How Green Is Your Tee?
Stormwater management on golf courses can benefit from an Audubon program.
Serene and almost unearthly green, golf courses
hardly appear as anything but a place to relax. But because of the very
fertilizers and pesticides used to keep them manicured for performance,
managers need to take steps to prevent any risk of polluting neighboring
waterways with excess nutrients through stormwater runoff.
When nitrogen and phosphorous, the most common excess nutrients, flow
into surface water, they can cause algae to bloom. This algae then can
use up oxygen other aquatic life need to survive during what is known as
eutrophication. Side effects of this process can be slimy water, a foul
smell, and fish kills.
“The few research results I’ve seen—my sense is more work is
needed—are somewhat mixed; however they suggest to me that depending on
the course, golf courses can be significant contributors of
nutrients. One study showed receiving waterway concentrations of
nitrogen and phosphorus second only to cropland,” says Richard Gannon,
nonpoint-source program supervisor in the planning section of the
Raleigh-based North Carolina Division of Water Quality.
Currently, states are in the process of developing region-specific
nutrient criteria recommended by the EPA under the Clean Water Act (see
the article “All in the Numbers” in this issue). In addition, many golf
courses across the United States also are taking steps to remain
environmentally friendly by taking part in a program sponsored by
Audubon International, a not-for-profit environmental education
organization that works to promote land management and conserve natural
“Audubon International launched the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary
Program [ACSP] for Golf Courses in 1991, with a grant from the United
States Golf Association,” says Kevin Fletcher, executive director of
Audubon International based in Selkirk, NY. “The Audubon Signature
Program grew as an outshoot from the ACSP in 1993, when developers and
designers asked to work with us. The Signature Program employs the same
education and environmental improvement philosophy but applies it during
design, construction, and long-term management of a new golf course or
any new development for that matter.”
Teaching people better management practices that help accomplish this remains at the heart of the program.
“Currently, golf courses, golf communities, residential communities, a
marina, and even a church have used the Signature Program to help
develop with nature in mind,” says Fletcher. “Well-designed,
-constructed, and -managed human landscapes can play a critical role in
stormwater management in urban and suburban settings. Both of these
programs, for golf courses and other human-dominated landscapes, help
meet that goal.”
The three different levels of certification in the Signature
Program—gold, silver, and bronze—are divided primarily by stricter
restrictions, cost, and site complexity. “The minimum requirements are
the same for the Bronze, Silver, and Gold programs,” says Nancy
Richardson, director of the Audubon International Signature Program.
“Each project that contacts Audubon International has different needs,
and those needs require a different amount of time from Audubon staff.”
Richardson explains some features that distinguish the three levels.
“The Bronze Program is more of an education, review, and audit program
and was created to accommodate one land use only, such as a school or a
golf course, but not both,” she says. “The Signature Program office
works primarily with the land or facility manager for educational
purposes and coordinates the review of the externally prepared Natural
Resource Management Plan [NRMP] in order to make final certification
Silver Program members can expect more Audubon International
involvement with their project, according to Richardson. “More than one
land use may be registered in the Silver Program,” she says. “Experts
from Audubon International prepare the NRMP and contribute additional
educational support, as well as onsite technical advice and assistance
to the land or facility manager and landowners.”
Finally, participants in the Gold Program receive the most
comprehensive degree of project support from the organization. “A team
of experts takes the environmental lead as participants in design,
construction, and management of the project,” says Richardson. “They
prepare an Environmental Master Plan, which includes an NRMP, for all
aspects of architecture, building materials, and landscaping, as well as
extensive environmental education interaction and onsite technical
advice and assistance in sustainable development and best management
Initial program registration fees range from $9,500 up, depending on
the program level and details of the site. There is a $500-per-year
renewable membership fee after one year for the Signature Programs.
Bronze Program participants receive three site visits and are re-audited
every two years; Silver Program sites receive five to seven visits; and
Gold Program Sites can expect 16 to 20 site visits. Silver and Gold
sites are re-audited with site visits annually.
While there are no additional fees for ACSP members, Signature
Program members can expect to cover travel expense costs and the cost of
any environmental planning services that aren’t included in the
In the United States, the registration fee for the ACSP program is
$150. Internationally, the cost is $200. Costs that are difficult to
measure, however, are the cost savings that certification may bring and
the priceless protection of native species.
