What does the future hold for sustainable golf irrigation?

In the final instalment of this three-part series to mark World Water Week, we consider how innovation is changing the future of sustainable water use on golf courses.

GEO was delighted to speak with Andy Brown, Senior Sales Manager - Global Business Development and Relationships at The Toro Company as he shared his thoughts on water use, sustainability, climate change and how golf courses can do more to use less water.

As a patron of GEO Foundation and global partner of the OnCourse programme, Toro supports sustainability in and through golf.

What exciting developments are happening across the sector?

Across the board, the industry has been investing in evolutionary developments. A good example is moving away from managed irrigated turf areas and putting more natural turf areas or natural spaces onto a golf course, creating almost like island golf, where you're playing across natural waste areas onto managed turf areas.

Seed developers are producing varieties now which are far more drought-tolerant, salt-resistant, disease-resistant, etc. So as more restrictions come into place, be they water or certain chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, the big question is, can the grass survive without that extra help?

That’s the seed manufacturers’ and developers’ job, that's what they're doing, and it's been remarkable. Just the development of salt-tolerant grasses from the early part of the 2000s, through to now, it's been dramatic how much improvement there’s been. It’s enabled slightly higher saltwater to be used, so in a seaside environment, where salts are a problem, whether that’s because of groundwater or from sea spray or just because that's where your water source is, you can now use a higher salt content water.

In Southern Europe and other parts of the world they are using treated sewage effluent, TSE, from communities where that water has been treated to a standard not suitable for drinking but suited for the application, whether it be in agriculture, or in golf, or sports and amenities.

In Northern Europe, that’s not been as necessary up until now, and water companies have not been thinking that that's what they want to do, and a lot of that water is just being pumped out into the sea. So there should be some way of looking at that, but that will require regulations around health and safety to be managed in the same way because you don't want to have water being put onto a golf course that's not suitable or would cause any issues for people coming into contact with it.

Another thing that is really interesting is the development of technology around reverse osmosis and desalination. That's now becoming more economic than in the past, with some wonderful technologies being developed across the world, particularly in countries where this is really critical such as Israel and other parts of the Middle East and the hotter parts of the world.

Two big issues around this are firstly the amount of energy it takes to force water through a mesh to actually extract the salt is quite high. So how do you reduce that? And then what do you do with the substrate that gets left afterwards once you've taken it out of the water? These are two problems that companies in that space are really tackling, and some great steps have been made. It’s becoming more practical and therefore possible, and is going to grow in its use around the world, not just for golf but for all non-potable drinking water scenarios.

What innovations does Toro have in the pipeline?

I suppose in a way it's an evolution of what we've currently got. If we're still going to be allowed to irrigate golf courses, there's no doubt that we're going to be restricted in how much we can use, and also maybe the type of water we're using.

So if we're using slightly less quality water, like treated sewage effluent, and maybe slightly salty water, then the components of the systems need to be able to withstand those impurities. In countries where that is already the case, we have components, like more stainless steel for instance, being used.

Equally, we try to build an element of future-proofing into all of our components as much as possible. Take our sprinklers - we have one called the Infinity which has a bigger body below the surface, and there's a top serviceable hatch that you can take off. Inside, there are all the control components, and there is space for other components that we will want to introduce going forward.

So that might be more dedicated soil moisture sensors for individual sprinklers, it might be motors to actually control the arc of sprinklers that can be done remotely, whereas now that has to be done manually. There are a number of things that we're looking at that will just help to add a little bit more control and provide more information to end-users.

The question always for us is, is it really solving a problem? We listen to our greenkeeper and superintendent colleagues and customers all the time. What is it that's actually going to be a game-changer and make a difference? And can we do it in such a way that makes it practical and economical to do? There’s no point having all the features in the world for a product that no one can afford to have, or it just isn't practical to operate.

I think on the control side, you'll just continue to get more information. Some of that might even involve AI. We're looking at AI across the board in many different ways. How can we bring all of that information from the golf course itself to the control system, so that it knows what's going on and can make changes or revise changes?

The move to electric in machinery, the move to autonomous machines, AI, data collection, there's a huge amount of things going to happen in the world of turf management over the next decade, which I think is going to be really exciting.

We’re working on a platform now which will bring multiple data streams into one place and create easy to read and understandable screens for superintendents and their teams to look at and help them with all aspects of their operation.

Budgeting is a huge issue for superintendents these days. Most of them are using budgets the size of a company or small operation. Getting all the relevant information in one place where they can make sense of it, and help others to understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and what help they need going forward, is our job.

We know what we’re trying to do, the golf industry generally knows what it’s trying to do, but it’s important to talk to other stakeholders to make sure we’re all understanding the demands and the needs of everybody because then we can come up with some consistent strategies and decisions to invest in the right areas that will help broader society rather than just individuals.

GEO is leading the way and has been for some time now. We make our business out of this sector; the environment and the landscape is very much what we’re involved with. It’s in our own interest, and everybody’s interest, to do it in the best way we possibly can.

Society is better for having an environment which people like to be in, whether it’s for sport and recreation or just the pure enjoyment of being in an open space. We just need to be sensible and balance it with all the other pressures that are there and are coming, climate change being the obvious one.

Do all organizations need to come together to shift the narrative and negative perceptions?

I think the golf industry is doing a reasonably good job at it, but obviously, there's still more to do, both within the industry itself but equally the industry talking to other agencies and stakeholders in this. I think we need to be seen as part of the solution and not just being considered a problem, and therefore it's up to us all collectively to be having these types of conversations.

It’s important that the golf industry has a voice so that it can explain what it's doing because 99 percent of people really care.

Golf course superintendents are very careful with their environment, and they take it very seriously, and it's our job on the industry side to help them do the best job they can. So all of us talking together, sharing information, recognizing the challenges and trying to find solutions is all part of it. We have been doing it, we're still doing it, and that will continue.