On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Golf courses start to reuse stormwater to keep grass green

Share story

Storm water pond
A crew from Washington County builds a sand-bag wall to divide a storm water retention pond in an effort to find out why the pond is losing water Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at Prestwick Golf Club in Woodbury. The water in the pond, which drains from Country Road 19, eventually will be used to irrigate the golf course.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

After the past week's rain, much of Minnesota is pretty soggy. But if the summer is typical, that water will soon drain away and sprinklers will start spraying, pumping billions of gallons of water from wells to keep grass green.

Two Twin Cities golf courses are working on projects to suggest there's a better way.

• Beneath the Surface, a special Ground Level report

At Prestwick Golf Club in Woodbury, Superintendent Dave Kazmierczak hasn't had to turn on the sprinklers yet this year to keep the greens living up to their name.

But over the next several months, Prestwick will likely pump millions of gallons of groundwater into its irrigation system. Across Minnesota, roughly 500 golf courses tap billions of gallons of groundwater each year. Generally that hasn't been seen as a problem, but state officials have noticed lower groundwater levels in certain areas of the state, including the north and east Twin Cities suburbs where Prestwick is located. 

The Department of Natural Resources is monitoring that area closely. Golf courses accounted for less than 3 percent of the total groundwater pumping reported in 2012, but if state officials decide that pumping needs to slow down, it could affect all groundwater users. 

That's one reason why Kazmierczak is so excited about Prestwick's new stormwater pond. It collects runoff from County Road 19, which has two new traffic lanes, generating more stormwater that can't soak into the ground. At the same time, Woodbury is trying to keep total groundwater pumping flat between now and 2030.

If the plan works to use that water on the golf course, Kazmierczak said, he could cut his groundwater use by a quarter or even a third. In the past decade, Prestwick used an average of about 40 million gallons a year, according to the DNR.

"So for everybody it's just a win-win situation," he said.

"There's not a course that you couldn't do this on."

A similar project is under way at the Oneka Ridge Golf Course in Hugo -- another northeast metro suburb. Oneka expects to reduce its groundwater pumping by about 15 million gallons a year, although that started out as only a secondary goal, said Kyle Axtell, water resource specialist for the Rice Creek Watershed District, which is overseeing the project for the city of Hugo and the golf course. 

Map of water reuse irrigation project
A map of the infrastrcuture and land alterations made to the Oneka Ridge Gold Course to reuse stormwater.
Courtesy of Rice Creek Watershed District

The project received a nearly $500,000 Legacy Amendment grant to reduce phosphorus pollution in nearby Bald Eagle Lake. A series of drainage ditches that run through farmland, residential areas and the golf course were reaching the lake. So a large stormwater pond was built on the golf course to collect some of that water, and the golf course will use it for irrigation, Axtell said.

"As it's turned out with some other issues in the area, the groundwater use reduction has been rising to the top in terms of the benefits of the project," he said.

What's more, if it rains a lot all at once, the new stormwater pond is connected to another pond that drains into the ground to help recharge an underground aquifer, he said.

"It's a really good example of a private landowner, a private business in the area, stepping forward to work with local government to effect some of these changes," Axtell said.

Interest is growing among golf courses, which want to be known as good environmental stewards.

Storm water retention pond
A crew from Washington County builds a sand-bag wall to divide a storm water retention pond in an effort to find out why the pond is losing water Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at Prestwick Golf Club in Woodbury. The water in the pond, which drains from Country Road 19, eventually will be used to irrigate the golf course.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

"There's not a course that you couldn't do this on," said Jack MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendents' Association. Superintendents are the turf experts in charge of making courses both beautiful and functional.

His group has been working with state officials to come up with best practices for water use with an eye toward protecting the industry from being cut off. 

"Golf is perceived as a water waster," he said. "We have to get the word out that golf is a $2.3 billion industry in the state. Golf employs over 35,000 people in the state. Golf uses less than 1 percent of the water in the state. It's a pretty good return on investment."

MacKenzie says directing stormwater to golf courses will clean up lakes, put less strain on aquifers and return some of that would-be runoff back into the ground.

Water supply planners agree there's great potential to reuse stormwater runoff. A 2011 Metropolitan Council Report said about 70 percent of the precipitation in the Twin Cities becomes runoff when it falls on rooftops, parking lots and streets. Most of it ends up in our lakes and rivers.

Storm water retention pond
A newly-constructed storm water retention pond holds run-off that will be used for irrigation at Prestwick Golf Club Wednesday, May 28, 2014 in Woodbury.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

And golf courses aren't the only places where some of this water can be reused. A few communities are using stormwater to keep baseball and soccer fields green or to irrigate public landscapes. The Minnesota Twins have an elaborate system for reusing stormwater, and a system is being designed for the new St. Paul Saints Stadium. 

Brian Davis, an environmental scientist for the Metropolitan Council, says the challenge is figuring out how to collect the stormwater and then how to store it. Project managers also have to make sure the water is clean enough for whatever it's going to be used for, and in some cases that could involve treating it, he said.

"Storage can be expensive if you have to keep it above ground or below in a tank," Davis said. "Golf courses are big and they have natural ponds, so they can incorporate it into the landscape." 

Many golf courses have space for stormwater ponds, but other storage options, like tanks, can be expensive. 

Although Davis sees great potential for stormwater reuse at golf courses and elsewhere, he said Minnesota's changing climate adds yet another challenge -- long dry spells.

Many golf courses have space for stormwater ponds, but other storage options, like tanks, can be expensive. 

"Is that going to continue? It's hard to say," he said. "I think there will be some big challenges for irrigation if we continue to have that. How are you going to collect and store the amount of water that you would need to irrigate the golf course for three straight months with no rain?"

Prestwick's stormwater reuse project still has a few kinks to work out. The pond isn't holding water like it should, so a Washington County crew worked last week to dam up part of the pond with sandbags to find out where it's leaking. 

Those overseeing the project are trying to fix the leak to avoid the worst-case scenario -- that the pond becomes a muddy eyesore. Then the golf course might have to use more groundwater just to fill up the pond.