Scientists Measure Pesticide Runoff from Golf Courses

A government study that measures fertilizer and pesticide runoffs on golf courses could lead to better management of chemicals in other grassy areas such as parks and cemeteries.

According to the National Golf Courses, an industry association, there are approximately 16,000 golf courses in the United States, with between 150 to 400 new courses opening every year since 1990.

Pesticides are applied to golf courses at higher concentrations per acre than almost any other type of land, including farmland, and there are concerns that their extensive use could contaminate waterways and damage neighboring communities and wildlife.

The government study is one of the first to directly measure the amount of fertilizers and pesticides losses from golf courses and is being conducted by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Kevin King, an agricultural engineer and one of the two researchers involved in the study, has measured fertilizer runoffs from three golf courses: in Duluth, Minnesota, Austin, Texas; and near Columbus, Ohio. Pesticide losses were also measured at the Duluth and Columbus courses.

So far, the data shows golf courses to be doing well, King said.

"They are probably the first precision farmers and only apply what the courses need," King said. "If you have a one hundred acre golf course and farm, the farmer is going to apply pesticides everywhere, whereas the golf courses will only apply on managed area, which may be 20 acres."

Golf superintendents also apply the compounds in small doses over many applications, King said, thus minimizing the amount that can be lost if it rains shortly after application.

Another ARS researcher, Pam Rice, is measuring pesticide losses from grass plots. King and Rice are using their findings to improve the accuracy of computer models designed to predict fertilizer and pesticide losses from golf courses.

The researchers are also examining ways to reduce runoff losses. One possibility is to use strategically placed vegetation designed to intercept the compounds called grass buffer strips, King said.

Findings from the studies could have implications for how pesticides and fertilizers are used in other grassy areas, including parks, cemeteries, athletic fields and home lawns.