How one super remediates California soil through chemigation and irrigation water treatment

By |  June 11, 2024 0 Comments

Roger Goettsch is one of those course superintendents who has been just about everywhere and seen just about everything. As such, in his many postings — from Houston to Hainan, from Kanchipuram, India to Coral Springs, Fla., — he routinely had trouble sourcing the inputs and mechanical tools his maintenance operations required. When it came to finding plant growth regulators in Indonesia, for example, he opted for agronomic workarounds.

As an expert welder and fabricator, however, Goettsch took a different approach on the iron side. When he couldn’t buy a mechanical tool, or couldn’t find one that cut the mustard from a quality standpoint, he invariably built the thing himself: like the two hydro-cyclone water separators he fashioned and installed at Lochinvar Golf Club, just west of George Bush Intercontinental Airport; or the jib crane he whipped up for the maintenance shop at Iron Horse Golf Club in North Richland, Texas; or the “plug pushers” he designed and built — to apply wetting agents and remove aeration cores, respectively — at Shanqin Bay GC, on the Island of Hainan in the South China Sea.

Roger Goettsch

Roger Goettsch

Four years ago, Goettsch returned to the United States to serve as director of agronomy at the 36-hole Coto de Caza Golf and Racquet Club, in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. There, he found a problem he couldn’t solve, not with his agronomic savvy nor his trusty acetylene torch. The chemigation solution he ultimately identified might never have revealed itself had the water and soil conditions in southern California not been quite so terrible.

“Every place where I’ve worked, we’ve had substantial rainfall that mitigated ongoing salt and sodium issues,” he says. “Even at Shanqin Bay, because we were right on the ocean, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw decided they’d go with paspalum turfgrass because of the potential for a salt problem. As it turned out, because there’s enough rainfall and elevation change there and because a river [irrigation] source was clean, we had almost no salt and sodium buildup whatsoever.

“In Texas, where I spent a good while managing clubs, Austin probably had the most acute salt issues because we used treated water on one of the golf courses there. But it wasn’t 100 percent treated and it was terrible. Eventually, we were able to supplement it with well water and other good water sources, so it didn’t really build up any meaningful salt content in the soils. It also had enough elevation change to effectively surface drain.”

Trabuco Canyon has plenty of elevation change. Yet, in his first two years there, Goettsch reported rainfall of maybe 10 inches total. Because he was irrigating his dense, clay soils 300-330 days a year with non-potable effluent, the salt and bicarbonate buildup proved substantial — and agronomically ruinous.

“I realized we needed a permanent solution to the water problem because no matter what we put out agronomically, we couldn’t seem to mitigate the chlorine and the sodium and the salt — or the osmotic pressure that’s generated from too much salt,” Goettsch says. “We were overcompensating from an irrigation standpoint too, because, as every super knows, in order to compensate for salty water, you’d have to irrigate 10 to 20 percent more just to neutralize that salt load. That’s the theory, anyway.”

Two years into his California posting, Goettsch realized he didn’t have catastrophe-level salt problems beneath his putting surfaces. The so-called “California” greens he inherited (with their gravel blankets and pure sand profiles) didn’t look that great, but he slowly got ahead of those problems through good cultural practices. “I knew at that point that we could grow grass on these greens with 1,000 parts per million of this salty water, which is about what we had, somewhere between 700 to 1,200 parts per million of total dissolved solids, 1.4 to 2.4 EC, or electric conductivity.”

The primary issue was the soil everywhere else on the two golf courses, where high-density clay soils — absolutely jam-packed with bicarbonates — were slowly starving his turfgrass to death.

Photo: Roger Goettsch

Photo: Roger Goettsch

“So, I started looking into every kind of chemical known to man to mitigate that issue because we had a lot of areas that were basically bare ground, calcareous. You could see the bicarbonates on the surface no matter what we did in those areas. We replaced grass and added drainage in those areas but, sooner or later, the same exact thing happened.

“I even looked at the possibility of a reverse osmosis system, but that would have been close to $7 million to implement. We’re not an equity club, so that would never work, not here. It wasn’t something that, financially, anybody wanted to undertake.”

Just about the time Goettsch was contemplating that $7 million R.O. investment, he engaged with Scottsdale-based HCT, which markets prescriptive soil- and water-remediation services to golf course superintendents. The company started out in the well world, mainly on behalf of municipalities where potability standards are far more stringent than anything in the turfgrass realm. Today, HCT works with more than 220 separate golf facility clients, mainly via its WaterSOLV product, a proprietary chemical solution that fosters the sustainable treatment and remediation of water and, eventually, the soils absorbing that water.

According to Goettsch, it’s basically a testing service that takes the next step: prescription. The company scrutinizes water quality and characteristics, of course, but it also measures total soil composition, available plant nutrition and nutritional needs. Its treatments, administered via chemigation, are based around the injection of carefully calibrated, proprietary doses hydrochloride and hydrogen peroxide.

In short, HCT treats irrigation water that, in turn, with more chemistry, remediates the soil. For Goettsch, it’s all about neutralizing the sodium in his irrigation effluent before it reaches the soil. In the profile itself, it’s about using that treated water to sequester the minerals that get in the way of optimal nutrient uptake at the root level.

“Our job is making water, soil and nutrition more available for plant uptake, which naturally leads to lower sodium percentages, increased pore space, vegetation optimization, lowered costs and a more substantial ROI,” says Todd Eden, the CEO at HCT, who’s equally eager to point out what WaterSOLV doesn’t do. “We sell through authorized, qualified dealers, but we don’t sell fertilizers, fungicides or pesticides, though fertilizer demand is defined by HCT’s matured analytical data. Our products do not remove golf cart-related compaction. HCT products are functional, like acids and antiseptics.”

