Documenting your progress toward sustainability

These practical, science-based sustainability metrics can help you and your facility measure and communicate concrete progress toward reaching sustainability goals.

Wendy Gelernter, Ph.D.; Larry Stowell, Ph.D.; and Micah Woods, Ph.D.

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Sustainability. The word is getting a bad rap these days, and justifiably so, as it is used (and misused) for every purpose under the sun — from advertising chewing gum, to “greenwashing” environmentally damaging practices, to political campaigns and the workplace. Chances are, it even shows up in your own job goal documents.

Documenting your progress toward sustainability: photo 2
 Documenting your progress toward sustainability: photo 1
 Documenting your progress toward sustainability: photo 4
 Documenting your progress toward sustainability: photo 3

Barona Creek GC’s overseeded bermudagrass tee surrounds (2007) (top)
were removed (bottom) and replaced with native vegetation (2008),
a move that decreased the turf acreage and resulted in significant savings
 in water and fertilizer inputs.
Photos by L. Stowell. Credits for Google Maps images: 2007 – Image ©2013 Digital Globe, ©2013 INEGI, ©2013 Google; 2008 − Image U.S. Geological Survey, ©2013 INEGI, ©2013 Google

But how can you meet a goal of sustainability when its meaning has become so vague and diluted that a recent Google search on “define sustainable” yielded more than 28 million entries? How do you develop tactics, strategies and plans around an idea that no one can pin down? And how will you and your co-workers know how successful you’ve been without some system for measuring sustainability?

Without the ability to measure it, sustainability remains a mushy, confusing and frustratingly unobtainable goal. Without quantification, evaluating the achievement of sustainability goals becomes wholly subjective — in the eye of the beholder. Although you may think you’re doing a great job, you have no way to communicate it or to prove it, unless you have some way to measure and document it.

In this article, we present several simple monitoring approaches that can help take the mush out of sustainability, and instead treat it as a measurable, science-based agronomic phenomenon. All of these procedures can easily be put into practice at your facility.

The single biggest impact on sustainability: reducing turf acreage

Decreasing the number of highly maintained acres is without doubt the most effective way to increase sustainability by reducing almost all inputs — including water, pesticides, fertilizers, labor, energy and money. A recent USGA Green Section Record article (2) calculated savings of $1,700 to $7,000/acre/year in water use alone for golf courses in the southwestern U.S. that have implemented turf reduction projects. Depending on the situation, superintendents have converted out-of-play areas, tee surrounds, shady locations and other turf areas to native and/or low-maintenance vegetation, mulch, non-overseeded turf or other lower-upkeep replacements.

Clark, CGCS, of Barona Creek Golf Club in California, reduced turf acreage by 12 acres (4.85 hectares), most notably by replacing overseeded bermudagrass tee surrounds with native vegetation.

Several useful software tools can provide a hard and fast quantification on turf acreage at the start of a turf reduction program, and periodically thereafter. Free applications, such as Google Planimeter ( can quickly obtain approximate measurement of turf acreage using satellite photos from Google Maps. For more precise measurements of acreage, a superintendent can purchase a geo-rectified aerial photograph of the course that can be used with one of many geographic information system software packages, or a company such as Course Vision can use ground-based GPS systems to survey and inventory a course, and produce detailed maps and measurements for the entire property.

Fertilizer inputs: How low can you go?

Documenting your progress toward sustainability: table 1

We have suspected for many years that most soil nutritional guidelines (including our own) overestimated the amounts of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other key nutrients needed for turf health. The operating principle in most cases was a desire to ensure that there is never a deficit in soil nutrients. But as economic and environmental concerns have grown, the emphasis has shifted to targeting the lowest levels of soil nutrients that will provide turf performance that meets expectations. This may seem like a subtle shift in thinking, but it can have enormous impacts on sustainability, as shown below.

To find out how low we could really go in terms of soil nutrition, Pace Turf and the Asian Turfgrass Center pooled a huge database of more than 17,000 soil samples that had been collected from turf facilities over the past 20 years. Of these, we identified 1,500 samples that met our requirements (primarily that they were collected from areas where the turf was performing adequately), and then statistically analyzed the data to determine the lowest levels of each major nutrient that could predictably support good-quality turf.

 The result was the Minimum Levels for Sustainable Nutrition (MLSN) soil guidelines (Table 1), which were introduced last year (4) and call for reductions of 50% or more in many key soil nutrients. Since that time, the guidelines have been adopted by turf managers around the world, many of whom have been pleasantly surprised at how low they could go in terms of soil nutrition without sacrificing turf quality or playability.

We believe that most superintendents can make significant reductions in the total nutrients applied at your location by using MLSN as a guide. To participate in the effort to identify more sustainable turf nutritional guidelines, read about the Global Soil Survey for Sustainable Turf (Page 82).

Measure total pounds and toxicity levels of pesticides applied

Documenting your progress toward sustainability: table 2

Reducing the total pounds or kilos of pesticides used is a good goal, but reducing the toxicity of the pesticides applied is equally important.

