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Plan now, drain later

A course management column by Jim Arthur BSc(Agric)

I am sure that I speak for many Club Managers when I say that too many questionable operations are forced on management against their better judgement by vociferous minority pressure groups. They are distinguished, not just on golf courses but also in the world in general, by their enthusiasm and prejudices which far outweigh their knowledge. After such a long wet winter, which has discovered all the weak drainage areas on the golf course, it is only natural that such groups should advocate more drainage to deal with a one-off situation. Frequently, they think that all that this involves is cutting shallow open ditches - all too often starting at the flooded areas, which contravenes one of the first principles of field drainage, namely that ‘one always works back from an outfall, never to it.’

In many instances of local flooding, it is so much a case of it being caused by fundamentally poor basic drainage, but of too much rain over-burdening a poorly maintained system or falling on inadequately aerated soils. As is always the case, over-reaction and premature work responding to an abnormal crisis wastes money and all too often ends up with a situation that is worse than the problem it was designed to correct.

I am prompted to reiterate some of the basic principles of field drainage which have been ignored or were unknown to some management regimes in the past. Some of these criteria are so elementary that I may be accused of mockery, but I can assure you that every day brings examples of rules being broken with disastrous repercussions by those too often lacking in education, experience and humility, with their ignorance exceeded only by their arrogance. An unforgiving Nature makes short shrift of their ill thought-out proposals.

One of these principles is that water does not flow up hill. You would not credit the number of times in the past 55 years of supervising drainage work that I have had to condemn systems which, because of incompetent surveys, were designed on the basis of denying that self-evident truth ! In one case, nearly 30 years ago, I spotted the error before a sod was turned. The end result was a new scheme to drain 30 acres of woodland, vital to the design of an 18-hole extension to an existing famous parkland course , where we has to cope with a fall of only 6 ins (150 mm) in 500 yards. It was designed by a wizard drainage expert, sadly no longer concerned with terrestrial matters, and an inspired contractor known as ‘Pugh the Drain’. I will always treasure his comment to us that he had never had to work with a feeler gauge before. It is a lasting testimonial to their skills that this classic example of zero drainage is as effective today as when it was installed.

This emphasises the need for really accurate level surveys conducted to extremely precise restraints. Not all so-called expert consultants seem to be able to do this. The price of such a survey by a really experienced surveyor is cheap at any price. So-called ‘sports ground drainage experts’ can cost you a small fortune and wet feet. You can always tell them - they advocate shallow drains.

Two very important inter-related factors are that one should never mess about with drainage schemes in winter and that every course should have both accurate drainage plans and an over-all, long-term drainage scheme, even if it is not implemented in one phase. By all means, plan and survey in winter but start work only under dry (summer) conditions. Far too many Clubs delay the start of drainage ‘until after the Captain’s Day’ and then wonder why their members and Treasurer moan when such delays produce conditions reminiscent of ‘Paschendael’, not to mention that the system takes another year to become effective.

The first task in any drainage scheme is to find an effective outfall. If that is not possible, then the best advice is often to find another site or, if this is out of the question, it may be possible to pump from a sump. In passing, there are often unexpected problems in draining very wet land as in one case in Holland where we used a huge pump to dispose of all the water drained from this below sea level track. The peat shrunk as it dried out but the roots of the poplar trees did not and left us with unplayable fairways that could not be mowed - and you know how devoted the Dutch are to their trees !!

Another basic principle of golf course drainage is to drain deep - even up to a metre - to tap the water table. Such deep drains are laid in narrow slits cut with a trenchless drainer, straight onto a carefully graded base and never on gravel (as the water tends to run in the gravel and not the drain, causing problems later). They are then filled nearly to the surface with a light indestructible aggregate or even gravel. This provides an excellent structure across which can be run subsidiary drains or mole ploughs. Shallow drains have poorer pulling power and need to be closer spaced and are therefore more expensive. They are also prone to damage from the surface. Even worse, is that the water table may rise to the depth of the drain - a minor advantage in summer but disaster in winter.

It should not need saying but all drains should run across slopes, never at right angles to the contours. I well remember some 20 years ago, condemning a scheme produced by an ‘expert’ with fully six months agricultural college training, who had drained one fairway on the basis of shallow, closely spaced drains at right angles to the contours. All that they drained was a foot either side of the drain, leaving parallel bogs in-between them. Not only on the basis of his costs would it have been cheaper to buy more land, but the scheme, costly as it was, did not work and was largely unnecessary. The course was laid out on Bagshot sand on the upper levels, overlying London clay. Where the strata interfaced, the water held and waterlogged the clay fairways. All we did was to cut an intercept drain through the sand into the underlying clay and this diverted the water and made all but local drainage of the lower land unnecessary ! Of course such an open intercept drain must be kept clean to run to efficient collecting drains. Again, this system is as good today as when it was installed.

This brings me to the point that good systems long outlast those who designed them. Think of those stalwarts who cut deep and often very narrow drains into unyielding clay with great precision to lay primitive 2” tiles (first invented in 1843). Many of these old systems when investigated are still working. Those old boys knew a thing or two about drainage which many of today’s ’cowboys’ could emulate with advantage.

Another facet which bears mention is that it is generally a mistake to lay a new system over an older one, which may have become blocked. Drainage from the shallower system will often find the old blocked one and then neither works. Outfalls are the most important part of any drainage. All too often they are neglected and silting up starts. Too many schemes specify too many outfalls, as for instance where drains are run into an open ditch. Far better to construct a collecting drain across the ends of the field drains in the bank above the ditch, so that there is only one outfall which can be properly maintained. This is in preference to a score of outfalls, which become lost or rendered ineffective if the ditch bank subsides or is cleaned.

Good drainage contractors are scarce, they have inherited skills, an unfailing eye for levels and a vast experience to deal with such problems as running sand. Drainage surveys and advice is most certainly not a job for your town surveyor member ! I well remember a recent case where just such a man used the wrong drains (fibre not pvc), lost a digger in running sand for six weeks (sunk to well over its tracks), and finally admitted defeat, leaving the Course Manager to clear up the mess he had left. This is not a job for whiz-kid with computerised expertise, it is much more a case of picking one from a very few who have track records going back decades, know their job backwards and save their clients thousands. If in doubt, ask me !!

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