Water World

By Ron Whitten Photos by Brian Green
February 07, 2011

Sunset Valley Golf Club is a municipal course in the Chicago North Shore suburb of Highland Park, Illinois (the 4th hole is pictured above).

Without water, there is no golf. With too much water, there is no golf. That's the dilemma facing every golf superintendent, one that's intensified when the golf course assumes the additional burden of being a flood control basin for the surrounding community. Over the past 29 years, few have met the challenge better than certified golf course superintendent R. Brian Green.

For his efforts in dealing with water -- capturing it, filtering it, utilizing it, removing it -- the 53-year-old Green was named the overall winner of the 2010 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award, co-sponsored annually by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and Golf Digest. Green presides over Sunset Valley Golf Club,

a municipal course in the Chicago North Shore suburb of Highland Park, Illinois.

The course was built in 1921 in a 100-acre floodplain. A manmade channel, the East Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River, flows diagonally through the course from northwest to southeast. It's really more of a canal, less than 50 feet wide and rather shallow, but significant. While serving as a hazard to golfers at both Sunset Valley and famed Bob O'Link Golf Club to the immediate south, it carries stormwater from northern suburbs down to the Chicago River, and thence into Lake Michigan. Along the way, downstream from Sunset Valley, it feeds the Chicago Botanical Gardens and Skokie Lagoons, a popular and extensive haunt for fishermen.

The channel floods repeatedly each season, overflowing with stormwater draining from nearby highways, city streets and parking lots, water containing many pollutants and sediments. There are four ponds on the course (not counting an irrigation pond) that capture some of the water flowing across the course. To further slow the flow, and help his neighbors and constructed four bioswales, low basins -- two the size of golf greens, two more a few acres in size -- that collect excessive stormwater and allow it to filter through native vegetation before re-entering the stream. In dry seasons, the bioswales double as grass traps for errant golfers. In rainy weather, they become additional, if temporary, water hazards.


The city of Highland Park, adjacent to Lake Michigan, has waterworks that supply drinking water for many Chicago suburbs. For decades, Green simply filled his irrigation pond -- it's called Foley's Pond -- with that fresh water. When a new irrigation system was installed in 2005, Green converted to new pumps and began filling the irrigation pond with storm and effluent water from the channel, a switch that has conserved 20 million gallons a year for domestic use elsewhere. What's more, the new pumps allow him to avoid peak electrical demand times, thus preserving electrical energy for domestic use. His new irrigation system also allows him to specifically target his watering to only spots that need it, eliminating runoff from excessive irrigation.

Foley's Pond, adjacent to the second tee and out of play, features thickets of shrubs introduced by Green, including American Plum, Hazelnut, Spicebush and Vernal Witchhazel, all of which generate food supply for migrating birds. The pond is now a popular spot for local birdwatchers. "In a 20-minute walk around the pond you can be treated to many varieties of birds not often easily seen," Green says. "Warblers, Scarlet Tanager, Orioles, Wood Ducks, Indigo Buntings, Black-crowned Night Herons, Green Herons and Kingfishers. The pond is easily accessed from the neighborhood."

As Chicago sits beneath the Lake Michigan flyway, Sunset Valley also gets its share of Canadian geese. For a variety of reasons, geese are not popular on golf courses. Fake coyotes -- as well as the occasional real one -- keep the geese moving along, as do people walking their dogs around Foley's Pond.

The East Fork channel runs for nearly 3,000 feet across the long, narrow golf course. Constant flooding causes erosion of the channel banks. To stabilize Green had his crews restore much of both sides of the stream using a variety of environmentally-approved erosion-control techniques. Some sections were stabilized with cell-style plantings of selected native perennials. One section along the fifth hole was laid back, reducing the angle of the bank to merge it into a bioswale. A steep channel bank in front of the green on the par-3 11th was rebuilt and re-vegetated using funds provided by the Illinois EPA as a "best management practice."

Green has also addressed his ponds, portions of which are stabilized with rock. He firmed up the remaining pond edges with the native vegetation and establishing buffer zones between golf holes and hazards. Golfers are now prohibited from entering stream and pond banks in search of golf balls, in part to protect the tender vegetation and in part because the areas have become wildlife habitat for American minks, which have returned to Sunset Valley after an absence of several decades. Green has reintroduced so many native plant areas that he now describes his golf course as "a wildlife corridor and sustainable open space."

The Illinois EPA also funded installation of a 3,200 gallon stainless steel cistern that collects rainwater off the maintenance building roof. The water is used to hand-irrigate greenhouse plants as well as native plants established by the Park District's natural-areas coordinator and her volunteers in a 1,500-square-foot "rain garden" near the first tee and a four-acre "butterfly garden" beyond the first green.

In managing Sunset Valley, Green is even concerned with the slightest of moisture. Morning dew can rapidly promote development and spread of dollar spot fungus on his bent-Poa Annua fairways and greens. Since he only mows fairways three or four times a week, on the other days he now runs a drag -- sections of PVC pipe chained behind a golf cart -- across fairways to break up the dew. On days he doesn't mow greens, he rolls them to disperse the dew. The efforts have led to a 25% reduction in his dollar spot fungicide applications.

This is not Brian Green's first trip to the awards podium. In 1999, he was recognized with an Environmental Steward Award by GCSAA and in 2003 he and Sunset Valley were a Midwest Regional winner of an EGLA. He appreciates the recognition, but notes, "We have not been doing these projects for awards. We do them to address the needs and problems of this community."

His next order of business will be addressing energy consumption at his golf course.