As a veteran superintendent, 57-year-old Mark Condos has always considered himself an environmental steward. “I’ve dedicated myself to the preservation of the wildlife at my facilities,” says Condos, a native Floridian who moved to California over 30 years ago. But he was never a crusader, never a chest-thumper about it. He’s been the head superintendent at Livermore’s 27-hole municipal operation, Las Positas Golf Course for five years, but only recently was persuaded to submit an application as an Environmental Leader in Golf, the annual award co-sponsored by Golf Digest and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
In his first try, Condos not only was named National Public Course Winner, but Overall Winner as well. (Full disclosure: this writer served as one of the judges in the Public Course and Finalist competitions.)
Condos won because his operation demonstrates that sustainable practices can be crowd pleasers, benefitting not just golfers who frequent the course, but the entire community.
His golf course is one of those municipal operations that serves many purposes. Las Positas first opened in 1966, with Interstate 580 on its north flank and Livermore Municipal Airport on its south. Indeed, the land on which it was built was leased from the airport, with the understanding that, in time, the airport might want some of it back. That’s happened twice. In 1990, when a runway needed extension, original architect Robert Muir Graves returned to totally redesign the old back nine (now the front nine) and add a nine-hole executive course. In 2011, the airport needed additional elbow room, so course designers Kent Alkire and Doug Beach turned the executive course in a 9-hole par 3, created three new holes for the Signature 18 farther west and remodeled the remainder of its holes. Condos handled the grow-in of the new turf.
Las Positas exists not only to provide recreation but protection from flooding. It serves as a flood retention basin for Cottonwood Creek, which flows through it from east to west, keeping excess rainfall from otherwise spilling over onto city streets, runways and airport buildings. Since the creek eventually reaches San Francisco Bay, 40 miles to the west, Condos is proactive in his efforts to keep from polluting the bay. He’s designated the areas along each side of the creek as no-spray zones. All vegetation in those areas are trimmed by hand. He applies no chemicals to tees, fairways or rough. He will occasionally treat greens. He uses organics, bio-stimulants and natural products to fight turf diseases. He rolls the greens as often as possible, instead of mowing, to reduce plant stress. He never uses poison to kill rodents. Instead, he’s installed owl boxes to encourage an owl population to feast on rodents. If necessary, he’ll trap the rodents.
The property has eight shallow, lined ponds incorporated into the course design. They are not connected, so in heavy rains, they simply overflow, covering some fairways before they reach the creek bed. So Condos created naturalized shorelines of reeds and cattails around each pond, again with a no-spray buffer around the perimeter, to prevent contamination downstream on the off-chance a pond would spill over.
The ponds attract wildlife, particularly birds. Las Positas sits within the California flyway and is host each season to over 50 species of migratory and resident birds, including egrets, herons, geese, duck, golden eagles, hawks and wild turkeys. “I like them all except the coots,” Condos says. “They’re my worst problem.”
The little black coots travel in huge flocks, soiling turf and adjacent ponds with their droppings, which leads to planktonic algae, which creates a noxious odor. “When I first arrived, I could hardly breathe around some of our ponds, the smell was so intense.”
To remedy it, Condos installed aerator fountains in the ponds to add oxygen and break up algae. He also cultivated submersed weeds like milfoil and pondweed to lessen the nutrient contents in the ponds. He even allows propagation of duckweed, a tiny, floating, lily-pad type plant, even if it might cover the entire surface of a pond and look like a thin layer of scum. “It looks nasty, but it’s providing filtration,” Condos says, “and it’ll die off when it gets cold.”
Because of the airport next door, he’s prohibited from forcing huge flocks of birds to take flight at once. Most he can do is use a noisemaker, which normally disturbs just handfuls of birds at a time.
So there are thousands of birds at Las Positas every year, but nowadays there’s rarely an odor around any of its ponds, thanks mainly to the aeration fountains. It’s something golf purists should keep in mind when they scoff at water hazards with fountains.
Actually, most golfers never see the aerators in action at Las Positas. As they’re the club’s main electrical expense, Condos runs them mostly at night, when the electrical rates are lower. There’s virtually no electrical cost for irrigating the course. That’s because, when the course was first built, it was designated as the primary end user for the city’s new water treatment plant, so it has been irrigated with reclaimed water ever since. That water is provided under pressure, so Condos has no electrical pumps in his irrigation system. “If anything,” he says, “I have to reduce the pressure a little to keep from blowing out some of the 50-year-old pipes.”
When the course was rebuilt in 2011, city fathers insisted that greens be provided with potable city water, so now Condos doesn’t have to worry about the potential heavy metals associated with reclaimed water affecting his greens. He has three irrigation technicians who hand-water the greens, after using soil probes to measure moisture content, and as a result, his putting surfaces account for only 4% of the club’s water usage. During the recent four-year drought in California, when water consumption had to be reduced by 50% in 2014 and 35% in 2015, Las Positas was unaffected. Recycled water was not subject to the mandates (except indirectly, if consumers stopped flushing toilets as often) and his potable water use was so negligible that the city was able to trade it off with reductions elsewhere.
To see Las Positas today is to see an oasis in an otherwise parched climate, a durable golf course in an area where summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees then drop to 40 degrees overnight. The course, with its gleaming white sand bunkers accented by intense green turf, shaded by 50-year-old eucalyptus and accented by spots of naturalized areas, is a definite plus, serving an active junior golf program and a dedicated constituency of seniors. It’s good that the efforts of Mark Condos to establish and maintain that environment are now being heralded.
Other EGLA category winners:
National Private Winner: Dave Davies, CGCS, TPC Stonebrae, Hayward, Calif.
International Winner: Jason Honeyball, Oslerbrook G&CC, Collingwood, Ontario
There was no National Resort Winner selected in 2015.