Drought-Ridden Field Owners Reconsider Maintenance Practices, Synthetic Turf

Robert Lee, Texas, population 1,106, got three inches of rain in the first 11 months of 2011.

(Image © Paul Maguire/iStockphoto.com)(Image © Paul Maguire/iStockphoto.com)

Robert Lee, Texas, population 1,106, got three inches of rain in the first 11 months of 2011. In August, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle tabbed the E.V. Spence Reservoir on the nearby Colorado River - the town's source of drinking water, at the time more than 99 percent empty - as "an emblem of the town's decline." In an accompanying series of photos, Robert Lee High School's superintendent and athletic director, Aaron Hood, was pictured adjusting a sprinkler on the school's football field - something that apparently prompted the Los Angeles Times to send a reporter to profile the town's second emblem of its decline.

That football field - scorched brown grass in August, dirt in October - was, amazingly, green again in late November. The growth came too late for most of the football season, and has likely come too late for the people of Robert Lee. Hood, reached at his office the day before Thanksgiving, predicts the school will have a synthetic turf field not next season, but certainly the season after that.

"It's not whether we get it or not, it's a matter of when," Hood says. "In West Texas right now, if you have the money to get synthetic turf, I think you get it, because water is fixing to be the next oil. It's a matter of time, and we're just holding on until we actually put turf down."

Agronomists will tell you that once your field dies, its season has ended. It's long before drought descends on a region that field owners have to prepare for the heat stress that they know is coming - and few regions are likelier to experience triple-digit heat and arid conditions than West Texas and the rest of the American Southwest.

Fertilizers can improve each plant's drought resistance, provided they are used prior to the onset of summer. Though each grass species has its own nutritional needs, the basic idea is to spur healthy development of the root zone rather than the plant's leaves, so that grass plants increase their ability to draw on the soil's water and nutrient reserves. Aeration in the spring improves water penetration to the root zone, and is often performed in conjunction with overseeding. Adequate water is needed to fertilize the field during the spring and then encourage continued growth during hot weather, and a proper program of mowing (slightly higher mowing heights are recommended during the summer heat) puts the plants in the best position to survive.

"The main thing we tell folks is to start prepping as if you know you're going to have heat stress approaching," says Mike Goatley Jr., a professor of crop and soil environmental sciences at Virginia Tech and president-elect of the Sports Turf Managers Association. "Choose the best seed varieties in anticipation, and then start managing these plants well before the stress period arrives."

Failure to manage plants before the onset of drought leaves field owners at the mercy of the weather once the heat comes, as most of the techniques taught to promote growth actually put more stress on the grass plants at a time when they're already under stress. Raising the cutting height, for example, is likely to be difficult once drought has arrived, and even if it is successful, the greater leaf area will require more water use. "That in combination with a very limited root system is not a good combo to have," Goatley says. "Make sure you've raised those heights earlier, to promote rooting depth so you can optimize as much water use from that soil as possible. It's too late once the stress arrives."

Similarly, trying to promote growth at a time of extreme heat will have the opposite effect. As an associate professor of soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M, Jim McAfee has seen this up close. "By adding fertilizer, you're trying to force growth, and the grass is already under stress," McAfee says. "You're going to get mostly top growth at the expense of the root system, and you're already losing that root system because of the drought condition. You're just adding another stress to it."

McAfee laughs ruefully. "You know, if you don't have water, nothing's going to work," he says. "That's what it really comes down to."

That's what it came down to at Robert Lee High. During the time that the field was being prepped for summertime heat - the drought was already months old in late March - Hood began trucking in water three times weekly at about $200 per 6,000-gallon load, with two loads needed to water the entire field. By May, Hood and his field manager were watering the field daily and had begun a desperate search for other sources of water utilizing the services of a dowser and digging several wells in excess of 200 feet deep. While many wells dug in the town have come up with little water or water tainted by improperly capped abandoned oil wells, a 240-foot well drilled by Hood's hired help struck a decent supply - which was critical, because water haulers by that time were preoccupied with fighting wildfires across the region. Nevertheless, Robert Lee's field failed.

Its resurrection began after an early season of play mostly on dirt - the grass began making a comeback as temperatures dropped into the double digits - and was aided by a company out of nearby Lubbock, Ready Play, which after reading of the school's troubles, offered Hood a free supply of its Field Magic™ moisture retention product. More technically called surfactants (or more commonly, wetting agents), these types of soil amendments have long been used on the skinned portion of baseball infields to allow quicker use of fields after wet weather. Eventually, companies that produced them, as well as their clients, theorized that the properties of surface tension (binding like molecules together) would make the products effective not only in drying fields, but in capturing available moisture to make the irrigation of fields more efficient.

Not all agronomists are convinced that binding water molecules necessarily means they're available for plant intake. McAfee, noting that crowned football fields can lose 30 percent of rainwater to runoff, recalls as a field manager using Aquatrols® (which has made surfactants and other turf-care products for more than 50 years) to combat this problem, but believes that getting the water into grass plants is a separate issue. "They'll hold water, but there's been some research that suggests that they hold it so tight that the roots aren't getting it," he says. Hood, on the other hand, is a convert after Ready Play's product helped fill in the remaining bare spots on his football field.

"We put it down and then put winter ryegrass down, and we questioned whether it would work because we put it down at a time of year when the grass goes dormant," Hood says. "Not only did new Bermudagrass come up, but the ryegrass started coming up, and the center of the field is green again. It looks pretty good right now."

Robert Lee High doesn't have a practice field. The team uses the main field for games and practices, a Pee Wee team practices on it, and clubs play on it on weekends. A field seeing that type of use by the community would seem a logical candidate for synthetic turf, but Hood isn't crazy about the idea.

"There was an article in the Abilene paper; it was 95 outside and 180 degrees on one of their synthetic fields. It was hotter on the turf than it was in their parking lot," Hood says. "And they were having to water it to cool it off. The last thing I want to do is put synthetic turf down and then have to water it."

Hood says player safety was at the forefront of his mind as he watched his teams and their opponents get tackled on dirt baked to what amounted to concrete. Now he's afraid that the combination of synthetic turf and a repeat of last summer's heat - San Angelo recorded 97 days of triple-digit temperatures, beating the all-time record by 30 days - will put his athletes at risk of heat stroke. With his field once again green, he was waiting to see when or whether the much-discussed water pipeline from nearby Bronte (which has more wells, with better-quality water) would be built.

"They're drilling more wells, and hopefully we'll get well water," Hood says. "If our water situation doesn't change in a hurry, we will probably go with synthetic. We don't want to, really, but we're not going to have a choice."

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