Water issues in the Midwest are often on the opposite end of the spectrum from those we see in other parts of the country, like the arid Mountain and Southwest regions. Rather than lacking water, our communities are often desperate to identify places to gather, hold and clean it up before gradually releasing it to the local streams and rivers. With changes in our climate causing more severe and frequent storms, and the continual expansion of pavement in our urban areas, the management of water has become a serious issue.
Golf courses are vital, vibrant members of the community that also happen to be vast in terms of acreage, making them ideal for storing and cleaning large volumes of water. The natural filtration qualities of turfgrass, wetlands and golf course ponds are helping to serve our communities’ water quality goals while returning that reclaimed resource to the local water table. By assuming this responsibility, golf course operators are actively improving public relations in their immediate community while enabling upgrades to their own products, often at prices that are reduced or even mitigated by the very water management issues those communities are obliged to address.
It’s a fact: the game of golf is working for our communities and the environment. Here are a few great examples of how, both public and private.
The Bridges of Poplar Creek
The Bridges of Poplar Creek, owned by the Hoffman Estates (Ill.) Park District, is an upscale municipal golf facility built in the late 1970s on what was then rural farmland. With a central creek and several ponds situated throughout the course, water was always a part of Poplar Creek’s identity, but decades of development dramatically increased the volume of water within the course’s watershed, threatening both adjacent landowners and the long-term viability of the golf operations.
Compounding the growing storm water problems, the course became known locally as a “flooder,” closed as many as 10 days a year with annual losses reaching as high as $135,000 (10 percent of annual revenue). A reputation for closing sparked remarks like, “I never book there when rain is in the forecast; there’s too good a chance it will flood.” The tangible revenue losses — and the more damaging impacts of a bad image — were hurting the bottom line.
The park district realized long-term sustainability, a grand mission of the district as a whole, would require significant change and thus committed the necessary funding to pursue a redevelopment strategy focused on expanding on-course water storage capabilities. To accommodate the runoff that routinely flooded the golf holes and upstream properties, ponds were expanded or added and all 18 holes were improved in some capacity — including drainage additions, elevated fairways (above flood levels) and integration of these new waterways into the golf course routing.
Just two months after re-opening, the area received a record rainfall equivalent to a 100-year storm. The renovated golf course was the only one open for play the following morning — a story that has been repeated several times since. The course has also seen increases in play and elevated rates since the renovation and has reduced storm cleanup costs by more than 90 percent (from $35,000 annually to $3,000).
A course renovation project like this would never have been even considered if the larger district and community goals were not served by the project. Over time, adjacent properties also reported less severity in flood levels and much-decreased high-water durations. Since maturing, the acres of filtering wetlands have improved water quality tenfold at the creek’s outlet. Today, The Bridges at Poplar Creek is once again a source of community pride and a vital environmental resource in the region.
Reid Municipal Golf Course
New state and federal mandates developed in recent years have sent Wisconsin municipalities looking for places to collect their runoff – specifically vast, open spaces. The purpose? To remove total suspended solids and phosphorus from the water, cleaning it up before it enters state waterways.
A typical urban development located in the Lower Fox River Watershed, the City of Appleton was lacking in available open space that could fulfill these needs, prompting the City Storm Water Department to consider alternative options. Operated by the Parks and Recreation Department, the 115-acre Reid Municipal Golf Course was perfectly positioned in the middle of town and already serving some of the intended function by gathering local runoff via an old concrete channel. The golf course was also in a bit of a lull itself, struggling to make ends meet financially and in need of a spark.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and it can also breed collaboration. Working as a united front, the two city departments developed a plan to transform Reid into a giant filtration system, which took two seasons to construct and $4 million to fund. The golf course now holds and cleans up storm water as it enters from the neighboring streets through a series of ponds and a newly naturalized channel dug to replace the old concrete one. This channel is the outlet for nearly 50-acre feet of new flood storage, providing enough space to handle a 100-year storm and then some. In order to facilitate the ponds, several course upgrades were made, including alterations to four holes that now play over and along the new ponds and various other additions using spoils from the pond excavation.
Funding for the project was provided almost entirely by the Storm Water Department, which also factored in compensation for lost rounds and other pro shop revenues during construction, with the Parks and Recreation Department only required to cover the cost of the grow-in. Aside from helping the city be compliant with the water quality mandates, the most encouraging result of the work at Reid has been a significant uptick in golf play and a burst of new life in the local golf economy. All those good vibes are even prompting talks of more course improvements in the coming years.
Westmoor Country Club
Courses don’t need to be municipally owned in order to assist the greater public. The private Westmoor Country Club was approached by the City of Brookfield, Wis., several years back about solving a festering water-quality problem — silt, salt and other street debris was running off a particular neighborhood development and degrading the waterways.
Realizing an opportunity to help themselves and their community, the club took control of the remediation effort, creating a filtrating wetland system on their 15th hole that connected to a further series of ponds. The hole required upgrades to accommodate the change and now sports an expanded water feature and attractive stone retaining wall that greatly enhances drainage and visual appeal. The pond work, which fit into a larger renovation effort that was already underway, was funded by the city.
The dirty water passing through this system is now filtered clean before exiting the course and re-entering the city waterways or being re-used by the course’s irrigation system. The naturalized plantings around the pond also serve as a home for bee-keeping pods that pollinate the flowers around the golf course and the surrounding neighborhoods, contributing to the club’s much-strengthened relationship with the community it serves.
Deerpath Golf Course
Some golf properties take on storm water by obligation and not choice, thus leaving them to deal with the impacts of excess water themselves. City-owned Deerpath Golf Course in Lake Forest, Ill., was built in the early 1920s along a branch of the Skokie River. Acres of watershed from the north flow into the course during major storms, covering as much as 90 percent of the property in the severest of events. A hospital campus — basically a giant slab of concrete and hardtop — sits directly to the west and feeds additional runoff across the course, compounding soil saturation problems.
Historically, even when flood waters receded at Deerpath, it could take days or weeks for the course to dewater, making it difficult to maintain and operate the facility. Golfers stayed away, cart usage stopped, turf died and the course’s reputation suffered. In 2017 alone, the facility reported 41 days of direct revenue impact from closures due to flooding, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in losses.
Searching for answers, the City commissioned a comprehensive master plan to target immediate “revenue-driven solutions” and foster long-term course health. The first phase of that effort, implemented in fall 2017, included a $1.1 million cart path and drainage enhancement project aimed at getting golfers and maintenance equipment back on the course quicker. A full asphalt path system was installed on all 18 holes and underground turf drains fitted in the worst of the saturated areas to aid in moving excess water out of play when the main flood waters recede. The spoils created from digging were used to build several forward tees or piled in containment mounds in upland areas.
The project’s effectiveness was demonstrated immediately. Despite recording three major flood events in 2018, the golf course reportedly lost only six days to closure and experienced no extended cart shutdown. Projected greens fees and cart revenues saw substantial gains from the year prior as well, upwards of $70,000, and turf recovery following the floods was greatly enhanced. Bolstered by these positive gains, golf course management expects to continue with more upgrades over the next several years to continue the pursuit of long-term sustainability.
Could these sorts of projects work on any course, public or private, where the surrounding community is battling water-retention and water-quality issues? The answer is a resounding yes.
With total maximum daily loads and other new directives garnering attention across the country, communities will continue to be on the lookout for places to store and clean their water. Golf is one of the only sports whose playing surfaces are not restricted in shape or design, which makes courses malleable and highly adaptable to this potential change. If courses have the room and are located in the right spot in the watershed, it just makes sense that we employ them in the betterment of our communities and the environment.