Environmental stewardship on the golf course doesn't just happen

Professionally managing a golf course landscape in an environmentally sensitive area

Tim Powers, CGCS
Crystal Springs Golf Course
Burlingame, Calif.

Case Study - Crystal Springs - Fawn 1Crystal Springs Golf Course is an 18-hole, public course near San Francisco. The course provides a great golf experience while incorporating environmental stewardship practices. The facility’s sensitive location is a key reason for using environmental best management practices (BMPs) as the basis for our success. Crystal Springs is positioned within a 32,000-acre wildlife refuge and on a ridge above three reservoirs that hold the drinking water for Bay Area residents. The 120-acre site is home to abundant wildlife, including many species of birds, deer, coyote, fox, bobcat, amphibians and reptiles.

Maintaining healthy turfgrass on the golf course is not only important for the game, but it also helps provide a valuable greenspace. We accomplish our turfgrass and stewardship goals through the use of BMPs, including water management (water use, conservation and water quality protection), integrated pest management (IPM) and resource conservation. In addition, Crystal Springs provides native habitat, wildlife corridors and supplements habitat for the surrounding refuge as well. These BMPs are not only important to help ensure our “license to operate,” but they also have a positive impact on the facility’s bottom line.

Water conservation efforts

Water management at Crystal Springs is not only important for healthy turfgrass and reducing costs, but also helps protect the surrounding landscapes and water resources within the watershed. Some of our BMPs for water management, conservation and water quality protection include:

  • The course installed a new irrigation system in two phases with the back nine in 1998 and the front nine in 2001.The system is tied in to a weather station.
  • Irrigation decisions are based upon climate conditions and evapotranspiration (ET). The weather station measures temperature, humidity, wind speed and rainfall to determine ET to calculate the water needs of the turf.
  • The irrigation system utilizes a central computer system. The data from the weather station is relayed to a central computer that processes the information and communicates with the field satellites to activate the system.
  • There is individual station control allowing us to avoid overwatering and to apply only what is needed.
  • The system utilizes a rain gauge that will shut the system down when a threshold is met. It is set to replace 80% of ET.

These practices have resulted in a water savings of over 20% since it was completed. In addition, we have reduced the total acres of irrigated turfgrass. The old irrigation system irrigated 90 acres, and we now irrigate 75 acres. This reduction has resulted in less fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, water, electricity and labor. The new system is much more efficient and provides a more effective use of water.

Additional practices include:

  • Staff monitors the system daily to make sure everything is working properly.
  • Maintenance and design are important, so we move heads and tweak the system as necessary. This includes changing and adjusting heads regularly to get the proper coverage. We are using the new Toro 835 heads because the arc and throw angle is easier to adjust.
  • We do lots of hand watering to take care of localized dry spots. This is a much more efficient use of water and reduces overwatering of other areas. Also, this practice decreases the amount of disease pressure, which reduces the amount of fungicides we use.
  • The areas between tees and fairways are no longer irrigated and are allowed to grow native. It really adds nice definition to the course as well as the benefits to wildlife as a corridor and food/shelter source. We do get a little complaining from patrons when they hit there balls into it, but they are getting used to it as we have been doing this for nine seasons. We adjust as needed if these areas come into play too much.

The quality of the soil is not very good. It is hydrophobic and nutrient deficient. We constantly apply wetting agents in an effort to improve the penetrability of the soil. When the soil becomes dry, it takes a great deal of water to rewet it. We get annual visits from the USGA, and the staff has been very impressed with our water management and how we have reduced problems like black layer.

IPM practices

Case Study - Crystal Springs - Black PhoebeCrystal Springs makes it a priority to minimize pesticide usage to guarantee water quality, human safety and the well-being of our wildlife. The strength of the plan is not the treatment methods, but the preventive measures. IPM is a key element of golf course operations. It helps to ensure healthy turfgrass, water quality protection and the bottom line. Crystal Springs entered into an IPM-CHAMP in 1996 that was unique at the time. CHAMP stands for Chemical Application Management Plan. It has since been used as a model in many other operations, particularly because of its location within the wildlife refuge and the reservoirs below that supply drinking water to area residents.

The plan was agreed to between CourseCo (our management company) and the Public Utilities Commission to reduce inputs and to create new management techniques. It establishes a specific turf management program for the course to follow. The goal is to make the course as chemical-free as possible through restrictions on the use of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers. Certain thresholds must be met before we can begin chemical treatments. For example, we cannot treat until we scout 3 spots of disease on nine greens. The greens are the only part of the course that gets any fungicide applications. We are given a little leeway in the winter because of a history of pink snow mold following rain events. We must treat pests with a curative program as opposed to a prevention program. The greens are checked daily, and IPM monitoring sheets are filled out every three days for disease and weed issues. The tees are recorded weekly, and the fairways are recorded monthly.

