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Demons' Baseball Field Gets a Water-Saving Makeover

SANTA FE - Next spring, the Demons baseball team at Santa Fe High School will play on lush green turf for the first time in four years.

From left, agricultural agent Patrick Torres, NMSU turfgrass specialist Bernhard Leinauer, Demons' coach John Morrison and assistant coach Kyle Sager squat on the baseball infield at Santa Fe High School. Following NMSU recommendations, Morrison installed a new subsurface irrigation system that uses up to 50 percent less water than sprinklers and low-water-use grass to help keep the field green, even in a drought. (12/15/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

The grass died in 2001 when drought forced the city to restrict water use. But in September, Demons coach John Morrison installed a water-saving subsurface irrigation system recommended by New Mexico State University.

"The students are really excited about playing on grass fields again," Morrison said. "Last season they played on weeds that masqueraded as grass. The outfield was a mess, with lumps here and clumps there. If we hadn't installed this new watering system, we'd be better off playing on dirt."

The new porous pipe system is a subsurface irrigation method that turgrass specialist Bernhard Leinauer is testing at NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center in Las Cruces.

"The subsurface system uses about 40 percent less water on average than sprinklers," Leinauer said. "During the hot summer months, the system uses up to 50 percent less water, and the turf still looks great."

The system is similar to subsurface drip tape, used to soak plant roots. But instead of tape, the new system relies on a network of pipes with small spouts that irrigate underground, Leinauer said.

"We waste so much water by irrigating with sprinklers," Leinauer said. "With New Mexico's gusty winds, using a sprinkler is like throwing water into the air and hoping it hits the ground. Most of the time we're watering sidewalks, houses and walls, not the grass."

The system has been installed at two other locations in New Mexico?-a high school in Dexter and parts of the county fairgrounds in Las Cruces, Leinauer said.

"We want to show that New Mexico can maintain natural turfgrass without using obscene amounts of water," Leinauer said. "The Demons' baseball field could be an excellent example for other schools and institutions."

City and school administrators originally suggested that Morrison put down artificial turf after the grass died, but the coach objected.

"I'm a baseball purist who believes the game should be played on grass, not plastic," Morrison said.

Besides, artificial turf costs upwards of $500,000 to install, compared with about $23,000 for the subsurface system and reseeding the baseball field, Morrison said.

In addition, artificial turf lasts 10 to 15 years, and even though it's synthetic, the turf often must be irrigated in summer to cool it because the plastic gets too hot to play on, Leinauer said.

To assure a steady supply of water, Morrison installed three underground storage tanks that capture rainwater from school rooftops and parking lots. The water harvesting system, which holds up to 60,000 gallons, cost $215,000 to install, paid for with a grant from the state legislature.

"One quarter inch of rainwater will fill all three storage tanks," said assistant coach Kyle Sager, who helped install the irrigation and storage system. "We'll only use city water when the tanks are bone dry."

To cut water use even more, Morrison plans to seed the outfield with Riviera grass, a low-water use Bermuda grass recommended by Leinauer.

"Riviera needs 30 to 50 percent less water to stay green than cool-season varieties like Kentucky bluegrass," Leinauer said. "Riviera is cold tolerant, so it will withstand Santa Fe winters, and it's a tough turf that will hold up under foot traffic. That's essential for an athletic field."

Leinauer has been testing dozens of grasses at locations around the state to identify varieties that use little water and that are salt tolerant and cold hardy enough to survive New Mexico's winters and alkaline soils.

In September, Morrison temporarily seeded the outfield with a fast-growing perennial ryegrass. Riviera must be planted in June to get established, so Morrison will replant the outfield next year. The infield, however, is covered with a mixed sod from Moriarty that includes fescues, rye and bluegrass, Morrison said.

With the field's water-saving makeover, Morrison expects the Demons to play on natural turf for years to come.

"The combination of low-water-use turf, subsurface irrigation and rainwater storage tanks will make our baseball field close to self-sufficient," Morrison said. "I think with all this we'll be able to ride out a drought. Come what may, we'll have grass."