Beneficial buffers and non-invasive shoreline plants are greatly beneficial in reducing nutrient inputs and act as a natural filter for runoff.
Photo courtesy of SOLitude Lake Management

Ponds, lakes and streams aren’t often a priority for golf course superintendents who want to create a memorable experience for their members and golfers. But in response to environmental impact studies, government regulations and golfer preferences – both practical and aesthetic – knowing how to properly manage water features is invaluable, even if you’re going to hire someone else to do it.?

“The essence of it is slow the aging process,” says Eugene C. Braig IV, program director of aquatic ecosystems at Ohio State University. “So prevent the accumulation of sediment and other materials on the bottom, and limit the availability and input of nutrients to the site.” These are 12 things superintendents can do to keep their water features in check:?

1 Limit phosphorus applications?

An early preventative method that reduces harmful phosphorus from entering water bodies is limiting applications of phosphorus to turf in the first place, Braig says. “In freshwater, when we’re talking about nutrients, the limiting nutrient is almost always going to be phosphorus,” he says. “So that’s kind of the low-hanging fruit.”?

Limiting phosphorus to water bodies eliminates the food that fuels the growth of invasive and exotic plant species and algal blooms, says David Ellison, aquatic biologist and regional director for SOLitude Lake Management. And on a golf course that uses a pond or lake for irrigation, a reduction in phosphorus decreases the chances an irrigation pump becomes clogged with algae, vegetative debris or aquatic weeds.?

2 Grow buffer strips along the edges of water bodies?

Buffer strips between short-cut turf and water features provide numerous benefits to the water, as well as to worker and player experience, says Joe Gallagher, president of Ecological Solutions Inc. Buffers prevent phosphorus and other nutrients, as well as golf balls and sediment, from entering the water. They also restrict geese’s access to the area.?

Golfers are often reluctant to embrace buffer strips because they don’t like their appearance or because they slow down play, says USGA Green Section agronomist James E. Skorulski. When vegetation is overgrown, players lose golf balls. Extra vegetation at any height works better than turf cut at short heights, though. ?

“The deeper, native strip of vegetation would be more effective, and I generally promote that and recommend that,” Skorulski says. “But hey, I’ll take four to six inches, anything, besides having short-cut turf leading into the edge of the pond.”?

3 Run profiles of water features?

To address high phosphorus levels in stratified waters, superintendents should measure their water’s temperature and concentration of dissolved oxygen, or hire a contractor to do so, Braig says. “I think profiling a pond would let you know a lot about how to better manage the water quality of the pond,” he says.?

4 Deepen shallow water bodies?

Deep water bodies receive less sunlight throughout than shallower ones, reducing the potential for harmful algae and plants to grow aggressively, Skorulski says. ?

“If (superintendents) have a shallow pond – and usually those tend to be more eutrophic (rich in nutrients, plant populations and reduced oxygen levels) with more sediments. They can dredge if that’s possible, deepen the column to a minimum of six but preferably eight feet deep,” he says.?

Shallow areas in ponds can serve a practical purpose. Some suburban golf courses have safety shelves in their water features to prevent children from falling in, Braig says. “If you’ve got one of those shallow shelves, you can grow emergent vegetation like cattails right across the entirety of that safety shelf,” he says.?

5 Install diffuser aerators to provide oxygen throughout the water column?

In deep water bodies, superintendents should install diffuser aeration, Braig says. “You blow some bubbles down there, and as those bubbles are floating to the surface, they’re pushing water with them so they force the water column to mix,” he says. “That means stratification can never set up. So you have the potential to dissolve oxygen that’s produced by photosynthesis from the plants that grow in the pond all throughout the water column. In doing so, you keep oxygen close to the bottom, which makes phosphorus less able to dissolve.”?

In shallow bodies of water, fountains can introduce oxygen to the surface, but they aren’t effective in mixing the water column, Braig says. When addressing issues in deep water bodies, aeration diffusers are the least expensive option, and more efficiently mix the water column.?

6 Ensure water features contain a variety of organisms?

To keep a healthy system, there must be a balance of lifeforms, Gallagher says. “You want to make sure you have aquatic organisms – fish, frogs, those sorts of things.,” he says. “If you don’t have those things in your system, there must be something wrong with it because they should have it in a natural system.”?

7 Keep vegetation coverage low to avoid fish kills?

If there are fish in a pond, vegetation coverage in the pond should be kept below about 30 percent, Braig says. When there is a large number of plants in a water body, those plants take up oxygen that fish need to survive. If the pond is used as a fishery, vegetation coverage should generally be kept below 20 percent. ?

8 Maintain diverse and native plants?

When managing plants to benefit water quality, Braig says to make sure the plants are diverse and native. “If you have a complete coverage of only one type of plant that’s only active in one time of the year, you lose that benefit when those plants die for the season.” he says. Any plants that are not native are likely to be aggressively invasive. Plant diversity allows for a stable ecosystem, reducing the possibility that one species could grow excessively, Ellison says.?

9 Carefully read and adhere to information on product labels?

Aquatic herbicides and algaecides often differ in rate and frequency recommendations and use restrictions, Ellison says. “Products used in aquatic plant treatments are highly regulated to protect animals, but can create issues when improperly applied,” he says. “SOLitude highly recommends using an experienced and licensed aquatic applicator for any lake or pond applications.” When water features are used for irrigation, there are often additional restrictions or best management practices for algaecides and herbicides.?

A golf course pond with submersed aeration.
Courtesy of Solitude Lake Management

10 Apply aquatic herbicides early in ?the season.?

Controlling aquatic plants early in the growing season is more effective than waiting months to do it, Braig says. However, aquatic herbicides can’t be applied pre-emergently because their effects don’t last for long. “Apply early in the season, but you’re not applying it until you actually have something to affect,” he says.?

11 Apply aluminum sulfate to control phosphorus levels?

Aluminum sulfate starves algae by removing their availability to phosphorus, Braig says. “If you want to use aluminum sulfate to remove nutrients from availability, just be mindful of the nature of your watershed,” he says. “If the inputs from outside, for example from phosphorus, applied to turf are overwhelming, you might not get much benefit from a treatment like that, but you might.”?

12 Don’t eliminate all algae and weeds?

Taking steps to control all the aquatic weeds in a water body will probably create more problems with algae, and cleaning up all of the algae will likely increase plant pressure, Skorulski says. “It’s kind of a mixed system,” he says. “You don’t want a completely pristine body of water. It doesn’t hurt to have some algae in there, or to have some aquatic plant material.”