Photo: Roger Goettsch

Photo: Roger Goettsch

Like most things, HCT’s chemigation capability does not change anything overnight. Goettsch said it took 4-5 months to isolate the salts in his soil from the turf plant itself. Only then did he start to see healthier turf in his fairways and rough areas. But the results eventually knocked the socks off this skeptical midwestern farm boy.

“I have a credit with the sod company that we put in place a couple years ago. I only used 5,000 square feet this past year [2023]. I probably used upwards of 70,000 square feet on the golf course the year before that. This year, I don’t really see us having to sod anything. We’ve probably already saved $30,000 to $50,000 in sod.

“My fairy ring was rampant before all this, and I have almost no fairy ring whatsoever in my fairways this year. Today, I’ve got some of the best greens, I think, in Orange County. They’re rolling beautifully, and this year I’ve seen the least amount of disease in four years, even though we’ve had record rainfall the first half of 2024.”

Goettsch did indeed grow up in small-town Iowa (Holstein) before matriculating at Iowa State University in Ames, where he studied turf management and crewed all four years at Des Moines Golf & Country Club under Bill Byers. Young Goettsch also took as many metal-working classes as he could. After graduating (1978) and serving time as an assistant at several courses, he left the golf business altogether to pursue a welding career in the oil fields of west Texas.

“I made a lot more money,” he recalls. But golf work is steady. The oil business is anything but. When it collapsed, back in 1983, Goettsch returned to growing grass, his welding equipment in tow.

His golf odyssey began when he landed his first head superintendent’s job at Squaw Creek GC near Fort Worth. Eventually, he would come to specialize in the construction and grow-in of new courses, something he did all over North Texas before landing his first high-profile head super’s gig at the Arnold Palmer Golf Club at Fossil Creek. He moved from there to a regional director’s position with the management company RSL (now Arcis Golf) before going overseas to Thailand and Indonesia in the early 1990s for two more construction/grow-ins. He returned home to do the same at The Bandit in New Braunfels, Texas; Blackhorse GC down the road in Cypress; and Redstone Golf Club (now the GC of Houston) in nearby Humble. He was Director of Agronomy at Barton Creek’s 72 holes before he was lured back to Asia in 2014 — first to India, then to China. His expert agronomic presentation helped sustain Shanqin Bay GC as the first Chinese course to earn a place on GOLF Magazine’s world top 100.

Photo: Roger Goettsch

Photo: Roger Goettsch

Goettsch arrived at Coto de Caza four years ago. It was two years before he committed to the HCT program. The effects, he says, have been transformative — and transporting: “It actually feels like I’m not in Southern California anymore. I’m in another state where the rainfall is much higher and the irrigation water is a lot better — because my turf is just reacting so much better than I’ve ever seen it react.”

His first two fairway overseedings in Orange County, pre-HCT, were disasters during transition. “The ryegrass just died out — in May,” the superintendent recalls. By year three, his first with HCT, the situation proved marginally better. Last year, 14 months into the chemigation era, proved revelatory.

“Our transition in 2023 was remarkable,” Goettsch says. “The ryegrass basically held on throughout the entire summer. I never would have thought that possible, even though it was our goal to try. But lo and behold, my germination rate was almost 100 percent. That’s probably 98 percent attributable to this product because we did have a significant amount of rainfall. In 2023, our irrigation was able to sustain our ryegrass — a cool-season grass in a warm-season environment — throughout the summer.”

When we spoke in late April of 2024, Goettsch had just hosted a conclave of SoCal super colleagues to witness a demo of FireFly Automatix, a new riderless mower. The guy likes tech. He admires technology and its advance, whether he’s built it or not. And he clearly views his new chemigation rig as an advance.

When a superintendent so radically alters the nature of so broad and vital an input as irrigation water, the effects are naturally far reaching. After scalping and verticutting Coto de Caza’s Bermudagrass fairways in 2023, “We scalped it down and turned it brown before we overseeded. Well, when we transitioned back, you could see the difference — the bermudagrass filled back in like gangbusters once we did all our cultural-practice work. It’s almost like I’ve let it out of jail. It’s just so much hardier than it was.

“The impact on associated vegetation has been pretty shocking, too. We cut shrubs and trees down routinely. We’ve got about four holes on the north golf course where a lot of that landscape plant material is essentially irrigated. My first three years, we probably only went in and pruned that stuff back one time the entire year. It’s almost as if we had a PGR on it. In 2023, we cut that stuff down lower than we’ve ever done. Lo and behold, within a short period of time, it grew back even more robust: taller and thicker.”

Eden and his company’s literature never fail to mention return on investment, the contention being that WaterSOLV will reduce what supers spend on inputs, including irrigation water itself. Of course, this is the stance so many product suppliers take. Goettsch’s on-course experience informs his own numbers.

“We’ve reduced the cost of our water by as much as the cost of the product itself, I can tell you that. We’ve reduced our irrigation cost by 15 percent. The sod, we talked about that. I’ve reduced my fertility budget for 2024 probably by 20 percent — though we’re increasing our budget on plant growth regulation: The spring 2023 produced too much growth for us to handle, for the equipment and the players. So, my main goal for 2024 is regulating growth more than has probably ever been done on these golf courses — to improve on the health. Because what I’m seeing is a deeper-rooted turf, which is more drought tolerant with the program in place. We’re just fostering way more efficient nutrient-uptake in the soil. I can see it.”

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