Stormwater Safety in the Southeast
Because The Palisades golf club and residential community in
Charlotte, NC, is located very close to Lake Wylie, developers sought
help from Audubon during the 2004 planning stages of construction to
receive a permit for the site. The course has maintained its Gold
Signature standard level with Audubon.
Photo: The Palisades
|The Palisades is an Audubon Gold Program member.
“We have a handbook written by Audubon for our site.
It’s really written together. The core of it is treatment of
stormwater,” says David Coleman, superintendent of The Palisades. “How
are you going to treat the water? There’s no one way. It’s not a
situation where you can say, ‘This is the way: You must do this.’ We do
not return any water directly to any creek or stream.”
The course has a system in place that treats the stormwater before it reaches any dry ponds, wet ponds, or vegetated waterways.
“It would be much more expensive for an existing property to add
these changes after the fact,” says Coleman, adding that it was not
terribly expensive for The Palisades to become certified because the
requirements were built into the construction process—incorporating
swales, for example.
Photo: The Palisades
|Construction incorporated stormwater from the get-go.
We don’t use fertilizers or pesticides within 100
feet of any body of water,” he says. “As we were working with Audubon,
they realized our need as a functioning private country club to have our
needs maintained. As needs change, it’s an ever-changing program. The
proof is in the water testing. We test the water coming out of the
Matt Bossert, natural resource manager for the entire Palisades
community and golf course, says water-quality tests are performed on the
course at least twice annually. The most recent tests offered no
significant deviation from previous results. Levels of nitrogen,
phosphorus, and chlorophyll are tested, as well as turbidity.
Coleman says water on the site is broken up and discharged across
four locations. The wet and dry ponds allow surface water to trickle
into streams, he explains, without destroying the banks. Engineers
involved in the design created the plan for 5 inches of rain.
Photo: The Palisades
|The course uses fertilizers no closer to water than 100 feet.
“That’s the threshold. Water slowly seeps through
gravel berm 50 feet away from creek or pond,” says Coleman. “We make
sure the gravel berm doesn’t get silted up. Silt will dam it up. The
pipe can get clogged. Since you don’t hold water, you don’t breed
A significant number of best management practices (BMPs) have been
put into place on the golf course, according to Bossert. “We have a goal
of no net increase of water velocity,” he says. “It’s a systems
Roughly 30% of the neighboring subdivision of 2,500 homes, only 200
of which currently have been built, is located on the golf course.
“Our community is based upon a sheet flow water-quality plan,” says
Jim Medall, president and owner of the residential community. “We have
tried to use natural buffers to reduce velocities. Our goal was to
simplify the water quality.”
Photo: The Palisades
|Less turf means less water … and more cost savings.
The system in place has allowed the course to save
money regarding the amount of water used in maintaining the golf course,
explains Coleman. “There’s less turf, which means we use less water.
The irrigation system is set. We are only watering the playable surface
area. We only maintain 65 acres of maintainable Bermuda grass,” he says,
referring to the par 72, full 18-hole property. “We just water the tee
top. On this golf course, you see the playing surfaces surrounded by
woods and native grasses.”
Plant choice also makes a difference. Bermuda grass, for example,
like that which is used at the course, typically has less of a need for
irrigation than a tall fescue, according to Bossert, who adds that well
water also is used for irrigation.
A smaller playing surface, explains Coleman, also can reduce the costs of electricity, gasoline, and labor for maintenance.
“Stormwater quality is becoming more and more complicated as more and
more mechanical systems are created. Most of the time our goal is to
come up with non-mechanical natural buffers,” says Medall. “Our goal of
reducing water velocity dramatically improves the efficiencies of the
buffers by 75%.”
The vegetation in the area that needed to be replaced was replaced
with natives, primarily grasses. Many fertilizer products, including
those that contain arsenic, are not permitted for courses that are
“We do a lot of soil sampling. We can supply them with that
information; they want to see my records,” says Coleman, who explains
the amounts used to justify specific end results. “We have high
standards for our building where we store the chemicals and rinse and
load our sprayers. We’re protecting groundwater by the guidelines that
they set up.”
Once club members see the changes that have been incorporated into
the course as a result of the Audubon program, says Coleman, they have
been receptive to the idea. Bossert notes that while there are some
small compromises from a playability standpoint, people are satisfied.
One of the primary reasons people select housing in the community,
says Medall, is its commitment to the environment. Area water-quality
experts are satisfied with the steps the course is taking.
