Responding to the rise at The Kittansett Club

As rising sea levels threaten its well-being, the Marion, Mass., club and GCSAA Class A superintendent John Kelly remain vigilant in their sustainability efforts.


John Kelly
The Kittansett Club is overseen by GCSAA Class A superintendent John Kelly. He has been a staple at the Massachusetts seaside golf club since 2006. Rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion have been an ongoing threat to the club, but they have taken steps there, and continue to do so, to address the issue. Photo by Laurence Lambrercht

The Kittansett Club, located along the shores of Buzzards Bay in Marion, Mass., celebrated its centennial in 2022. GCSAA Class A superintendent John Kelly wants to ensure it lasts at least another hundred years.

Impacts from rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion and excessive pressure on the club’s water aquifers has membership, stakeholders and Kelly on guard and proactive. Their conversations have ratcheted up lately, and with good reason. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2021 the global sea level set a record high of 3.8 inches above previous levels from 1993. Kelly understands the stakes are high for the seaside club’s survival.

“We started having serious conversations about it one and a half, two years ago. We had a serious conversation about it one year ago. How are we going to keep this 18-hole course over the next 50 years and longer? It’s alarming where the sea level is,” says Kelly, a 31-year association member.

The Kittansett Club certainly isn’t alone. Many world-renowned golf courses will be affected by climate change. Published reports suggest that the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland could be underwater by 2050.

“In my 17 years, I have seen the impact of sea level rise not only in our well water but also along some of our bordering vegetation to wetlands,” Kelly says. “Cedar and oak trees that were once healthy and thriving are now just skeletons of a tree. They have succumbed to saltwater intrusion just from an additional inch or two of sea level rise. It is evidence that this is happening and golf courses near the water can experience what we experience if they’re reliant on well water, depending on how close they are to the water or right on the water.”

A large portion of the course only sits about five feet above sea level. Over the club’s 100-year history, four major hurricanes and a number of other coastal storms have made landfall. In 2010, The Kittansett Club experienced saltwater intrusion into their irrigation wells, negatively impacting course conditioning. Over the next season and a half, with continued monitoring of the well water, the saltwater intrusion was not dissipating. The club needed an action plan and secured guidance from industry leading experts in the field of water quality, water treatment, and water distribution.

John KellyThe installation of a Brackish Water Reverse Osmosis Unit a decade ago at The Kittansett Club was a game-changer when it comes to growing grass at the club, which has hosted two USGA championships. Photo courtesy of John Kelly

In Jan. 2013, a plan was developed and supported by membership that included installing a Brackish Water Reverse Osmosis Unit from Desalitech. The club also installed a state-of-the-art irrigation system from Rain Bird. Along with the addition of a second storage pond, everything was in service by spring 2014.

“The addition of the water treatment system adds an extra step and cost to the irrigation process, but I am certain without it we would not be able to grow a healthy stand of turfgrass,” Kelly says. “The water distribution control with the new irrigation system now gives us the capability of setting up a multitude of watering programs that accurately apply water with individual head control, saving valuable gallons of water throughout the year along with vastly improving the conditioning of the golf course.”

So far, Kelly adds, things have been going well, though the saltwater intrusion problem is here to stay.

“The entire system has been online for 10 years and we have had very few issues related to water quality and distribution. The system has been an integral part of our agronomic success. The osmosis system runs mid May to late October. It runs 12 to 14 hours a day and it treats 110 gallons per minute. The pause between cycles is necessary to allow the wells some recovery time versus trying to run them around the clock,” Kelly says. “We still experience saltwater intrusion every year. We’re not without saltwater intrusion. As the sea continues to rise, it puts more pressure onto our water aquifers, getting farther inland.”

General maintenance practices are vital to Kelly’s operations, but this upcoming year he is increasing his fairway topdressing program in a couple of areas as a test to see if there are any measurable gains in elevation to help certain areas of the course combat rising sea levels. Long-range planning will include a full course drainage study this year on the William Flynn-designed course along with input from architect Gil Hanse, who has worked with the club since the 1990s. At some point, portions of the golf course identified by a recent inundation study will inevitably need to be raised to avoid daily flooding during high tide cycles. Kelly is also experimenting with salt tolerant bentgrasses and turf type tall fescues as part of an overseeding program.

The EC meter, and a moisture meter, are constants by John Kelly’s side for water quality testing.

EC Meter

Other clubs have also turned to reverse osmosis to help with saltwater intrusion. In December 2022, GCSAA Class A superintendent and 40-year member Rich Caughey added a unit at Hatherly Country Club in Scituate, Mass. A field trip with club members to view Kelly’s operations was part of the planning process.

Caughey hopes the unit will be in full operation sometime in April or May. “It’s not a problem that gets better. It only gets worse, like a leaky boat,” Caughey says. “This will help what we’re up against.”

Last year, The Kittansett Club welcomed its second United States Golf Association championship, hosting he U.S. Senior Amateur. The region experienced a drought during the summer lead up to the event, but Kelly got a reprieve. “Our ponds were half to just below a half before (the championship). Fortunately, we received rain just before the championship, which changed the appearance but not the playability. It greened up pretty quick,” he says.

It is a given that when Kelly departs his office, his cart has an EC meter and a moisture meter in it.  That wasn’t the case where he arrived at The Kittansett Club in 2006 from famed Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. “I came from Philly. The assumption there is water is good enough to grow turfgrass. No intrusion in Philly,” he says.

Kelly knows he’s not in Philly anymore. He plans to do whatever it takes to maintain the Kittansett Club’s breathtaking scenic views.

“I have been fortunate to work alongside great chairman and boards over the years that are supportive and understand the challenges we face with our proximity to the ocean,” Kelly says. “In particular, the chairman has all had one common denominator and that is they are great at listening, absorbing and understanding information and then communicating that out in all directions. That speaks volumes when things are not going as planned. We still have work to do.”

Howard Richman is GCM's associate editor.