Going for the Green
Each morning, before the golfers populate the golf course, I look out the back windows of my house, drink in the beautiful foliage, and observe the abundance of wildlife enjoying the pond just off the Bay Hill Golf Course's 16th green in Orlando, Florida. As shown in the photos, egrets, osprey, fish, otters, a small alligator, and even an occasional swan all dwell and thrive in the pond and in the beauty of the surrounding habitat. Anyone who is familiar with golf knows that maintaining the pristine grasses of a golf course requires a tremendous amount of manicuring, fertilizing, and pest control, all of which can affect the health of golf course waters. As I sit admiring the impressive show of nature and the lush greens, I wonder if the things that make a golf course so appealing are causing any harm to the stream life below it.
Background and Topic Research
First, I researched golf courses and the possible effects on streams due to pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Golf courses are one of the most intensely managed types of land and require substantial inputs of water, fertilizers, and pesticides to maintain the manicured turf. The fertilizers and pesticides used to maintain the turf can be a major source of nonpoint source pollution. Nonpoint source pollution is when natural and man-made pollutants are picked up, carried, and deposited into bodies of water as precipitation (EPA). Nutrients, including phosphorous and nitrogen, are essential for plants and animals, and are typically found at low levels in streams. But if runoff causes nutrient levels to increase, aquatic growth in the form of algae blooms can become excessive, robbing the stream of the oxygen needed for fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic animals. Also important to stream quality are cool water temperatures, high levels of dissolved oxygen, and the riparian zone. The riparian zone is the vegetation alongside a stream; it is critical to the stream's health, controlling the flow of water, sediment, and nutrients between the upland zone and the stream. As shown in the photo, the riparian zone on the stream that I analyzed was dense with trees and bushes at the inflow. Because water flows from streams to larger bodies of water, any changes in water quality will be passed on downstream, making wise land use crucial to protect water quality.
My first step for the project was to contact the Bay Hill Golf Course's superintendent, Matt Beaver. I explained the nature of my project to Mr. Beaver and requested permission to run tests on the golf course water. After receiving approval, I also asked if Mr. Beaver could answer a few golf course water-quality questions. My first question was what type of fertilizers and pesticides were used to maintain the greens, fairways, and rough. Mr. Beaver said that the course uses a fertilizer that contains 15% nitrogen, 15% potassium, and no phosphorous, and they vary the types of pesticides based on need. Fertilizing is done six times per year, and pesticides are done once a year and as needed. He confirmed my previous finding that phosphorous can lead to algae blooms that deplete the oxygen in golf course ponds and streams. I also asked about the watering frequency. Under normal conditions, the course is watered once a day at night using reclaimed water. Reclaimed water is clear, odorless treated wastewater. It can be used for irrigation; however, reclaimed water contains nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorous. The use of reclaimed water is beneficial in reducing demand for high-quality freshwater, but the nutrients can create problems in downstream environments.
In addition to reclaimed water, grass clippings can create water quality problems. Grass clippings can contaminate groundwater by leaching nutrients down through the soil, or can be washed into streams and ponds, contributing to algae blooms. Grass cutting at the Bay Hill Course is done once a day on the fairways and greens, twice a week on the rough, and once a week on the banks surrounding the water areas. The grass clippings are removed only from the greens. To monitor the potential nutrient runoff, the golf course performs water quality tests on a regular basis, and Mr. Beaver confirmed that they work diligently to limit phosphorous and the runoff of nutrients.