“Because we agreed to use Audubon, we didn’t have any further
reviews required,” says Medall, referring to the City of Charlotte. “It
[the stormwater plan] was not required to be reviewed.”
At Ryder Golf Course near Fort Bragg, NC, a state-of-the art
irrigation system was installed and different animal habitats were
created to meet the requirements for ACSP members. Megan Magoon,
community relations representative for the environmental branch of Fort
Bragg, explains that the US Army base is home to five different
endangered species of plants and animals.
“We had a couple of species of plants—the rough-leaved loosestrife,
American chaffseed, Michaux’s sumac—and a butterfly, the Saint Francis
satyr. The most popular [endangered species] is the red-cockaded
woodpecker,” she says. “We have turtles. We have certain snakes and
salamanders. We’re one of the few existing places left with the
long-leafed pine. That’s the ecosystem here. They keep all the golf
courses to maintain the natural habitat.
“It’s a big thing to make sure habitats are in good form, because
with all the training, land gets limited, so we want to save what we
The Audubon certification is one way to show the community the golf
course is maintaining a natural habitat and still is able to use that
environment for recreational purposes, explains Magoon.
Going Native in the Northern Midwest
Surrounded by hills and an oak savannah area, the Braemar Golf Course in
Edina, MN, received its ACSP certification in 2004, though the course
had been in line with many of the practices endorsed by the organization
“We’d had Audubon-style practices for years and years,” says Todd
Anderson, assistant manager of Braemar. “We did increase some of our
no-mow areas. We did some wildflower and local natural planting. We
increased the number of bird boxes, bluebird nests. We had money donated
for a kiosk between our first and 10th tees that has information about
This wildlife includes wild turkeys, foxes, ring-necked pheasants,
bald eagles, hawks, coyotes, songbirds, and deer. “We’re spotting new
species each year,” he says. “We’re seeing more wildlife.”
Photo: Forest Dunes
|Audubon helped this course maintain a nearby trout stream.
Bird counts are practiced at the site, which has
about 200 playable acres. “We’ve had bird-watching groups out here doing
some inventories,” says Anderson, noting the natural insect control
process birds bring. “It does seem that our mosquito population is down
When the property that became Forest Dunes Golf Club initially was
being developed in 1997 in Roscommon, MI, there was resistance because
of a blue ribbon trout stream in the area. Jim Bluck, the golf course
superintendent, says that Audubon was brought in to put parameters in
place so water levels wouldn’t be affected.
“They also go as far as resource management—meaning, for example,
when we built our maintenance building, we have a lot of windows instead
of lights,” says Bluck, adding that the lights they do use are
energy-efficient fluorescent light.
An inventory of plants, animals, and insects on the property was
taken prior to construction as part of the Gold Signature Program, which
the course remains involved in.
“Doing soil surveys, groundwater levels—all of that was documented to
have baseline information. A program was written up that none of that
would change and that it would be enhanced,” says Bluck, referring to
the design stage of the project. “Audubon was involved in routing total
turf areas, total acreage of planting surfaces, wildlife corridors
established throughout the property.”
One of the primary changes involved directing all internal drainage
away from surface waters, he says. For the first five years
post-construction, water-quality monitoring and testing were required
every quarter. Now that more than five years have passed, the water is
“We have an independent company come in and do it,” says Bluck.
“We’re sampling for nutrients, but we are also sampling for some
Bluck refers to what he calls the Audubon bible for maintaining the property, including fertilizer and pesticide selection.
Photo: Forest Dunes
|Total playable acreage at Forest Dunes is just 70 acres.
The aquifer running beneath the property stretches
from northwest to southeast. Tests are performed on water entering the
property at a well in the northwest, and the five monitoring wells in
the property’s southeast portion determine any impact the property has
on the aquifer, explains Bluck, who has noticed the amount of runoff has
“We are on 100% glacial sand. Runoff really doesn’t happen here. The
runoff we do get is off the turf surfaces,” he says. “They built up the
sides of the fairways along the water surfaces to eliminate water
running off the fairways into the water surfaces.”
The Audubon program limits the area of total playable acreage—70
acres at Forest Dunes, while many other courses offer 100 playable
acres—thereby reducing the amount of natural area affected and the
amount of irrigation used.
