Poor drainage; flushing money down the drain!

Wet, boggy courses lose revenue but the solution is not always expensive drainage projects.

Standing water across the course can mean lost revenue  

Climate change is often linked with global warming but for many of us it is much more closely associated with periods of much wetter weather.  Even in areas where annual averages have not varied greatly (and many have), the rain seems to fall more heavily than it used to and is causing serious problems at many golf clubs.

This shift in weather patterns has meant that soft, wet playing surfaces and standing water have become common features at many golf courses and this in turn has led to more frequent course closures, or underfoot conditions that are so unpleasant that the course may as well be closed. It has become a serious problem but the reaction at some clubs is to pretend that it doesn’t exist, either because they think they can’t afford to do anything about it, or else because they don’t want to contemplate massive pipe drainage projects.

Identify the problem

Before reaching for the cheque book, identify the problem


However, before you reach for the cheque book, or bury your head in the mud, give more thought to identifying the cause of the problem and complete a review of the circumstances that result in deluge-induced closure. In a lot of cases, you might be surprised to learn the solution is neither as expensive, nor as disruptive, as you feared.

Find your drains and identify the problem

First of all, you should pinpoint existing drains and drainage systems across the golf course.  Many clubs do not have accurate maps, if they have maps at all, so that can be a difficult exercise. Nevertheless, is still worthwhile because, armed with an accurate map, you will have a much better chance of maintaining and repairing drains in future.  Drains often show at the surface as lines of lighter, or sometimes darker, grass during or after periods of dry weather.  Aerial photography at such times can be a great help in mapping drainage systems.

All perceived drainage problems are a consequence of water not being able to move from the playing surfaces quickly enough, but the problem is not always solved by the installation of pipe drains.  Water that is slow to move off the surface can be the result of:

  • a heavily-shaded environment that does not facilitate surface drying from sun or wind
  • run-off from higher ground settling in low areas where there is nowhere for the water to go
  • excessive organic matter accumulation within the upper layers of the soil profile, acting as a sponge and holding water near the surface
  • poor soil structure which provides inadequate channels through which water can move away from the surface
  • an impermeable layer within the soil profile
  • broken or blocked drains or disrupted drain runs
  • an inadequate outlet which prevents water evacuation from the course
  • an inadequate specification of drainage hardware.
Broken drain
Is the drain broken or is water simply not getting to it?

These situations may require the installation of drainage to help alleviate the problem, but in many cases they may not and in a few isolated instances may even have been brought on by other course management practices; perversely, the over application of water through irrigation being one of them!

It is essential that you obtain the correct diagnosis before considering how to address wet areas on the golf course.  Outside expertise may be required to achieve this, and to help you deliver appropriate solutions.  Golf courses can not only spend far too much trying to rectify a perceived drainage problem, they can also under spend and see the problem appear again.  If you are going to solve a water retention issue, the secret is to do it right the first time.

In an ideal scenario, potential drainage issues should be resolved during the construction of a golf course.  However, this rarely happens, either because of a lack of knowledge of the site, or else a lack of investment in drainage across the course.

Resolving drainage issues

If you believe you suffer from one of the above problems at your golf club, then consider the following courses of action:

  • when you have a heavily shaded environment, where the sun and wind cannot facilitate the drying process, consider removing the source of shade, or at least reducing its impact, and then assess the result before considering further action.
  • if you have run-off areas where there is nowhere for the water to go, investigate the possibility to putting in interceptor drains to stop the water reaching the low area.  Enhance surface drainage through aeration and sanding, look at the feasibility of landscaping or ditch installation to take the water to a less important part of the course, and consider installing drainage sumps or pumps to move the water elsewhere.  Areas such as this might be considered for the development of ditches, wetland or pond features, provided these add to the playing of the course.  Such features can provide excellent outlets for pipe drains, should the initial course of action prove to be an insufficient remedy.
Aeration to rectify drainage issues
Aeration can be enough to rectify drainage issues
  • when you have excessive organic matter accumulation within the upper layers of the soil profile, the solution might be to cut down on water and fertiliser usage. A sensible thatch management programme is often enough to rid your course of areas which act like a sponge and hold water near the surface.
  • in instances where poor soil structure provides inadequate channels through which water can move away from the surface, an effective solution might be to implement an aeration and top dressing programme and consider the use of soil amendments to address the poor qualities of the soil.
  • when you have an impermeable layer within the soil profile, attempt to break through the layer with forms of deep aeration.  Consider vertical drainage channels or other drainage techniques that will re-connect the surface to an underlying free-draining material.
  • if you have broken or blocked drains, or disrupted drain runs, excavate the affected areas but be aware that the actual break or blockage may be some distance higher in the drain run than where the symptoms are showing.  Repair broken drains and disrupted drain runs, and/or remove the obstruction from blocked drains.  If the cause of the disruption or blockage is likely to return, e.g. if they are caused by the incredibly invasive roots from certain trees such as poplar and willow, then take appropriate action to provide a permanent solution.
Positive drain outlet
A positive drain outlet
  • when you have an inadequate outlet which prevents water evacuation from the course, it is probably because it cannot cope with the volume of water running thorough it.  In this scenario, you will see water back-up through the system or else rise to the surface.  Probably the first basic principle of drainage is to ensure there is an adequate outlet to cope with the worst case scenario.  If this is not the case, look to enhance the outlet, develop new ones or deal with the problem in situ.
  • in areas where there is an inadequate specification of drainage hardware, basic pipe systems can be augmented by the installation of additional main or lateral drains, or else by using slit drains or gravel/sand banding to re-connect the aggregate lying over the drains to the surface. Even with intensive drainage systems, maintenance operations such as aeration and top dressing continue to play an important role to prevent the accumulation of excess thatch and will help to retain rapid surface water removal.  If falls along the length of pipe drains is the problem, then getting water more rapidly into them will not resolve the situation; it could actually make matters worse.  In this case, get expert advice to determine whether a high specification, e.g. larger diameter pipes, will resolve the problem or if another approach, such as creating a water feature, enhancing the outlet or installing a pump system, is a more suitable solution.

An end to standing water?

Improving the drainage of any golf course will be feasible, but it depends on the correct identification of the problem and then sufficient finance to implement the necessary corrective action.

Having invested in any form of solution, monitor its impact in terms of days of standing water and the impact on course or part-course closure.  Continually ask yourself, has the investment been worthwhile?

Drier surfaces means more play
Drier surfaces means more play

Also consider the implication of achieving perfect drainage; the need to irrigate areas of the course during periods of dry weather.  It may be best to accept occasional disruption to play after seriously heavy downpours, rather than to end up with a course that requires extensive irrigation coverage and, perhaps, water quantities for irrigation that may not be available (now or in the future).

Obtaining the best water balance in terms of drainage and irrigation requirements is one aspect of golf course management where expert guidance is crucial.  Get it wrong and you could simply go from one disaster to another, with an increasingly expensive series of actions to eventually get it right.

Examples of sustainable drainage projects include:

Dunnikier Park Golf Course, Scotland
Haggs Castle Golf Club, Scotland
Torphin Hill Golf Club, Scotland
Melrose Golf Club, Scotland
Haddington Golf Club, Scotland