The Drought of 2021

Monday outings have begun, the Amory is in the rearview mirror, and with Club Invitationals on the horizon, the golf season at Conway Farms has officially started. We have been pleased with how the golf course is playing as we head into our busiest month of the year. Every season, we face unique environmental stresses, and this year we are experiencing a significant drought. I wanted to take some time to explain how we have been managing the dry conditions on the property and what effects that may have going forward.

On average, the Northern Chicago suburbs receive approximately 10” of rain in the spring months. So far this year, from April 1 until now, we have received just 2.2” in Lake Forest. Such dry conditions are forcing us to change how we approach our daily operations. Though April and May were extremely dry, we maintained the turfgrass at a high-quality level because of the mild temperatures. Unfortunately, June has brought a new challenge. We have now received our first stretch of consistently hot, sunny, and humid days. With the change in conditions, several problems are beginning to present themselves.

The most prominent issue highlighted is the use of water and the role of an irrigation system. The design of an irrigation system is to help supplement water amounts when rainfall is low or spread out. IRRIGATION IS NOT DESIGNED TO REPLACE RAINFALL.  We are approximately 8” below precipitation average, which would take us approximately 160 consecutive days of complete irrigation cycles to replace that amount. Our inefficient and outdated irrigation system only exasperates this problem. While many of these inefficiencies will be improved during Conway Project 23, nothing can replace natural rainfall.  
Stress on target and weak bluegrass
Hand watering drain lines #9 fairway

To combat the poor water distribution from the sprinkler system, you may notice on many mornings the grounds staff hand watering stressed turf throughout the property. A few of the areas most affected by the drought are high traffic areas, course drain lines, trees, and the driving range interior. All of these areas suffer due to constant heavy traffic of equipment and players. When these spots begin to dry out, they become hydrophobic. Water is more likely to run off the plant surface instead of into the soil and to the roots where it is needed. This run off creates extremely firm and dangerous conditions, particularly on the driving range. We do not have the ability to water the interior of the driving range for long enough overnight due to the high demand for water needed for the rest of the course. The range stands will remain on the back half of the driving range tee to minimize golf balls bouncing into the west range or road for safety.

Finally, as many of you have played through the golf course several times this year, you may have asked yourself, “What is with all the algae in the ponds?” Well, this is inevitably another side effect of the extreme drought. When pond levels get low, the sunlight penetrates deeper into the water. The sunlight warms the ponds up and active microbes that decompose the organic material that sits on the bottom. While that material breaks down, the microbes release excess nutrients into the water that the algae then feed on and begin to bloom. We try to combat this by keeping the pond levels higher using our well pumps to fill our irrigation pond (along hole #15) which leads us to yet another problem. The well we use to pump from is also rich in nutrients. Typically, we only run the well for a few days to keep the ponds at the rock edging line. Due to how low the ponds are and how frequently we have needed to irrigate, the well has remained on almost constantly, yet again feeding the algae with excess nutrients

Algae build up #11 pond
Drought stressed trees left of #1 fairway

Maintaining a golf course during weather extremes provides unique agronomic challenges. Though this can be discouraging, we have heard several compliments on course quality and conditions. Our team strives to maintain dry and firm playing conditions while keeping turf healthy. Maintaining these conditions is a delicate balancing act, particularly at the start of the season when we know more challenging environmental conditions are still ahead of us. 

We sincerely appreciate the kind words and are pleased to see the tee sheet full of members and guests enjoying the hard work put in by our grounds maintenance staff. We look forward to keeping the course firm and fast throughout the summer with or without rain in the forecast.

Thank you,
Kyle DeRoo | Assistant Superintendent