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MailTribune.com
  • Courses preparing in face of drought

  • Warning signs have been prevalent for months about severe water conditions in Southern Oregon, and area golf course owners, managers and superintendents are preparing as best they can to manage in the face of what is, in some cases already, the worst drought on record.
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  • Warning signs have been prevalent for months about severe water conditions in Southern Oregon, and area golf course owners, managers and superintendents are preparing as best they can to manage in the face of what is, in some cases already, the worst drought on record.
    Some indications:
    Overall snowpack in the Rogue Basin was an historically low 27 percent of normal this year.
    Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a drought state of emergency for Jackson County in early May.
    Later that month, Medford Irrigation District, which services six golf courses among its clients, instituted a usage curtailment of 25 percent.
    Long-term forecasts call for conditions both drier and hotter than normal in the region.
    "This is really our third year of lack of water," said Carol Bradford, MID manager. "It's getting worse and worse and worse."
    MID pulls water from two sources — Fourmile and Fish lakes. As of Thursday, Fourmile was only 12 percent of capacity and was about tapped out, said Bradford, and Fish was at 55 percent and figures to drop quickly as temperatures continue to hover in the upper 90s and 100s.
    Bradford hopes to stretch the water season through August before having to shut off service.
    "If we get any time in September, that's something we hope for, but it's not something that is promised," she said.
    A few gully washers would come in handy. A day or so of rain the last week of June "gave us a few extra days," said Bradford.
    With that as a backdrop, golf courses are hoping for the best and bracing for the worst.
    Those who draw from MID are Rogue Valley Country Club, Centennial, Stone Ridge, Quail Point, Stewart Meadows and Bear Creek. Stone Ridge also uses Rogue River Valley Irrigation.
    Eagle Point gets water from the Eagle Point Irrigation District. It uses Willow Lake, which is 95 percent full.
    Oak Knoll in Ashland is on the Talent Irrigation District line, which draws from Emigrant and Hyatt lakes and Howard Prairie Reservoir. TID is projecting a mid-September shutoff.
    Despite dire expectations, golf course people aren't pushing the panic button.
    All have made some adjustments, and players are noticing longer drives because of firmer fairways. There's a bit more brown in the rough and out-of-play areas. How firm and brown things get remains to be seen.
    Mother Nature will have plenty of say in it.
    "It depends on what the weather's like," said Jim Cochran, owner of Stone Ridge, which he built and opened in 1995. "One year we thought we'd be cut off in mid-August, and it never did happen. Sometimes you get some thunderstorms. A lot of things can happen."
    Cochran only uses about half of the water he's allotted from MID, he said. He originally farmed the property and flood irrigated it. Now he has sprinklers to do the watering.
    Stone Ridge also has ample pond storage to fall back on.
    Cochran, like his brethren, is being conservative with usage and "trying to be good stewards" of the resources.
    Rogue Valley Country Club and Centennial have sophisticated, computerized irrigation systems that help their respective course superintendents, Craig Hilty and Matt Grove, systematically distribute water.
    RVCC updated its in 2005 and has 3,600 sprinkler heads that Hilty can manipulate from his office, home or, with his iPad, anywhere.
    "I can turn each one up or down to any percentage I want," he said.
    RVCC has 27 holes on 210 acres, but there's a lot of area that is out of play, so water can be scaled back there with little notice. For that reason, MID's curtailment has not been much of an issue.
    Hilty has gone to deeper, but less frequent, watering in some areas — a practice he says homeowners should adopt as well. He'll go heavy a couple nights, such as Sundays before the light play days on Monday, "to get the soil profile loaded deeper," then back off a couple days.
    RVCC has anywhere from five to 15 days worth of storage in its ponds. It can also buy water from the Medford Water Commission if need be.
    With the popular Southern Oregon Golf Championships set for Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, RVCC has plenty of motivation to steer the course through the drought.
    "We do have a plan," said Hilty, who secured three tons of perennial rye grass seed when the prices were at their lowest last spring in case he needs to bring back overly stressed rough in the fall. "With each passing week, we'll know more and more about the shutdown window."
    Grove, too, has a plan. In addition to a top-notch irrigation system, Centennial has far more storage capacity than most other courses with its three large ponds.
    There's enough water to go 30 days of normal usage after a shutoff, he said, or 45 if other factors come into play: cooler temperatures at night and priority watering, which means cutbacks are applied, in order, to rough, fairways and tees.
    Greens? "You don't skimp there," he said.
    "If we have to, we'll do some overseeding in the fall, but hopefully it doesn't come to that," said Grove.
    Centennial brings in only 20 percent of the what it's able to, he said. He's gone to more hand watering, targeting dry spots, and has cut back on afternoon watering on the weekends to "let the ponds catch back up."
    If the stress is too great late in the summer, carts might be restricted to paths, he added.
    Stewart Meadows is hand watering more, said assistant superintendent Randy Stephenson. Unlike larger courses, the nine-hole layout doesn't have as much out-of-area ground to scale back on. Greens and tees get water every night, he said, but fairways and rough are watered on alternate days.
    "Right now, it's been about the same as past summers," said Stephenson. "We're looking for it to get worse as the summer progresses."
    Brown terrain will be increasingly evident.
    Tom Cronin, golf operations manager at Oak Knoll, said his course resembles now what it usually looks like in September.
    "We're unique," he said, "because we don't water between the fairways. "¦ If worst comes to worst, we'll save the greens and tee boxes and let the fairways go a little brown."
    That, he said, would be in line with a USGA initiative to move away from "lush, wall-to-wall green looking courses."
    The USGA, as the recent U.S. Open at Pinehurst showed, is pushing for reduced water use and less maintenance away from fairways. Conservation, both of natural resources and money, is the driving force.
    So now might a good time for locals to embrace the "brown-is-the-new-green" mantra.
    Besides, said Cronin, playability will still be there.
    Regardless of what the rest of July and August bring, it's safe to say course caretakers are up against it.
    "I'm not at all nervous about it," said Hilty, who has worked at RVCC for nearly 13 years. "We're kind of geeked this way. I look forward to the challenge and seeing how our staff does with it. I think we'll exceed everybody's expectations."
    Have a local golf story idea? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com
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