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'Bye Rye': Golf Course Gets Drought-Tolerant Makeover

LAS CRUCES - It's a breezy afternoon and a few hardy hackers are out swinging iron on Sonoma Ranch's golf course. As nearby shots whistle through the air, Bernhard Leinauer troops through the rough, turning his head from side to side.



New Mexico State University turf experts Bernhard Leinauer (left) and Arden Baltensperger discuss use of range grasses with Sonoma Ranch golf course superintendent Mike Kirkpatrick (right). Two years ago, course managers removed more than 65 acres of water-hungry rye grass from the rough and replaced it with a colorful mix of drought-tolerant native grasses. (08/09/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

A turfgrass specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, Leinauer isn't venturing off the lush lawn of the fairway to find a lost ball; he's come to admire the new grass. Two years ago, course managers removed more than 65 acres of water-loving rye grass from the rough and replaced it with a colorful mix of hardy range grasses.

"When they built the Sonoma Ranch course, they had wall-to-wall cool-season grasses, which required substantial amounts of water," Leinauer said. But a sustained drought and more water-wise grass varities led administrators to look for a more elegant alternative.

That search led them to seek the advice of veteran turf specialists Leinauer and Arden Baltensperger, NMSU professor emeritus and developer of 'NuMex Sahara', one of the world's most popular seeded Bermuda grass varieties. Their suggestion was to use more warm-season, drought-tolerant native and Bermuda grasses.

Two broad categories of grass grow in New Mexico: warm- and cool-season grasses. Warm-season grasses are easily identifiable in winter months because they turn brown and go dormant. Cool-season grasses, known for their year-round green color, originated in rainy climates, with much more rain, meaning they need substantial amounts of water to do well in New Mexico.

Sonoma Ranch is a 900-acre planned community on the eastern outskirts of Las Cruces, and the 7,001-yard golf venue, the first new course in Las Cruces in more than four decades, is the featured attraction. Sonoma Ranch pays the City of Las Cruces for its water.

Despite careful design and construction, Sonoma Ranch course officials were stunned by early water bills. "When we saw those first bills, it was, 'Whoa, we've got to do something here,'" said Mike Kirkpatrick, golf course superintendent. So, he and A.J. Crawford, the former superintendent, established native grasses on the rough areas.

"In the first year after the new plantings, we reduced our water use by 30 percent," he said. "Even with the big drought in May and June this year, I'm on track to reduce my water use by 10 percent."

While water conservation is a priority, the golf course is still a business that needs to look good and play well to keep patrons coming back. "I was born and raised out here in the desert Southwest and I love this look," Kirkpatrick said. Among the new range grasses going into the rough were buffalograss, blue grama, bluestem, sand dropseed, Indiangrass, Lehmann lovegrass and some wildflowers.

Range grasses require considerably less maintenance because they are already well adapted to the desert environment. "There's less mowing, less fertilizer and considerably less water," Baltensperger said.

Range grasses have also been added to areas just beyond the tees, where, at least in theory, golfers are supposed to whack their balls onto the fairway, the closely mowed part of a golf course between a tee and a green.

"Native grasses are not invasive and they can still look extremely pretty," Baltensperger said. They not only use much less water, but also give the course a nice definition in the winter." Sonoma Ranch officials did have to change their irrigation routine. Where huge sprinklers once blasted water across the entire course, the pattern is now targeted to just the fairways, greens and tees.

Baltensperger explained that there were likely sound reasons for Sonoma's original choice of water-hungry cool-season grasses. The grasses are relatively easy to establish and they remain green all year long, both of which were important to a new golf course.

Several golf courses throughout the Southwest are experimenting with native grasses, including Twin Warriors Golf Course on the Santa Ana Pueblo near Albuquerque. However, native grasses can't be used on the entire course because they aren't able to take daily wear or golf cart traffic without serious damage.

In June, Sonoma Ranch took another big step toward water conservation, pulling another six acres of rye grass from the driving range and reseeding it with three drought-tolerant varieties of Bermuda grass: 'Princess', 'Sultan' and 'Royal Blend'.

The NMSU professors are monitoring the grasses' progress. "We're looking at different seeding rates and how different Bermuda grasses can be successfully established once the decision is made to go with a warm-season grass," Leinauer said.

Leinauer expects the water saving on the new driving range will be substantial. "It depends on how and if you irrigate through the winter," he said. "Your water saving can be up to 50 percent if you completely turn off the irrigation when the warm-season grasses go dormant. If you don't, then you save maybe 30 percent."

Meanwhile, Leinauer said new research suggests that additional water savings can be found just by using some of the recently developed varieties of Bermuda grass. For instance, data from the University of Arizona indicates that the Princess variety of Bermuda grass, which came on the market three years ago, is 30 percent more efficient than other Bermuda grasses. "One of our objectives is to learn how to better establish those stands," he said.