A dry spell for sports

Na­tive plants on fair­ways, fake grass on fields, the drought is chang­ing how some sports use wa­ter

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Whar­ton

That spot down the fair­way, just past the dog­leg, might be per­fect for a new bunker. Jack Nick­laus imag­ines a haz­ard that would force golfers to choose. Lay up short or try to hit over? “Heaven for­bid some­body would have to think,” Nick­laus says with a smile. “Es­pe­cially a golfer.”

It is a cool Fri­day morn­ing, and per­haps the great­est player ever is plan­ning a mas­sive ren­o­va­tion at Sher­wood Coun­try Club. Most of the notes he scrib­bles in a thick bin­der deal with re­shap­ing greens and mov­ing tees, but there is some­thing else to con­sider: the drought.

In com­ing months, his de­sign firm will over­see the in­stal­la­tion of high-ef­fi­ciency ir­ri­ga­tion and add na­tive plants to the Thou­sand Oaks course. Work­ers will strip away seven or more acres of turf in places where mem­bers rarely hit the ball.

“Wa­ter is a big is­sue right now,” Nick­laus says. “You have to be aware of what you’re do­ing.”

In the midst of a his­toric dry spell, with Gov. Jerry Brown de­mand­ing that Cal­i­for­ni­ans re­duce wa­ter us­age by 25%, sports such as golf, base­ball and foot­ball must find new ways to care for acres of grass.

Dodger Sta­dium has in­stalled un­der­ground tech­nol­ogy to cut back on sprin­kler times. UCLA has gone a step fur­ther, re­plac­ing one of its ath­letic fields with syn­thetic turf.

“There has been a vast amount of overuse,” said David Muller of the Green Sports Al­liance, a non­profit

group in Port­land. “A lot of it is train­ing peo­ple to use only as much wa­ter as nec­es­sary.”

A patch of grass near first base at Dodger Sta­dium has turned gray­ish-green. The groundskeeper tests the spot with his shoe and, when the blades fail to spring back up, he knows that the soil has turned dry.

Main­tain­ing a pris­tine di­a­mond for tele­vi­sion cam­eras has be­come trick­ier the last few sea­sons.

“We’ve taken a look at ev­ery as­pect of our op­er­a­tion,” says Eric Hansen, the team’s as­sis­tant direc­tor of turf and grounds. “We’ve gone back to fun­da­men­tals.”

That means walk­ing the field hours be­fore each game, look­ing for signs of strug­gling turf. It means get­ting some high-tech help to ir­ri­gate more ef­fi­ciently.

New elec­tronic sen­sors buried through­out the in­field and out­field send real­time data — mois­ture, tem­per­a­ture and salin­ity — that tell Hansen pre­cisely when his sprin­klers have suf­fi­ciently drenched the soil.

“I’ve got a set of eyes un­der­ground,” he says. “It turns out that 10 min­utes doesn’t do me any more good than seven.”

The sen­sors also keep track of vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas around home plate, which get a lot of traf­fic, and in the out­field where play­ers wear down the grass by stand­ing in one place. When prob­lems arise, Hansen and his crew can re­act in smarter ways.

In the past, they might have treated the dry spot near first base by run­ning the sprin­klers a lit­tle longer through­out the area. Now they can pin­point a few square feet that need help and wa­ter by hand.

That keeps trou­ble from spread­ing.

“If we have healthy turf,” he says, “we’ll use less wa­ter.”

With res­i­dents and busi­nesses forced to make deep and some­times painful cuts, groundskeep­ers worry ath­letic fields will be­come public scape­goats.

“Peo­ple drive by and see all that grass,” says Craig Kessler, direc­tor of gov­ern­men­tal af­fairs for the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Golf Assn. “They’re very vis­i­ble in terms of wa­ter us­age.”

Even be­fore Gov. Jerry Brown called for re­duc­tions, trac­tors be­gan rip­ping up an 11-acre in­tra­mu­ral field at UCLA. The grass is be­ing re­placed by syn­thetic turf.

“This isn’t the first rodeo for us in terms of state man­dates,” says Ken Weiner, a UCLA se­nior as­so­ciate ath­letic direc­tor. “And that field was a wa­ter hog.”

The ar­ti­fi­cial stuff is no panacea — it must be washed pe­ri­od­i­cally and cooled on hot sum­mer days. Still, UCLA could save as much as 6.5 mil­lion gal­lons an­nu­ally.

That is enough wa­ter to sup­ply about 200 Los An­ge­les Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power house­holds for a year, ac­cord­ing to re­cent data.

