Turf - Smarter water use

While lobbying for hosepipe ban concessions continues, the focus has turned to alleviating drought impact on sports facilities, Hannah Jordan reports.

Financially volatile sports facilities and community clubs could face losses should their pitches be rendered unplayable due to hosepipe restrictions - image: Londonstills.com/Alamy
Financially volatile sports facilities and community clubs could face losses should their pitches be rendered unplayable due to hosepipe restrictions - image: Londonstills.com/Alamy

Ahead of hosepipe bans implemented this month by seven of the national water utility companies, the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) warned that the measures could "cause havoc" for small, financially volatile sports facilities and village cricket clubs should they be forced to cancel fixtures due to unplayable surfaces.

IoG head of professional services Ian Lacy says despite the consultation period, the restrictions were put in place too soon for the industry to prepare itself properly for the coming sports season. "If preparations haven't been made now for this season, they'll have to limp through it, paying close attention to surfaces, leaving more grass on, covering cricket pitches, trying to hold moisture in and hoping it pours down," he adds.

Lacy says local authority groundsmen and green-space managers affected by hosepipe restrictions must appeal to their local water authorities for leniency. Councils should approach the companies with sound reasons for easing restrictions, he adds. Rather than reacting defensively, they should try to build partnerships with water authorities. "They must open a dialogue. They can't go in guns blazing saying they can't take away their water. That just won't work. It's a case of accepting they are under restrictions and asking what their options are."

Particularly worrying is that many people have not considered exactly what will happen if the dry spell continues through the summer. "Plan for the worst and hope for the best," Lacy advises.

Further restrictions

So far, Anglian Water, Southern Water, South East Water, Sutton & East Surrey Water, Thames Water, Veolia Central and Veolia Water East have issued restrictions. But with 17 more counties now added to the list of drought-affected regions, there is great potential for water companies to follow suit.

Water companies are allowed to adapt the terms of the ban for customers and rigorous lobbying from the horticulture, landscape and turf growers' sector has secured some concessions. Drip-irrigation use has been granted by all seven firms in hosepipe ban regions, but no leniency has been granted for watering newly-laid turf.

For grass sports facilities, the restrictions are being enforced by the majority of the water firms for all except those used for national and international matches. Southern Water and Sutton & East Surrey Water have, however, made exemptions for those that are also used for regional matches.

It means that in drought-hit and water-restricted areas, the renovation of football and rugby surfaces will be severely hampered as seeds will be unable to root effectively without the required water. Cricket pitches will suffer without the right moisture levels to roll them and even 3G and artificial pitches for sports such as hockey could become unplayable due to ball response and overheating issues.

Facility managers must make it clear to their water authority that the conditions could make the surfaces unfit for play, which will impact both on communities and clubs, says Lacy. He highlights the increased risk of injury on drier surfaces as reason to keep them moist, although he says Thames Water and Veolia have already dismissed this as grounds for leniency.

"As an ex-groundsman, I can say that when someone is injured on a pitch everyone looks to blame someone and if there is no water they could blame it on that. Local authority facility managers must explain that it is not just about health and safety issues but the long-term financial impact of cancelling fixtures and carrying out repairs."

For long-term management of grass sports facilities, a sensible consideration would be sustainable drainage systems (SUDS), rainwater harvesting and irrigation equipment. Various groups such as the England & Wales Cricket Board already offer grants and loans to help fund such schemes, making it an option for even the most cash-strapped councils. "People must start thinking about the future now - it's about prevention rather than cure. This isn't going away and will probably only get worse," Lacy points out.

Adur & Worthing Council parks manager Clive Bramble says although Southern Water has exempted its sports fields from the hosepipe ban, without SUDS they are planning for the worst. "Our reservoirs are very low so we have already sought permission to use grey water and river water and import it with tankers. That will be the next stage and we will put on just enough to keep the surfaces alive, particularly for bowling greens," he explains. The cost of repairing a dry or cracked bowling green or cricket pitch far outweighs the water consumption needed to keep them "ticking over", he says.

Mowing techniques

Reducing the regularity of mowing and raising the height of the cut are also techniques that Bramble will adopt to try to give his surfaces the best chance of survival over the summer months, he adds.

But he says the biggest challenge facing the local authority at the moment is the one of community perception that they are wasting water because the council is currently exempt from the hosepipe ban while local residents are not. "We are working closely with Southern Water and communicating with the public as much as possible to explain what we are doing and why," he points out.

"We are here to serve the public so we don't want to do things that they don't want us to do. Most of them will understand us keeping the bowling greens moist, but they won't understand flower beds that need daily watering."

Headland Amenity technical director Mark Hunt says groundsmen, affected or not by the hosepipe bans, must be maximising moisture wherever possible, particularly on outfield areas. "We would suggest combining a wetting agent and a good seaweed-based bio-stimulant in a spray."

He adds: "You will need less water to keep the plant growing healthily. Wetting agents aren't particularly expensive and they are easily justifiable. If you get rain, you really need to be getting it into that root zone if you can and staying one step ahead of the game."

Industry advice on maintaining playing surfaces

Jonathan Buddington, head groundsman, Wearmouth Colliery Welfare Ground

"If you don't have restrictions, water during the night if you can. Add an iron-based tonic to fine turf as a hardener for drought and heat. Leave a little more length on this season's cutting heights.

"For outfields and winter turf, brush sward when and if dew is present, reconstituting the water into the profile. It gives the impression that the grass has been cut by way of presentation stripes.

"Growth retardants work by cell elongation. Use this too to reduce the watering requirement on turf grass. And if you have not yet seriously discussed rainwater harvesting with your finance departments, then now is the time to do so. Storage of gutter and downcomers can save thousands."

Mark Hunt, technical director, Headland Amenity

"My biggest concern is that a lot of people irrigate but they don't monitor accurately how much moisture is in their root zone, particularly on golf greens. They should monitor more carefully how much moisture their surfaces require. They should only irrigate by how much is lost to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration.

"That's not being measured either. It's not hard to do - they just need to get an inexpensive weather station. We need to put in parameters and benchmarks. You need to understand exactly what your surfaces need on a day-to-day basis."

Stephen Fell, managing director, Lindum Turf

"Groundsmen should be putting pressure on the grass breeders. There are grasses coming along now that are more able to cope with low fertility and low moisture situations.

"They must not overwater because it encourages shallow rooting. They must let their surfaces go brown - generally, they will recover.

"Facility managers will have to explain to users that they need to raise the cutting height. It may mean playing a slower game, which may be unpopular, but alternatively, the surface might die.

"Longer term, there are grasses that are much more drought-tolerant and they should look at the species they are using, especially on golf greens. Deep-rooting grasses are good for rougher areas. Hard fescue and crested hair grass are also very drought tolerant."

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