By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
A handful of Georgia golf course superintendents are managing to keep their courses lush and green despite the grueling drought. What's their secret? Reclaimed water.
"Water treatment plants pull water out of the rivers, treat it, pump it to our homes and we use it. And then it goes to the sewer system," said Clint Waltz, an extension turf specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"After we use this water, it's highly treated," Waltz said. "This reclaimed water is now being sold to places like golf courses for irrigation."
Using this reclaimed water for irrigation has become a hot topic in the state. It's a valuable alternative water source. But opponents feel the water should be returned to the rivers.
Downstream Neighbors May Protest
"When it comes to reclaimed water, the rub is that we're at the top of the line," Waltz said. "If we withdraw water from the river basin and don't return it ... Florida and Alabama may not get the flow of water they need."
For now, reclaimed water is a viable solution to a dilemma facing metro Atlanta golf course superintendents.
"Over the next 10 years, some golf courses in the Chattahoochee River Basin in the northern part of metro Atlanta are going to be asked by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to find alternative sources of water for irrigation other than potable water," Waltz said. "The DNR is saying they won't be renewing any water withdrawal permits from the Chattahoochee above Peachtree Creek."
With no permit to pump water from the river, golf course superintendents will need alternative irrigation sources.
The smart ones are jumping on the reclaimed-water bandwagon now, in case the state changes its mind and decides not to allow reclaimed water to be used, Waltz said.
"If the state decides they need to maintain the river's flow, availability to golf courses may be greatly limited," he said. "Then the golf course operators who decided to make the transition later will be caught between a rock and a hard place."
As for Waltz and his UGA colleagues, their job is to educate golf course superintendents on reclaimed water as one option, not the only alternative.
Excellent Way to Conserve Water
"From a turf standpoint, it's an excellent water source and an opportunity for water conservation," Waltz said. "I say, if you've got the opportunity to get it, get it. It's generally cheaper, and it's typically of high enough quality for use on most of our turf grasses."
Waltz tells golf course superintendents not to go into a reclaimed water contract with a "take what I can get" attitude.
"Don't just take the water the city wants to send you," he said. "Work up a contract stating the guidelines and requirements the water they send you should meet."
For example, if a golf course is near the coast, where sodium tends to be a problem, a contract could stipulate that the water meet specific sodium requirements, he said.
On the upside, some nutrients are typically associated with treated water. These "free" nutrients may enable turf managers to reduce the amount of fertilizers they apply.
Test Water to Determine Quality
For this reason, Waltz recommends having the water tested on a schedule to know exactly what they're applying to the grass.
There are also limitations on applying reclaimed water to land.
"You have to be a certain distance away from dwellings and structures," Waltz said. "And it can't be applied into a free-flowing stream, as that would be considered a discharge and would require an additional permit."
About 30 golf courses already irrigate with reclaimed water. Most are in metro Atlanta.
"In time, much of this may change," Waltz said. "But for now, reclaimed water is a viable option for turf grass managers who want to be good environmental stewards."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)