Off the Record: The history of reclaimed water on golf courses

By |  May 28, 2024 0 Comments

I find it interesting that one form of non-potable water has so many terms. For example, it’s been called effluent, wastewater, recycled water or treated sewage water. However, to make it more attractive to golf, words like effluent, waste or sewage are rarely used anymore.

Now, recycled or reclaimed water has become a more popular term, but it’s slightly ambiguous. I use all three names, especially for a historical discussion on this water resource.

In 1978, four golf organizations joined together to sponsor the first national symposium concerning the use of effluent water for golf course irrigation — the USGA, the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), the National Golf Foundation (NGF) and the GCSAA.

Although effluent water from sewage treatment plants and wastewater from other sources were used for irrigation worldwide for some time, there was not a lot of information about this widespread practice for golf courses.

To correct the deficiency, those four organizations helped to launch a Wastewater Conference in Chicago. A conference proceeding was published sharing the experiences of turfgrass managers, engineers, agronomists, equipment manufacturers and other professions that have a role in the planning, designing and operating of wastewater irrigation systems.

The proceedings provided a convenient source of practical answers to questions about wastewater use for irrigation and encouraged greater use of this resource as it became available. They also served for many years as an essential reference for golf course architects, engineers, superintendents, equipment manufacturers, municipal water officials and others involved in irrigating golf courses with wastewater.

Circling back

Fifteen years later, in 1993, the USGA, ASGCA, NGF, GCSAA and the Golf Course Builders Association of America cooperated to sponsor another conference to update information about using effluent water on golf courses during the intervening years.

A lot had changed — technically and politically — since the first symposium in 1978. Irrigation technology improved significantly, and we better understood the effects of wastewater on golf course turfgrasses and soils. More importantly, the politics concerning potable water use for golf course irrigation were a concern in many parts of the country, and effluent water use was mandatory in some areas.

During that time, it was clear that there was a need to educate officials, environmentalists and others about the benefits and potential problems of using effluent water on golf courses.

The USGA published the 1993 wastewater symposium in the Waterwater Reuse for Golf Course Irrigation. The book had five chapters, authored by leading researchers and practitioners. The topics covered water quality, conservation, regulations, rights, delivery, system design, monitoring concerns, retrofitting a course for recycled water and case studies.

The book included a comprehensive list of courses that used effluent water for irrigation. The target audience included golf course superintendents, irrigation consultants and golf course architects and builders.

Reclaimed water today

In 2022, the latest GCSAA Wastewater Reuse for Golf Course Irrigation found that wells still provide the largest source of water (531,274 acre-ft.) followed by open lakes and ponds (382,476 acre-ft.) Nationally, the use of recycled water remained consistent with the usage reported in 2005.

The largest recycled water consumption occurred in the Southeast and Southwest, accounting for 87 percent of the projected recycled water on golf courses. Facilities in the Southwest applied nearly 13,000 more acre-ft. of recycled water in 2020 than in 2005.

My advice to you is, don’t hesitate to transition to this valuable resource when it becomes available.

About the Author: Mike Kenna, Ph.D.

Mike Kenna, Ph.D., is the retired director of research, USGA Green Section. Contact him at

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