Gambling with water

Phil Helmnin Conservation & Ecology

Owen James, Sustainability Manager for England Golf, discusses climate change, water harvesting and the future of sports turf water management.

Having worked in both greenkeeping and hospitality in golf clubs, Owen has a natural understanding of the nuances related to changing mindsets within a golfing environment.

Role and Responsibilities

A brief stint in education, followed by working for a leading water company on flooding and climate resilience, he is now combining all his skills and passions for both the game and sustainability for England Golf. Owen’s drive is clear to see, he explained, “From ‘hidden gems’ to 54 hole venues, the time is now for golf to become more sustainable, and my passion is to motivate everybody involved in golf to think about the future, so that our game can grow, thrive and provide climate solutions to local communities.”

Our differing climate!

We all agree that unpredictable weather is making it harder to manage and maintain our golf courses. In some areas of the world, this may be due to drought and water scarcity, while in others it may be flooding due to extremes in rainfall and storm events. Some areas are even experiencing drought followed by flooding, with very little warning or time between the two extremes. Not only do most golf courses fall under this umbrella (sorry), but already some links courses are facing added physical incursions due to increased coastal erosion.

“We have been seeing extremely unpredictable weather patterns in the UK for the last few years,” explained Owen. “Data is showing us that we no longer have traditional ‘seasons’ and that we now experience drought or flood events throughout the year as shown in our total rainfall graph collected over the last eight years.”  (see figure 1 below).

“Everyone knows there is pressure on water, and that the situation is not going to get

better! In fact, it’s going to get worse,” cautioned Owen. “Recently, the Environment Agency warned that over four thousand million extra litres of water could be needed every day if action is not taken to reduce usage between now and 2050. Population growth, climate change and over abstraction is driving the increased pressure – even in a nation with a reputation for being rainy.” 

There is no legal obligation for water boards to supply water for anything other than residential use.

Owen went on, “Climate change is not only causing more drought events, but is also making rainfall patterns hugely different! Warmer air is holding more moisture in the atmosphere, and as a result, our rainfall becomes far more intense and less predictable! This means more severe storms, more flooding, more runoff, but crucially as a result, less absorption by the turf and less recharging of aquifers.”

  • 65% of golf clubs still rely on mains water for irrigation.
  • Golf abstracts eight times more water than the next nearest leisure activity.
  • 1,200 golf facilities are currently located in areas of ‘water stress’ in the UK.

Owen clarified, “Water companies currently provide mains supply because they can. As water stress increases, the ‘hierarchy of need’ will inevitably come into place.” He explained, “Golf, up to now, has been exempt from hosepipe bans on the grounds of safety, in that watering greens/tees is necessary to avoid ruts which may cause dangerous/unpredictable ball bounce. How long can we keep relying on that status?”

So, from those alarming statistics, it’s fair to say that if a golf course draws water from the mains, then soon it could be in big trouble! He explained, “It’s vital that clubs reduce their reliance on mains water supply and investigate other water source options of bore-hole abstraction and/or river/stream abstraction, and most importantly, on-site storage of water. However, clubs mustn’t be complacent, as even these sources are at risk due to reduced water found in the ground.”

To drill or not to drill (that is the question)

Many golf courses have already recognised the benefits of having either a borehole or a local water course to supply their water, because it’s far more economical than mains supply and continues to be more so year on year. Using these sources for irrigation systems also usually has the advantage of supplying larger volumes, higher pressure and, as borehole water is non-potable, is therefore free of chlorine and fluoride, which could actually benefit turf health.

Owen explained, “Water boards abstract from aquifers too; if you’re unlucky enough to be sharing with them, you’re more likely to face issues, especially in areas of water stress and during periods of drought. Water boards are still obliged to use the aquifers to satisfy domestic demand and can impose a ‘Section 57 notice’ notice on clubs at these times, which reduces abstraction volumes or in worse case situation stop abstraction altogether! We have watched these instances closely, and the trend is that these notices are being issued more often, and the warning ‘notice periods’ are getting shorter and shorter, leaving little if no time for the clubs to plan alternatives.”

Where do we go from here?

With rising summer temperatures causing heatwaves and droughts, and significantly more extreme rainfall in short ‘bursts’ causing flooding, most turf managers are searching for the necessity to bring an element of harmony and stability to their management regimes. Owen explained, “Does the answer lie within the problem? Does joined up thinking need to be applied to the ‘boom or bust’ water situation we currently face?” He continued, “One greenkeeper recently reported to me that he’d calculated that his flooded golf course contained the same amount of rainwater equivalent to his annual irrigation usage for the year; but had no means of storing it! One of the best ways to ensure you reduce your water shortage risk is to store it when you have an abundant supply. With the right licences, harvested rainwater (it must be collected before it reaches any water course or aquifer) is free and moderately pollutant free.”

He continued, “We must see the real value of water, and move away from the historic ideology that water is cheap and in abundant supply. Wherever we get our water, it remains a problem if we use it instantly. ‘Instant water’ is a thing of the past and the answer to future proofing water usage is to harvest and collect water in man-made holding tanks, ponds, lakes or reservoirs.”

You do not need a water abstraction licence:

  • To harvest rainwater into a reservoir, with or without an overflow, if it only holds collected rainwater.
  • To use harvested rainwater that has not entered inland surface waters or ground water.
  • If the rainwater storage system is used for irrigation and is not a source of water supply.
  • To use water stored for irrigation in a reservoir with an overflow, provided that the reservoir is only filled by harvested rainwater or water abstracted from another source under a full abstraction licence.


Sustainability is such a commonly used term these days that we seldom stop to think what it really means. Golf course sustainability means thinking simultaneously about benefits to the environment, society and the economy, so that we can continue to improve their positive value through future generations. In practical terms, this necessitates three key aims (see figure 2):

  • To enhance nature and conserve resources.
  • To provide economic stability for your organisation.
  • To deliver multiple benefits for communities.

“Golf has a unique relationship with the natural environment and a responsibility to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy the game played by millions around the world” - The R and A.

“There are many elements we must explore when we think about sustainability,” explained Owen, “and I don’t think any one solution on its own will be sufficient. The key challenges for any turf manager for future proofing your water storage and usage is to investigate ways to help make your system as efficient as possible.” Possible areas to scrutinise are:

  • Move away from mains supply.
  • Look into sustainable agronomy and alternative grasses.
  • Invest in rainwater capture and harvesting.
  • Winter abstraction.
  • Find space for on-site water storage.
  • Improve irrigation efficiency.
  • Flooding in your area? Position yourself as a solutions provider, by speaking to the council, water boards and the Environment Agency.
  • Speak to housing developers, taking their storm water could be a massive bonus for both parties!


Owen concludes, “I usually ask the decision makers at any club these two questions.”

  1. How long could your golf course survive without water?
  2. How high up your priority list is it to make sure you have a reliable SOURCE of water?

He continued, “As you can imagine, it usually stirs up some thought provoking conversation, but I believe we need to consider these crucial elements if our primary asset (the golf course) has any chance of withstanding our future climate and the changes it has, and will, continue to throw at us as turf managers. Here at England Golf, we are committed to supporting you all in this endeavour, so please reach out where I will be only too happy to advise.”

It just leaves me to thank Owen for his time and insight into what has to be one of the most important issues related to our industry at the moment, and reiterate that his expertise in this field will be invaluable if you require England Golf to get involved in your water sustainability future plans.