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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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
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?
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
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
The single biggest impact on sustainability: reducing
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.
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 (www.acme.com/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?
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
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
Reducing the total
pounds or kilos of pesticides used is a good goal, but reducing the toxicity of
the pesticides applied is equally important.
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
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 (www.nysipm.cornell.edu/ publications/eiq/files/EIQ_values_2012entire. pdf)
courtesy of Cornell University.
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 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.
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.
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 turf.org/journal/irrigation_water_guidelines).
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.
possible, switch to drought-tolerant varieties, avoid overseeding or completely
remove turfgrass from certain areas.
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
Staying on track
Once you’ve got
those spreadsheets going, why not keep track of other inputs that can
contribute to your sustainability profile?
costs and volumes
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.
W., and L. Stowell, 2005. Improved overseeding programs: the role of weather. Golf Course Management 73(3):108-113.
P., and T. Eckenrode. 2012. Turf reduction template. USGA Green Section
Online (http://gsr.lib.msu.edu/article/gross-turf-6-8-12.pdf). Verified Oct.
J., C. Petzoldt, J. Degni and J. Tette. 2012. A method to measure the
environmental impact of pesticides. Online
(www.nysipm.cornell.edu/publications/eiq/default.asp). Verified Oct. 24, 2013.
L., and M. Woods. 2013. Minimum levels for sustainable nutrition. In: Proceedings: Constructed
Rootzones 2012. Applied
Turfgrass Science Online
Verified Oct. 24, 2013.
Environmental Protection Agency. 2012. Label Review Manual, Chapter 7. Online
(www.epa.gov/oppfead1/labeling/lrm/chap-07.pdf). 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.