Home » Feature Story

Drought takes its toll, but at some San Antonio golf courses, there's a green lining

Mike BaileyBy Mike Bailey,
Senior Staff Writer
Willow Springs Golf Course
View large image
| More photos
Willow Springs uses recycled water, making it easier to keep the fairways green during the recent drought. (Mike Bailey/TravelGolf)

SAN ANTONIO -- The Texas drought has been devastating, and golf courses certainly haven't been immune to its effects.

But it isn't as gloomy as one might think for golfers. In San Antonio -- which only had 5.6 inches of rain in 2011 before a late summer round of thunderstorms brought some temporary relief -- some golf courses are doing a little better than surviving.

No doubt, rainwater is the best form of irrigation for any golf course, but those that can use recycled water have had a distinct advantage over golf courses that rely on well water or city water. Some courses also have rights to more water than others and have been able to budget their use accordingly, while others just don't have enough.

The city of San Antonio has been under Stage 2 water restrictions all summer, and the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies the majority of freshwater to the region, was just a foot or so from moving to Stage 3. What does that mean for golf courses?

"We've been on water restrictions since mid-April," said Chuck Wagmiller, certified golf course superintendent at the 27-hole Hyatt Hill Country Resort in San Antonio. "It's been Stage 2 since the middle of May, which means a 30 percent reduction, and we've been teetering on Stage 3, which would be a 40 percent reduction."

Stage 3 may still come, but a couple of inches of rain over the Sept. 17-19 weekend staved off the move -- for now. It also meant temporary relief for the courses hardest hit. But the forecast for the fall is just as bleak as it has been all year -- little relief in sight, but at least the temperatures will be cooler.

A hot time in the Alamo City

High temperatures, of course, have been a problem as well. Not only has this been the driest summer in Texas on modern record, but also one of the hottest. Temperatures of more than 100 degrees were the norm in July and August, not the exception.

At Northern Hills Golf Club, the drought conditions have been really tough on the fairways, which sometimes have to go a couple of weeks without water just to make sure the greens and tee boxes stay healthy. The greens were, in fact, excellent all summer, but the fairways looked dormant and water levels in the ponds were naturally down -- way down.

"Everybody's been very understanding," said PGA head professional Steve Lennon. "The customers really appreciate what we're trying to do."

But courses like Willow Springs and Brackenridge Park, which are part of the Alamo Golf Trail, have fared fairly well because they use effluent water. It's an expensive process, but it gives the courses the water they need to stay green even in the fairways.

Effluent water to the rescue

While many courses' tee sheets have been greatly affected by the drought conditions, Willow Springs, an excellent 7,221-yard A.W. Tillinghast design, has seen an increase in play.

"We've been averaging 120 or 130 golfers a day, give or take," Willow Springs assistant pro Mike Carbone said. "Many of them say they play here because we're so green."

While other courses have only been able to use their water allocations for tees and greens, Willow Springs and Brackenridge Park, as well as a handful of other courses in San Antonio, are able to water fairways and even roughs with recycled water. And now that the temperatures are starting to cool down, they can even cut back on that.

It's a position Alan Pierce, the director of operations at Tapatio Springs in nearby Boerne, would like to be in this time next year. Like Northern Hills, Tapatio has focused on tees and greens.

"We are also trucking in water from Boerne to keep our greens and tee boxes green, and we're also using it to water some of the fairways," Pierce said. "We're doing our part not to use the groundwater if we can. But we would like to improve our water situation in the future. We're in line with the city to get effluent water out here this time next year."

Planning ahead can really help

Perhaps the real Houdini act has come at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort, which is somewhere in between courses that use recycled water and those that are barely keeping fairways viable. Years ago, the Hyatt, which also has to irrigate dozens of acres around the resort, acquired additional water rights from local farmers, but that still wouldn't be enough to adequately water the golf course the way Wagmiller needs to during the summer.

In anticipation of this year's drought, Wagmiller started banking water usage over the winter and spring, knowing that as temperatures remained cool, he could get by with the minimum. The strategy has enabled him to water fairways every couple of days or so during the summer, and while they are not a vibrant green, they are not brown, which is critical to a high-end resort course like the Hyatt. It's a strategy he will most likely repeat this winter.

"My thought," Wagmiller said, "is we're going to be under some type of water restrictions two out of every three years."

More photos

Northern Hills Golf ClubTapatio Springs golf courseHyatt Hill Country Resort

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Pecan Valley

    P. E. Wilkinson wrote on: Sep 28, 2011

    One of San Antonio's historically renowned courses looked like something out of Saudi Arabia without the square yard of Astro-turf to hit from.