I continued my research, looking deeper into the factors that determine water quality. I found that temperature, pH, turbidity, phosphates, nitrates, and dissolved oxygen are important measurements of water quality. Water temperature influences the amount of dissolved oxygen, which affects the survival ability of aquatic life. Elevated water temperatures can threaten the balance of aquatic systems (EPA). According the U.S. Geological Survey, pH, the measure of a solution's acidity, is measured on a logarithmic scale between 1 and 14, with 1 being extremely acidic, 7 neutral, and 14 extremely basic. Typically, the pH of freshwater is between 6.5 and 8.5. Because aquatic organisms adapt to a specific pH, even slight changes can cause them to die. Another important measure is turbidity, or the relative clarity of the water. Turbidity is an indicator of suspended sediment and colloidal matter such as clay, silt, and organic or inorganic matter. Turbid water can be the result of runoff, algae blooms, or bottom sediment, all of which can result in higher water temperatures, lower dissolved oxygen, and less light reaching aquatic plants, which hurts their ability to photosynthesize (Earth Force). My further research into measurements confirmed my previous findings that phosphate and nitrate levels that are too high can lead to overgrowth of plants, increased bacterial activity, and decreased dissolved oxygen levels (EPA). I realized that temperature, turbidity, phosphates and nitrates all affect the level of dissolved oxygen, so it was not surprising that the testing of dissolved oxygen is very important measurement. Testing for dissolved oxygen measures the current oxygen levels in water, and waters with high levels of dissolved oxygen are capable of supporting a variety of aquatic organisms.
After completing my background research, I hypothesized that the nutrient runoff from the golf course into the stream below does not impact the water quality.
I will buy a LaMotte Fresh Water Testing Kit, digital thermometer, gloves, and three sterile, one-liter containers with lids for collecting water samples (Figure A). Before going to collect my samples, I will read the methods for collecting and conducting fresh water tests. I will collect water samples from the inflow, middle, and outflow areas of the stream (Figure B). In collecting the water samples, I will rinse the containers with stream water, and then submerge the containers toward the current. After allowing water to flow into the containers for 30 seconds, I will cap the containers while still submerged and head inside to perform my tests. Within one hour, I will test each sample for temperature, temperature change, dissolved oxygen, percent saturation, nitrates, pH, phosphates, and turbidity. I will record my results. I plan to repeat the procedure a second time to confirm the initial results, and a third time after a rainfall event. After recording all the results, I will compare the readings to the freshwater parameters listed in my LaMotte test kit.
Conducting the Project
When my testing kit arrived, I gathered my materials and, with the help of my dad, collected my first samples from the inflow, middle, and outflow areas of the stream. I immediately brought the samples inside and began testing each sample, using the directions in my kit. I recorded the results (Table A). I repeated the collection and testing processes one week later (Table B), and a final time after a rainfall event of 0.32 inches (Table C). The tests yielded the following results:
After finishing the testing, I compared the results to the freshwater quality rankings provided in the LaMotte kit (Table D):
After testing the water quality of the golf course stream, I found that the stream quality ranked excellent in the majority of categories, both before and after a rain event. Phosphates at the stream inflow and outflow were at slightly elevated levels, but the levels were not high enough to be detrimental to water quality. The results from my study showed that runoff from the golf course does not affect the stream's water quality. Any effects from the fertilizers, pesticides and grass clippings appear to be insignificant.
In managing the golf course, the golf course superintendent ensures that all of the golf course waters are tested periodically. If I were to repeat this test, I would like to test several of the other streams around the golf course to determine if the readings were similar to my test results. I also would like to be able to get deeper water samples and samples from the center point of the stream. One concern I had was that I was only able to obtain samples from along the shores.
As a result of my testing, I have confirmed that the runoff from the golf course behind my home is not affecting the stream below it. When I peer out my back window and see all the wildlife enjoying their beautiful habitat, I will feel reassured that they are safe and that the golf course is definitely "going for the green."
Beaver, Matt, golf course superintendent. Phone interview, 10 Nov 2008.
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More About This Resource...
This winning entry in the Museum's Young Naturalist Awards 2010 is from a Florida seventh grader. Stephanie looks into how the upkeep of a golf course is affecting a neighboring stream. Her essay discusses:
- her research into the effects of fertilizer and pesticide runoff on streams, along with the factors that affect water quality
- the procedure and equipment she used for water testing at the Bay Hill Golf Course
- the results of testing and her findings about the water quality of the golf course stream
OriginYoung Naturalist Awards
SubtopicMinerals and Resources