Nutrient management

Case Study - Crystal Springs - Fawn 2We have used only 4 bags of insecticide in the last four years when we get a little outbreak of cutworm. We have skipped our herbicide treatments on fairways and roughs the last two years as weed pressure is not too severe. There are specific guidelines for fertilizer applications concerning amounts applied, the use of nitrate-free fertilizers and promoting the use of organic fertilizers. So, we use a lot of Milorganite, an organic fertilizer. In addition to the Milorganite, we use mainly foliar fertilizers as there is less chance of runoff, and it is more efficient. We use seaweed extract products for our main fertilizer as they reduce stress and produce better root systems. They are our sole fertilizer on fairways and greens.

During one of our USGA agronomist’s annual visits, the representative was amazed to see how good our root systems were. We found over 5-inch roots in the greens and over 7-inches in the fairways. This makes for very healthy plants and better recovery. Our nitrogen inputs have been reduced from over 5,000 pounds (lbs) annually to less than 600 pounds the past few years and still producing very good playing conditions.

Pesticide reduction efforts

We do not make any pre-emergent herbicide applications. However, we do some spot spraying and handpicking of weeds. The best way to reduce weed infestation is to have a thick, healthy turf. Disease incidence will be reduced through a careful water management program.

Gophers are a big problem, and we now use traps as opposed to phostoxin. Our IPM program, topdressing programs, water management, cultural practices and drainage work have really improved conditions. This has helped reduce disease pressure and helps to ensure healthy turfgrass. When effectively integrated, a thick healthy turf provides numerous environmental benefits such as preventing erosion, sound filter and as a natural filter for contaminants from rainfall and runoff.

Energy conservation and pollution prevention

Case Study - Crystal Springs - Redtail PerchResource conservation and pollution prevention are important best management practices as well. Crystal Springs was recognized in 1998 for a Waste Reduction Awards Program from the California Waste Management Board. Some of our BMPs include:

  • The golf course maintenance department recycles all cans, bottles, plastic and cardboard generated from the golf course.
  • The food & beverage operation recycles all cans, bottles and cardboard generated by its operation.
  • All paper is shredded and recycled. Scrap paper is used to code invoices.
  • Leftover food by banquets and events is used for employee meals.
  • The lights around the facility use energy-efficient bulbs and are set on timers to conserve electricity. Some lights use solar cells for power. We are looking into expanding our use of solar power at the maintenance facility.
  • Our irrigation system and filling pumps run at night when there is less demand for electricity.
  • All green waste generated by the site stays on site.
  • Grass clippings are only collected from the greens and are scattered in the fairways and roughs to increase organic material. It has really helped some thin areas.
  • Aerifying plugs are used to fill in low and thin areas.
  • All debris from tree work is chipped and used in our landscaping projects and around the bases of trees to reduce weeds.
  • The Christmas trees from the clubhouse are chipped and used. We have started buying live trees for the offices and pro shop which are later planted on the course. We have even some other people following our lead and giving us their trees after the holidays.

Awards and certifications

Case Study - Crystal Springs - BuckThe Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation recognized Crystal Springs in 1998 with the Business Environmental Award for Landuse Planning/Management. It was the first golf course to receive this honor. The award singled out the course for its efforts in conservation, pest & chemical management, recycling and wildlife habitat management. All of these efforts are still in place today:

  • We use biodegradable oils in our mowers. They are less harmful to the environment.
  • We have removed over 80 tons of old machines and junk that had accumulated over the years.
  • Our waste oil is recycled.
  • We have installed a filter system at our wash pad that removes harmful oils and chemicals before they are released into the environment. The filters are replaced annually.
  • We have planted over 170 coast Live Oaks to recreate more native areas. We have also planted over 50 redwoods.
  • Our cart fleet is now electric to reduce the use of fuel. The company was required to switch to electric from gas when new carts were purchased.


Crystal Springs has been certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council since 1998 and just finished another recertification in 2010. It recognizes our efforts to promote wildlife and good environmental management. Crystal Springs was the first golf course to be certified in the program. Crystal Springs was first certified in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program in 1998 and recertified in 2010 for the sixth time. These programs help with the facility’s environmental management, including wildlife habitat and outreach / education practices.

Environmental stewardship takes work regardless of location and it benefits the game, our business and community as well as the planet. Communicating the course’s values and benefits such as greenspace values, economic values (jobs, taxes, revenue, etc.) and social values (recreation, networking, etc.) are important, as well as the BMPs themselves. Crystal Springs is committed to continuous improvement and reaching out to our community to help ensure our business and future.