A Dry Argument

With drought affecting large parts of the country at present, expert Agronomist John Neylan looks at the importance of reviewing water management plans 


Following a very dry winter, the summer was looking grim in terms of water availability and the potential for ongoing drought conditions and the implications for turf management. 

Just as you think it is all very straightforward, we appear to have had plenty of rain on the eastern seaboard and as I write this parts of Sydney have copped more than a month’s worth of rain in a single day with the biggest November fall in three decades.

I think what we are seeing is the fickle nature of our weather systems, the localised storm events and a shift in the driest and high stress periods appear to be occurring further into the summer months and late autumn.

These conditions I believe are confirmation of a changing climate. 

In my paper on ‘Turf Management in a Changing Climate’, presented at the Australasian Turf Conference earlier this year in Wellington, I cited The R&A’s ‘Planning for changing climate’ document which has been produced to alert the golfing industry to be aware of the challenges of extreme weather and to plan for change. 

The paper highlights that the planet’s climate is shifting and more extreme conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns can be expected in the future.

This is undoubtedly the case in Australia. With more extreme weather it is expected that this will have a major impact on the way golf courses must be managed and it is important to ensure that the management programmes can cope with whatever the weather throws at it.

The R&A is promoting a sustainable approach to course management to provide the best chance of stability in unpredictable times. 


As we lead into the summer months, undertake an internal audit/check of the operation of the irrigation system to make sure there are minimal losses through leaks and poorly operating sprinklers

Note that the R&A will be presenting multiple seminars on Sustainable Golf Course Management at the 2019 Asia Pacific Turfgrass Conference in Brisbane


Short Term vs Long Term

Irrespective of the immediate situation, it is still important to look at the longer term outlook for water availability and the possible implications. In referencing the Bureau of Meteorology’s (BOM) Monthly Weather Review for Australia September 2018 (www.bom.gov.au/climate/mwr/aus/mwr-aus-201809.pdf) the numbers were quite compelling; 

  • Australia's driest September on record;
  • Overall, mean temperatures were above average
  • Warmer than average daytime temperatures,
  • Individual states were also very dry with Victoria experiencing its second-driest September, and both Western Australia and South Australia reporting their third-driest September on record. 
  • There were small pockets throughout Western Australia, Northern Territory and northeast New South Wales that received above average rainfall.
  • September maintained a consecutive run of 23 months of warmer than average days for Australia as a whole. 

In the BOM’s November 2018 drought report there was some interesting follow up information that is worth considering when it comes to longer term water management planning.

October rainfall again reinforced the sporadic nature of our rainfall events with below average for southeast Australia but above average on the east coast and in southern Western Australia. 

Importantly, the BOM stated that that lower-level soil moisture was below average for October across much of eastern Australia and scattered areas of the coastal north and far southwest Western Australia.

The most compelling statement being that meteorological drought is rarely broken in a single event or month; typically regular rainfall over a period of several months is required to remove rainfall deficiencies of the magnitude of those currently in place.

In the BOM’s Special Climate Statement 66 – 1 November 2018 (www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/statements/scs66.pdf) – they stated that the recent dry conditions in eastern Australia have few precedents for their combination of extent and duration.

As well as being a very dry year, 2018 has been very warm, the soil moisture has been low and evaporation has been high.

This is the double blow of low rainfall and greater water loss through evapotranspiration. 


As well as being a very dry year, 2018 has been very warm, soil moisture has been low and evaporation has been high

Strategies for Water Management

Thinking of the longer term strategies for water management, even if there has been recent rainfall, it is still a good time to review your water management plan. A few of the key questions to answer are;

  • How much water do you have available to you?
  • How much water do you need? It is important to understand the water requirements to produce a particular turf quality.
  • What is the source(s) of water?
  • How sustainable is the water supply? What do you know about the source of the water and what is the impact of extended dry periods on the security of supply?
  • What is the water quality?
  • What is the total cost of the water? This needs to include the costs of pumping the water and treating it.
  • Do you have a strategy in place based around the available water supply and how will it be allocated as the water supply diminishes?
  • How efficient is the irrigation system?
  • Are there other sources of water available?
  • Do you have security of supply and an agreement with the relevant water supply authority where relevant?

As we lead into the summer months the following water management actions need to be considered;

  • Review the irrigation scheduling in terms of the amount of water applied and the frequency of application.
  • Create some ‘trigger’ points around the available water volume at which point the application of water is prioritised to particular turf areas and/or reduced. The process of reducing water is better undertaken as a gradual process rather than stopping the application of water when the available water supply is at a critical level and placing the turf into sudden drought shock. This gradual reduction allows the turf to adjust or adapt to the reduced amount of available water. 
  • Check the water quality throughout the year, particularly as the summer progresses when there will be invariably an increase in salinity, sodium, chloride and bicarbonate. Undertake a complete water analysis immediately with follow up tests every month.
  • Undertake an internal audit/check of the operation of the irrigation system to make sure there are minimal losses through leaks and poorly operating sprinklers. In the case of sportsfields, a loss of pressure is often a reason for poor water distribution and inefficient use of water.
  • Trust the robust nature of couch and other warm-season grasses and exploit their excellent drought tolerance. Couch has the ability to survive a dry summer with only a few deep irrigations. The important part of this strategy is deep watering. In my experience very few warm-season grass sports turf areas are irrigated to the depth of the rootzone.
  • Manage expectations. Good communication is absolutely critical in making sure that user groups are fully aware of the water use strategy and the short- and long-term implications of managing turf during extended dry periods.
  • When rainfall is predicted, look to undertake surface aeration and put out a wetting agent to optimise water penetration.

Trust the robust nature of couch and other warm-season grasses and exploit their excellent drought tolerance. Couch has the ability to survive a dry summer with only a few deep irrigations and still provides a good surface even when dry

Climate change will continue to impact on water resources into the future and it is likely that there will be less water available for recreational turf. With the increasing demands for the available water supplies and the increasing focus on turf management and its environmental stewardship, it is essential that every turf area has a water management plan. Water management planning identifies works and practices that will improve irrigation and drainage management and water use efficiency for the golf course.