every night when the course is not in use--then turn on the sprinklers. Each of those 57 golf courses in Palm Springs--as the name suggests, basically an oasis in a desert--uses a millions gallons of water per day. That's roughly 57 million gallons, 365 days a year. As Chad Rittenbush of the American Society of Golf Course Architects points out, "Palm Springs sits atop a very large aquifer." It had better!

Given an adequate supply, water isn't really the problem. It's what's in the water. Keeping that grass short and green takes a lot of fertilizer. Then there are pesticides to discourage various insects such as mole crickets and nematodes (parasitic worms), herbicides to fight weeds and such, fungicides, and chemicals to prevent or thwart plant diseases. Exactly how much fertilizer and other chemicals are spread on those 21 acres of greensward is unknown. It varies with the health of the course, weather conditions and the region of the country. Course superintendents face different diseases and pests in the South from those in the Northeast, Midwest or Far West.

Suffice it to say, a golf course, any golf course, requires lots of chemicals--sometimes tons a year--all carried into the soil by that incessant watering. Thereby comes a problem, at least a possible problem: Are those chemicals reaching and polluting the aquifers?

One state, Hawaii, is seeking to find out. Water is a finite and precious commodity in the island paradise, despite its ample annual rainfall. Chauncey Hew of the Safe Drinking Water Branch of the State Department of Health points out that not many years ago there were dire predictions that Hawaii would run out of drinking water shortly after the turn of the century. This has been ameliorated by the sharp decline in sugar cane growth. Still, a serious problem remains, both of quantity and quality. "We have a problem in central Oahu, where the water supply has become polluted and must undergo special treatment before public consumption," Hew says. The cause of the pollution problem lies largely with the pineapple industry, he says, but health officials in Hawaii remain acutely conscious of all sources of possible pollution--including golf courses.

Chauncey Hew engages in a bit of whimsical semantics. The state of Hawaii does not "regulate" golf courses, that is require them to measure and report the levels of pollutants in the soil. "We offer 12 guidelines for courses under construction or making extensive improvements. At present there are 22 such courses." The semantics comes in because the "guidelines" have been accepted as "regulations" by city and county health departments. The effect is the same.

Chauncey Hew is concerned about water consumption by golf courses, which he places at between 750,000 and 1 million gallons per day per course, especially on the dry side of the islands. "The extent of watering is habit more so that need," he states. "If a little water makes a course green, more water will make it greener--supposedly. There tends to be quite a bit of over-irrigation." And there is the risk the water is carrying all those chemicals into aquifers and polluting an already fragile water supply. In simplest terms, Hawaiian authorities are requiring golf courses to determine if they are, then take steps to prevent contamination.

One man with first hand experience in dealing with the problem is Dave Barclay of the BAF Environmental Group on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was employed by the Hazama Corp., a Japanese construction company, building the Royal Kunia Course No. 2 on Oahu to comply with state Department of Health guidelines--and at reasonable costs.

Barclay: "There are two ways by which effluent from a golf course is monitored. One is by drilling deep wells into the aquifer, then pumping up and analyzing the water. Two of these were drilled at Royal Kunia. The second way is to install lysimeters." Chuckling at himself, he says, "My background is in marine zoology. When I started, I'd never heard of a lysimeter. I had to look it up in the dictionary. But I soon learned."

What he learned is that a lysimeter is a device for measuring the water soluble contents of soil, including pollutants. Barclay: "The green-size pan lysimeters originally proposed for use were a huge piece of equipment, roughly six feet high and four feet square installed under the green. Each cost about $25,000 and burying them underground was a significant undertaking. Since six of them were to be installed at Royal Kunia, it meant a major investment. There had to be a better way. I knew that Soilmoisture Equipment made a vacuum-pressure lysimeter device called a pressure-vacuum soil water sampler that was far smaller, easier to install and much less expensive. My next task was to convince the State of Hawaii Dept. of Health that SEC's soil water sampler would do the job and indeed was the best solution to the problem. They eventually agreed, and a groundwater monitoring plan was developed and approved."

At Royal Kunia No. 2, Barclay installed six SEC lysimeters at various greens and fairways. Most were at a depth of eight inches, but two were installed five feet underground. They remain there permanently, unnoticed by golfers.
SEC's lysimeter (see What is a Lysimeter Anyway?) is a two-inch cylinder made of the finest ceramic to which two Teflon tubes are attached. At Royal Kunia these tubes are also underground and invisible. When measurements are desired, a hand vacuum pump is hooked up to one line and a 0.5 bar vacuum created inside the ceramic tube. This vacuum draws groundwater, and all the ingredients it contains, through the ceramic into the tube. After two to four hours, the lysimeter is then pressured, using a hand pump, and the sample water is forced out through a second Teflon tube for preservation in a bottle and later analysis. Couldn't be simpler.

Another piece of Soilmoisture equipment is vital to Dave Barclay's plan for Royal Kunia--Trase. Regular readers of Soil Report are already familiar with it. Trase, which stands for Time Reflectometry Analysis of Signal Energy, permits accurate measurement of moisture in soil. Two probes or prongs are inserted in the ground a few inches apart. Trase sends out a signal, measuring the minuscule amount of time it takes to return. Since the signal moves slower through moisture, Trase reveals the amount of moisture in the soil. The equipment is portable, not much larger than a small suitcase, and can be used in various locations in a few minutes time.

The advantages of Trase equipment for golf courses are obvious. Trase takes the guesswork out of when and where watering is needed to maintain a course in pristine condition. Avoiding waste of increasingly expensive water can result in significant savings for golf course superintendents. And Chauncey Hew's concerns about over watering of golf courses through habit can be eliminated.

Worries about the effects of golf courses on the environment are increasing. Last summer President Clinton visited Yellowstone National Park to demonstrate his support both for the park system and the environment. He later played a round of golf, for which he was roundly criticized by columnist Alexander Cockburn. He implied the President was insincere in his convictions, citing golf courses as a major polluter of ground water.

That may or may not be true. There is at least one instance where it was shown the pollutants came from the housing surrounding the golf course, not the course itself. Indeed, the course ameliorated the problem by acting as a huge leach field. Nevertheless, environmentalists are applying increasing pressure on golf course superintendents. They need to find out whether golf courses are indeed contaminating aquifers by measuring and monitoring levels of pollutants in the soil.

The problem is easily solved, at a modest cost, through installation of SEC lysimeters and use of Trase equipment. That way we can have the beauty and utility of golf courses--and drinking water.