Irrigation and water conservation in the high desert

One superintendent found a fine-tuned irrigation system and integrated pest management plan to save gallons — and dollars.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
One of the first steps to saving water and maintaining high-quality playing conditions is to make sure the irrigation system is dialed in. Photos by Joseph Trombino

Working in the high deserts of Arizona and Southern California, where proper irrigation is critical to the success of a golf course, has taught me several lessons about water management, along with a few different strategies for reducing water use.  

To minimize water use and maximize turf quality, proper turf-management strategies that prevent insect damage and disease are crucial and go hand in hand with proper irrigation practices. Getting the irrigation system dialed in is necessary to save water and have high quality playing conditions. 

The following are some of the things I do to the irrigation system when starting at a new golf course:

  • A thorough irrigation audit needs to be performed, where every irrigation head is turned on one by one, and problems are fixed immediately.
  • All information/details about irrigation heads should be written down and double-checked in the computer to make sure that all information is correct. For example, whether the head is part or full circle; type of nozzle; its location (green, fairway, etc.). Everything needs to match perfectly between what’s in the field and what’s in the computer.
  • The irrigation system shouldn’t have any leaks.


  • Prevent any damage from insects or disease to avoid using more water to regrow turf areas.
  • A robust and well-implemented integrated pest management plan is the key to preventing damage.
  • Watering should be based on evapotranspiration. Don’t guess.
  • Have an accurate way to measure flow rate and calibrate flow meter at least every two years.
  • Keep accurate use records. I record monthly usage on the first day of every month.
  • Constantly monitor turf/playing conditions and make necessary adjustments to the irrigation computer.
  • Become thoroughly familiar with the irrigation computer. It’s the most powerful tool we have at our disposal.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Before: A look at unbalanced irrigation distribution at the author’s previous facility, resulting in uneven turf.

Problem-solve accurately

Another important factor in saving water is to properly identify irrigation problems, because if the problem isn’t correctly identified, then the corresponding solution will be incorrect. 

Most irrigation problems that I’ve solved had been worked on in the past, and I could see the effort that someone put into attempting to solve the problem. However, because they didn’t properly identify the problem, their solution was ineffective or actually made the problem worse.  

A few steps I follow to help point me in the right direction when problem-solving:
  1. Turn on all irrigation heads in and around the problem area, whether the area is too wet or too dry. Major problems will show themselves.
  2. Fix any obvious problems, like O-rings that are leaking and need to be replaced, clogged nozzles or heads not turning.
  3. If all heads are working properly and a wet or dry condition exists, then the next step is to check the percentage adjustment of each irrigation head of the affected area in the irrigation computer.
  4. Use the temporary-adjust feature to increase or decrease the amount of water at the affected stations and continue to monitor the area.
  5. Along with the temporary-adjust feature, make a permanent adjustment to the percentage by increasing or decreasing that station’s percentage. For example, if I have a wet area and all the heads in the area are working correctly, in order to dry it out, I will set the temporary-adjust feature on the corresponding heads to 0% for a day or two depending on the severity and also decrease the base percentage of the station by 5% to 10%. This gives the area a couple of days to dry out, and when those stations start watering again, it is at a slightly reduced percentage. Monitor and continue to make refinements.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
After: This is the same spot on the course as the before picture on the previous page but a mere nine days later, showing the results of balanced water distribution.

Case study No. 1

Let’s talk about a real-world example of how preventing insect damage and disease goes hand in hand with irrigation management, turf quality and the budget.  

In 2007, when I worked at The Rim Golf Club in Payson, Ariz., I diagnosed insect damage and disease activity that had previously gone undiagnosed and had been causing severe turf decline for years. Over the winter, I wrote an IPM plan that identified our most important insect and disease pests and how we were going to prevent their damage in 2008. 

By June of that year, after implementing a comprehensive insect management plan, another problem showed up. It took me two weeks to identify what I thought the problem was and another two weeks to come up with a potential solution. I used our 14th hole as an experimental area because it was one of our worst holes, and if my solution worked here, it would work across the entire property. 

The problem was irrigation distribution. 

Perimeter irrigation heads made up the majority of the heads at The Rim and were at extremely high percentages of ET, so the majority of irrigation heads were using way more water than they should have, resulting in a major overuse of water in addition to poor distribution.  

For example, the perimeter heads were set at 140%, 165% or 185% of ET or some extremely high number, while the fairway heads were at 70%, 60% or 50%, which resulted in a massive overuse of water and imbalance of water distribution. Setting all the heads at 100% of ET and making small adjustments from there was the key to saving water and getting the irrigation dialed in.  