Determining the weight of pesticide (insecti cide, fungicide, herbicide, nematicide, etc.) used is simply a matter of keeping track of the pounds or kilos of pesticide active ingredient applied over the course of a year. Every pesticide label contains the information necessary to calculate how much of each pesticide active ingredient is present in the jug or bag of formulated product. Using a spreadsheet to keep track of these amounts is not only the easiest method for keeping records safe, but also the most efficient in terms of comparing totals from one year to the next.

To keep track of the toxicity of the products used, make a separate column on the spreadsheet for each pesticide toxicity class, and track the pounds or kilos of pesticide active ingredient used for each of these toxicity classes. In almost all countries, pesticides are separated into three or four toxicity classes, ranging from very low toxicity to high toxicity, based on the result of laboratory animal testing. These tests usually include oral, inhalation, dermal and eye exposure. The scheme used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employs the use of four toxicity classes, from Category I (most toxic) to Category IV (least toxic) (see Table 2).

To find out which toxicity class any given product falls into, the pesticide label is the best guide. Products labeled with a “CAUTION” signal word are regarded as the least toxic products, while a “WARNING” signal word indicates increased toxicity and “DANGER” indicates the highest toxicity product. The Material Data Safety Sheet, or MSDS (in some cases known as the Safety Data Sheet, or SDS), also contains useful information on pesticide toxicity.

A more detailed evaluation of pesticide toxicity, known as the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ), incorporates the results of toxicology testing, leaching potential, soil and plant halflife, farmworker and consumer risk and overall ecological risk (3). An equation that measures the impact of each of these factors is then used to generate an EIQ value for each pesticide, with lower values indicating lower overall toxicity. EIQ values for most commonly used pesticides are available online ( publications/eiq/files/EIQ_values_2012entire. pdf) courtesy of Cornell University.

Whichever method is used to characterize the toxicity of pesticides used at a facility — the simpler method described here or the more comprehensive EIQ approach — the bottom line is to keep careful records. Recording the changes in total pounds of all pesticides used, as well as the ways that you have shifted the types of pesticides used — from more toxic to least toxic — will provide excellent documentation on your progress toward more sustainable practices.

Water usage

Although fresh water is technically a renewable resource, humans are currently using it at a much faster rate than it is being replenished by nature. As a result, experts have voiced concern that competition for water can become serious enough in the near future to be the source of violent conflict — the so-called water wars.

While agriculture is by far the greatest user of water worldwide, golf courses can certainly do their share to decrease water usage in some of the following ways.

  • Take advantage of recycled (reclaimed) water if it is available. To evaluate the quality of potential new water sources, and to understand the impact they may have on turf quality, see these irrigation water-quality guidelines (www.pace
  • Improve irrigation efficiency through periodic catch-can testing or professional irrigation audits. Water savings and turf-quality improvements can be significant when irrigation systems are maintained properly.
  • When possible, switch to drought-tolerant varieties, avoid overseeding or completely remove turfgrass from certain areas.
  • Keep abreast of new water-saving technologies such as subsurface irrigation, wetting agents and monitoring with soil moisture meters. Track water volumes in gallons or liters on a spreadsheet so that consumption can be compared from one year to the next.

Staying on track

Once you’ve got those spreadsheets going, why not keep track of other inputs that can contribute to your sustainability profile?

  • fuel costs and volumes
  • hours of labor
  • kilowatt hours and electrical use costs

Each sustainability parameter should be measured at the start of the sustainability plan and at periodic intervals thereafter so that progress can be easily tracked.

Whether it’s Jan. 1, the start of the fiscal year or your birthday, select a date for annual assessment of sustainability progress using the parameters above, and hopefully, some additional ones that you identify on your own. By monitoring parameters that have hard and fast numbers attached to them, you will have a clear and easy way to communicate your progress as a means of motivating your employees, highlighting it in your job review, and publicizing it in your clubhouse, your newsletter or your website. You, your crew and your facility should be able to take pride in contributing to both a more economically and environmentally sustainable operation.

Literature cited

  1. Gelernter, W., and L. Stowell, 2005. Improved overseeding programs: the role of weather. Golf Course Management 73(3):108-113.
  2. Gross, P., and T. Eckenrode. 2012. Turf reduction template. USGA Green Section Record 50(12). Online ( Verified Oct. 24, 2013.
  3. Kovach, J., C. Petzoldt, J. Degni and J. Tette. 2012. A method to measure the environmental impact of pesticides. Online ( Verified Oct. 24, 2013.
  4. Stowell, L., and M. Woods. 2013. Minimum levels for sustainable nutrition. In: Proceedings: Constructed Rootzones 2012. Applied Turfgrass Science Online (
    ). Verified Oct. 24, 2013.
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2012. Label Review Manual, Chapter 7. Online ( Verified Oct. 24, 2013.

Wendy Gelernter and Larry Stowell are the principals of Pace Turf LLC, San Diego, Calif., and Micah Woods is chief scientist at the Asian Turfgrass Center and an adjunct assistant professor in the department of plant sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.