At USC, a weather sta­tion be­side the base­ball sta­dium ad­justs ir­ri­ga­tion for grass fields by cal­cu­lat­ing the mois­ture that evap­o­rates from plants and soil. “We’re not guess­ing any­more,” said Eric John­son, op­er­a­tions direc­tor.

‘This isn’t the first rodeo for us in terms of state man­dates. And that field was a wa­ter hog.’ — Ken Weiner, UCLA se­nior as­so­ciate ath­letic direc­tor, speak­ing of an in­tra­mu­ral field hav­ing its grass re­placed by syn­thetic turf

The sit­u­a­tion gets a bit more com­pli­cated for the L.A. Uni­fied School Dis­trict, which de­votes about 2 bil­lion gal­lons an­nu­ally to ath­letic fields and play ar­eas on hun­dreds of cam­puses.

With no way of in­stalling syn­thetic turf or the lat­est mon­i­tors in so many lo­ca­tions, the dis­trict has launched pi­lot pro­grams to ir­ri­gate with col­lected rain­fall and treated sewage wa­ter.

Of­fi­cials have also in­stalled high-ef­fi­ciency showers in locker rooms, which points to an­other area where sports can con­serve.

Sta­di­ums such as the Rose Bowl have retro­fit­ted their re­strooms with more than 200 water­less uri­nals. The Green Sports Al­liance has seen venues in other states in­stall catch­ment basins that col­lect and save rain­wa­ter for re­use.

Dodger of­fi­cials have cut ir­ri­ga­tion run times an es­ti­mated 50% to 75% by land­scap­ing with mulch and drought-tol­er­ant plants and wa­ter­ing with drip sys­tems around the ball­park. The team has also stopped wash­ing the sta­dium with pres­sure hoses af­ter ev­ery game. Crews ro­tate through sec­tions and do a lot more sweep­ing and mop­ping.

“We’re mak­ing ad­just­ments where we have to,” said Steve Ethier, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent. “It’s the right thing to do, and many times it makes good busi­ness sense.”

::

Golf ’s big dilemma be­gan in 1956 when CBS first broad­cast the Masters from lush Au­gusta Na­tional in Ge­or­gia.

“Bright green ev­ery­where,” Muller said. “It set a stan­dard.”

Even in warm, dry South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, course de­sign­ers sought to re-cre­ate that wall-to-wall ver­dure. Peo­ple in the sport call it “the Au­gusta fac­tor.”

Now many cour­ses in the West­ern U.S. are shift­ing to­ward an­other archetype — the rugged, brown ter­rain of Scot­land, where golf was born.

The man­age­ment at Oak­mont Coun­try Club in Glen­dale stud­ied black-and­white pho­tos from when the course opened in 1922. They saw a more-Mediter­ranean look and have set about re­plac­ing more than 30 acres of grass with hard-packed sand and drought-tol­er­ant veg­e­ta­tion.

“That in­cludes ar­eas be­tween tee boxes and fair­way, so you hit over them,” said Scott Heyn, the gen­eral manager. “If you go way off line, you’re into the Cal­i­for­nia na­tive.”

At Sher­wood, the club will get a re­bate — just like home­own­ers — for ev­ery square foot of grass it re­places. Man­age­ment hopes to save 30% on a wa­ter bill that dou­bled to $630,000 last year.

That’s where Nick­laus comes in.

Asked about the Au­gusta fac­tor, the six-time Masters cham­pion leans for­ward and whis­pers: “We can’t af­ford it any­more.”

Not that he pre­tends to be an ex­pert on com­put­er­ized ir­ri­ga­tion or in­dige­nous veg­e­ta­tion — “I have smarter peo­ple do­ing that” — but con­ser­va­tion ap­peals to him.

Golfers will have to ac­cept a dif­fer­ent am­bi­ence. They will ac­cli­mate to cour­ses that go brown dur­ing cer­tain sea­sons.

“Times change,” Nick­laus says. “There has to be a bal­ance.”

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

JACK NICK­LAUS, golf leg­end and course designer, sur­veys the links at Sher­wood Coun­try Club, un­der ren­o­va­tion in Thou­sand Oaks. “Wa­ter is a big is­sue right now. You have to be aware of what you’re do­ing.”

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

JACK NICK­LAUS says of the “Au­gusta fac­tor” that spurred ver­dant links: “We can’t af­ford it any­more.”

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

AT DODGER STA­DIUM, a ground crew wa­ters be­fore an April game. New elec­tronic sen­sors on the field tell when sprin­klers have suf­fi­ciently drenched the soil.

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