Preventing the insect damage and diseases that ravaged the course annually gave us healthy turf to irrigate, along with providing phenomenal playing conditions.

What created the irrigation imbalance at The Rim Club was undiagnosed insect damage (cutworm activity) on south-facing slopes in the late winter and early spring that was incorrectly diagnosed as dry areas. Cutworm adults were laying their eggs in the warmest areas on southern-facing slopes, and the resulting caterpillar damage was misdiagnosed as dry areas.  The corresponding perimeter heads had their ET percentages increased to water what they thought were dry areas. 

A few weeks later, when someone drove through the fairway and noticed it was wet because of the increased perimeter head output, the corresponding head in the fairway was turned down, leading to the unbalanced irrigation distribution of high ET% on perimeter heads and lower ET% on fairway heads.  

For several more years, the insect damage went unchecked and worsened and the irrigation distribution grew increasingly unbalanced, leading to massive turf loss and a huge increase in water use.

By preventing insect damage and disease along with proper water distribution, The Rim Golf Club results were:

  • Saved $1.1 million in the budget annually.
  • Saved 30 million gallons of water.
  • Preventing problems and proper distribution led to flawless playing conditions.
  • The lakes on the course did not need to be drawn down for irrigation use.
  • Members were proud to bring guests back to their course.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

Case study No. 2

I am currently employed at Bear Valley Country Club in Spring Valley Lake, Calif., and the results of my first full year were interesting. We wound up saving 56 million gallons, but for a different reason than at The Rim Club.  

The water at The Rim was being overused because the percentage adjustments in the irrigation computer were so askew. At Bear Valley CC, water was being overused mostly during the period from November through March, when water requirements are low.  

Implementing proper fundamental watering practices during those months led to a decrease of 180 acre-feet — or 58,653,000 gallons — during the same period year over year. My strategy was to withhold irrigation and wait until the traditional “hot spots” started to dry out, and then I would water.  

Saving water during the winter and having it available to use during the summer was another huge key to success, especially when it reached 110 degrees in July. The irrigation percentages in the computer also needed to be balanced out, and, once again, irrigating with a balanced, even distribution of water led to Bear Valley having the best turf conditions any of the members can remember.

The reduction in water use at Bear Valley was due to three main factors:

  1. Proper water-management practices, especially during the winter.
  2. Irrigating with a system that provides a balanced, even application of water.
  3. Overuse by previous managers.

At Bear Valley, we have a water allotment of 532 acre-feet per year that has a relatively small cost if we stay at or under that amount, but that cost increases dramatically — by over 100 times — if we go over the allotment. For the previous 15 years, we were way over the allotment, and the water bill last year was just under $135,000.  

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

By watering only when needed during the winter and working on the irrigation distribution, we used 172 acre-feet less year over year and came in 50 acre-feet under our allotment, which meant that our water bill would only be $2,736.59. We also saved an additional $30,000 in electricity costs because the number of hours the pumps had to run were greatly reduced.  

What is “balanced” irrigation? My experience is with triangulation systems, where three irrigation heads will form a triangle, and any piece of turf that you stand on within that triangle will be watered by those three heads. 

The irrigation percentages must be even or equal for those three heads to water in a balanced manner. If the three points of a triangle are the irrigation heads, and each is set at 100% of ET, they are balanced. If one point of the triangle is 65%, another is 90%, and the third is 175%, that is not balanced and will result in a weird pattern of wet and dry.

The tables accompanying this article show year-over-year water use. The reduction in use during the winter is dramatic, specifically November through March. Over that time, we saved 180 acre-feet year over year. Watering only when necessary during the winter in addition to irrigating with a balanced system is what led us to having the best season in Bear Valley CC history.

By using water wisely during the winter and getting control of the irrigation distribution, we were able to:

  • Reduce our water bill by 97.89%.
  • Save $162,263.95 in the budget.
  • Redirect those savings toward a new equipment fleet.
  • Provide the best playing conditions members have ever seen at Bear Valley CC.

The golf course had the cost of water in the budget for a long time. With the water bill basically disappearing, we were able to redirect those funds toward a much-needed equipment lease package. With so much money wasted on water in the past, who had the funds for new equipment?

Joseph Trombino is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Bear Valley Country Club in Apple Valley, Calif. He is a five-year member of GCSAA.