When the site’s vegetation went to seed, this seed was harvested
during the pre-construction phase. This seed then was grown in
greenhouses, says Bluck, and returned to the original site.
“In our native areas, there is no blue stem from South Dakota,” he says. “It’s all from the original property.”
Monitoring Matters in the West
Returning an area to a native state is a central tenet of the
Audubon certification program, according to Dorian Parola,
superintendent of the Village Country Club in Lompoc, CA. Monitoring
progress through the land and the fish and game that surround the course
is part of this process. In addition to reducing water usage, the
course is required to track its pesticide usage from year to year.
“They want you to show improvements that you’ve done,” says Parola,
citing as an example the bird boxes that have been set throughout the
course and the bird counts that are performed. “We show them
documentation of some of the projects we’ve completed.”
As at other Signature-certified courses, the Audubon certification
specs were built into the Village Country Club during its construction,
though the course has changed its irrigation system to maintain the
site’s native oaks by preventing overwatering. Ongoing maintenance at
the course also includes removing any invasive non-native plants. “A big
one is Pampas grass,” says Parola. “We’ve removed 90% of that from the
The organization presently is working to return the greens to
bentgrass, a move Parola says will not only improve the current putting
surface but also significantly reduce fungicide application on the
To meet the Audubon certification requirements, the club purchased
some plants from a native nursery. “Currently, I have our own nursery
from our native trees that we’re growing,” says Parola. Manzani is among
the species native to the site. Greenwaste material is composted at the
site. Also as part of the program, water-quality testing is required.
“We’re in a semi-arid area. It’s really dependent on rainfall. We’ve
only received 3 inches, and our normal is 15 or more. We don’t really
have much runoff,” says Parola. “We use super-slow-release fertilizers.
Anytime our chemicals are going into the creek, it’s wasting our money.”
While changing the irrigation system to meet Audubon requirements
raised some initial costs, the program saves money in the long run,
explains Parola. “After the initial investment, it saves you water,
fuel, and fertilizer.”
Parola says club members are proud of the certification and that it’s absolutely a selling point for the golf course.
“I think there’s a misperception out there that golf courses are bad
for the environment. They’re great,” says Anderson of the Braemar Golf
Course. “We use a minuscule amount of pesticide compared to the average
homeowner. The misperception is that golf courses add a lot.”
In addition to the environmental incentives, there are practical
reasons behind the program. “In general, we found that golf courses did
not pose a significant threat to water quality: For mostly economic
reasons, they tend to manage fertilizer and irrigation use so as not to
exceed needs, which has the benefit of little or no runoff into the
environment outside the course,” says Roger W. Briggs, a professional
engineer and executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water
Quality Control Board in California. “Also, many of the golf courses in
our region use recycled water and/or capture stormwater for irrigation.”
Briggs holds a positive outlook on the Audubon program. “We
understand that with the Audubon Certification Program, any golf course
would benefit from certification. The program has several major
components including environmental planning, chemical use reduction and
safety, water-quality management, and outreach and education,” he says,
citing the example of the Village Country Club located in his region.
“The water-quality management component at Village Country Club includes
a monitoring component, which tests for fertilizers and pesticides up-
and downstream of the facility with a commitment to zero discharge from
the site. Audubon International helps with site assessment and
environmental planning. Above all, the program brings an awareness of
environmental concerns to the golf course managers that they may not
have had before engaging in the process.”
The future of Audubon certification will continue expansion into areas other than golf courses.
“Both the ACSP and Signature programs are applicable to most
landscape-based, human-dominated developments,” says Fletcher. ”We have a
critical interest, as central to our vision and mission, in reaching
out to the over 200,000 existing neighborhood and community
associations, the bevy of new residential developments and subdivisions,
and working with entire towns and municipalities through our
Sustainable Communities Program to help drive communities becoming more
sustainable through both environmentally responsible policy and
Expansion is planned far beyond US borders. “Audubon
International is always looking forward for ways to assist landowners in
protecting water and wildlife wherever that might be. Through its
Signature Programs, Audubon International is interested in working with
brownfield developments and with larger tracts of land that have
regional impacts,” says Richardson. “We have also expanded our services
internationally and are pursuing projects in Australia and South
Future development aside, the Audubon programs are helping golf
courses in the present maintain a healthy green, in every sense of the
Author's Bio: Based in Morgantown, PA, Tara Beecham writes frequently for Forester publications.