By Mike Jiggens
A new $ 4.5-million water quality management system recently installed
at the Islington Golf Club in Toronto is expected to help nurse the
87-year-old club’s turf conditions back to the health it once enjoyed.
The Stanley Thompson-designed private golf course had been experiencing inconsistent conditions in recent years, largely brought about by poor irrigation water quality. Irrigation water drawn from the on-site Mimico Creek was high in total dissolved salt (TDS) levels and was being delivered by an obsolete irrigation system.
Superintendent Robin Stafford said the end result was golf course conditions that weren’t meeting the membership’s expectations.
“We were suffering turf loss and generally poor conditions,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately known why the turf was so inconsistent throughout the golf course. Following some research, it was discovered a hard developed area north of the golf course within the Mimico Creek watershed had water retention ponds containing poor quality water which, during periods of low flow, would feed a charge of saline water into the creek, keeping Islington’s TDS levels high.
The creek, which comes into play on eight different holes, had become high in sodium and chlorides. With its high TDS levels, which in recent years had reached upwards of 6,000 parts per million, physiological drought was often the end result if the soil wasn’t flushed or provided relief from adequate rainfall.
Sodium is a toxic ion which displaces other nutrients from the plant, causing the turfgrass to absorb sodium and suffer. The high level of chlorides impacts the uptake of nitrogen, resulting in nutrient management problems. An ion imbalance in the soil is also created.
“All those things create management problems,” said Stafford, who took over the superintendent’s role at Islington in 2004 after coming from Ottawa’s Camelot Golf Club.
The inconsistent course conditions were even more pronounced during a dry year, he said. During wetter seasons, when abundant rainfall would flush the salts through the soil, conditions would be more ideal, but the club’s members were at a loss to understand the inconsistencies from one year to the next.
Stafford admitted even he was stumped somewhat to explain the inconsistent conditions, but he made it a priority to learn why.
One of the telltale signs was the amount of leaf scorch on deciduous trees. While consulting with some of his predecessors, he learned problems with salinity weren’t apparent as far back as the 1980s. TDS levels at that time were less than 1,000 parts per million.
“For cool season turf, once you go over 2,000 parts per million, you’re into some tricky stuff.”
It was also recognized that Islington’s irrigation system was obsolete. Stafford said the hydraulically-controlled, double row system was obsolete and overdue for replacement.
The club’s board of directors overwhelmingly approved the new water management project.
In September 2008, measures were taken to address the golf course’s shortcomings. Work began on the construction of a six-million-gallon reservoir which was filled from two sources—Mimico Creek and a municipal water supply. The site of the reservoir had previously been an organic waste dump which, over the course of 80-plus years, had evolved into a small “mountain” of accumulated trees, old sod, grass clippings and other organic waste material.
Stafford said the area was heavily treed, which hid any unsightliness, but the smell of decay was clear.
In all, the site contained about 20,000 cubic metres of organic waste material which was moved offsite. About 3,000 cubic metres of the material, however, was retained as screened topsoil for the pond’s construction.
Stafford said the amount of waste on the site was greater than he originally anticipated during the budgeting process, which added to its costs, but the remainder of the project came in under budget.
The winter of 2008-2009 forced a work stoppage on the pond’s construction, and the project resumed in the spring and was completed in early June. Stafford said it was hoped the work would be finished in the fall of 2008.
The municipal water supply will be able to suitably dilute the creek water’s high TDS levels to improve the quality of irrigation water reaching the turf. Stafford said adding municipal water to the mix is a new cost the golf course will incur, but the payoff is expected to be better quality turf and more consistent conditions.
“We may even be able to deliver the conditions the membership wants.”
The water management project also included a new pumphouse.
TDS levels in the creek are traditionally high in the spring from melting snow and salt applications in surrounding developed areas. Levels can reach about 5,000 parts per million at that time of year. By late April or early May, levels tend to drop into the 2,500 to 3,500 range. As the season moves into late summer, levels usually decrease to less than 1,000 parts per million, and Stafford said he has seen levels fall below 500 parts per million.
Last year, however, TDS levels never dropped below 1,000 parts per million.
The 2009 season was particularly trying, Stafford said. In addition to the completion of $4.5 million worth of golf course improvements, including the installation of a new irrigation system, the golf course encountered devastating winter kill to several of its greens, forcing the implementation of temporary putting surfaces for part of the season.
Stafford said he had been encountering problems with his greens since he was first hired in 2004. The irrigation system was faulty from the intake to its sprinkler heads, and not only were the greens being irrigated with poor quality water, but some weren’t getting sufficient sunlight which created inconsistencies from one green to another.
One in particular—the par three sixth green—was the worst of all. It was heavily shaded to the point where the lack of sunlight was taking its toll on the turf. A longtime club member said the sixth green had always been in poor condition.
Stafford commissioned a sunlight assessment in the fall of 2005, and learned the green was 80 per cent sunlight-deficient. The data from the assessment was taken to the club’s board of directors who decided that before any trees were to be removed, something would be done about the outdated irrigation system and any other corrective measures would be undertaken.
By the spring of 2008, after having experienced inconsistent conditions on the green for a long enough period of time, the go-ahead was given to remove the culprit trees.
“The green has never been better,” Stafford said of its return to good health and consistency.
There is a right place and a wrong place for trees on a golf course, he said, adding the removed trees were in the wrong place. The study into Islington’s sunlight penetration on the greens was the first of its kind conducted at the golf course in 60 years.
This spring, 72 trees have been removed as a result of the sunlight assessment. Prior to the removal of trees, basal rot anthracnose had become a frequent problem.
Other significant work done to the golf course in recent years has included renovations to some holes and tees in 2005, bunker renovations in 2006, the erection of a large fence at the third hole in 2007, and attention to poor subsurface drainage on all 18 holes which saw three greens done per year over the past three years.
Islington has hired architect Ian Andrew of Weir Golf Design to develop a new golf course master plan.
“Ian has a thorough understanding of Stanley Thompson’s designs across Canada, as well as golf course renovation/restoration projects, so we’re delighted to have him on board,” said club president D’Arcy DeGeer, a 38-year member at Islington.
Andrew will be developing a new long-range master plan and tree program for the golf course.
During the week of July 19-25, Islington will close nine holes to allow its first and second fairways to serve as the official practice range for the RBC Canadian Open, which will be played at the neighbouring St. George’s Golf & Country Club.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to partner with Golf Canada and St. George’s Golf & Country as we bring the RBC Canadian Open back to the City of Toronto for the first time since 1968,” DeGeer said. “It still surprises me that there are a lot of golfers who have never heard of Islington Golf Club. Hopefully, after this year, they’ll have a good feeling about us.
“I think this will be an exciting year for our membership. We’re going to see many of the best players in the world hitting balls at our golf course, and we’re ready to take the facility to the next level in terms of conditioning and playability. Down the road, when we look back in time, Iâ€ˆthink we’ll find 2010 to be a pivotal year in the club’s history.”
Stafford agreed Islington’s association with the Canadian Open makes for good public relations for the golf course.
“It’s nice to be associated with St. George’s and the Canadian Open,” he said.