I have just graduated with a Masters in Environmental Science from the Open University of Malaysia last month. It was the culmination of two plus years years of weekend classes and another three of doing research, well one year of planning, 30 days of collecting data and almost two years of writing up the report (hardworking; I am, genius; I am not) about the link between golf course fertilisation and nutrient in the river water inside a particular golf course. I’m sure that my sponsor is happy, my scholarship being my savings from the Employees Provident Fund. I’ve even had to resign from a job that made me work on weekends to start my classes.
I have always maintained that, in the Malaysian context, golf course pollution is not so much from the pesticides, as is assumed by most people. The majority of Malaysian golf courses do not apply much in the way of pesticides as can be seen in the amount of pests, be it weeds, fungi or even insects on a typical Malaysian golf course. If I were to hazard a guess, perhaps only 10% of Malaysian golf courses would actually apply pesticides in any quantity large enough to make a difference on their course and the environment. The danger to the environment, with regard to pesticides would be the courses that is part of this 10% that has the money to buy the pesticides but do not have the training, knowledge or even the willingness to protect their workers, never mind the environment. The next time you come across a staff applying anything on a golf course, ask him three question 1. What is he applying? 2. Who taught him how to apply? 3. When was his last training for application? You’ll be surprised how many workers don’t know what they’re applying, never mind the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) which would specify what to do if accidents happen.
What about the rest of the Malaysian golf courses? Do the other 90% pose a risk? To a certain extent, I believe they do, but not from pesticides; perhaps because we associate pesticides with poison, we assume that is the only environmental hazard in golf courses, whereas, there lurks another hazard; the fertiliser. Especially the cheap, quick-release fertiliser. Especially in Malaysia’s tropical climate with an annual rainfall of above 2,500mm. Especially in golf courses with drainage designed for golf in tropical climate with heavy rainfall.
Apply fertiliser; rain come, fertilizer bye-bye either through leaching or surface-runoff which would wash away the fertilizer prills or the nutrients into the lower parts of the course, into drainage which inevitably will be or lead to a water body, be it a river, lake or even the irrigation pond.
Of the 16 or 17 nutrients turfgrass needs, two that are applied in large amounts are considered to be hazardous if they are released into the water bodies (ponds, lakes, river etc) in large amounts: nitrogen and phosphorus.
Why? There is such a thing as national water quality standards, which we should not exceed (thank you, Captain Obvious). Secondly, they cause eutrophication, which is to say: both these nutrients will increase plant life (algae, phytoplankton etc.) in the water, significantly. Wait, more plants, not good? Not good. Water weeds when die will sink to the bottom, become food for more plant life AND microorganism that helps them decay. These organisms and processes needs oxygen, which they take from the water, depriving the fishes, which then die and rot and that rotting process uses oxygen, which if lacking, some of the afore-mentioned organisms may then cheat by going anaerobic which is not cool because its by-product is hydrogen sulphide, a smelly and poisonous gas. So we either get no oxygen (aka ‘dead zones’) or poisonous gas (death zones?). All simplified of course, a scientific journal this is not, however do feel free to Google ‘eutrophication’, ‘nitrogen and phosphorus in water’ or ‘fertiliser pollution’ for more info.
As for my research, I focused on three major nutrients; nitrogen, phosphorus and kalium (or potassium as the Americans call ‘K’) and I looked for any correlation between fertiliser application, rainfall and the amount of nutrients in the river inside the golf course. The results of the research show that there is no correlation between all three. My supervisor or as I like to say, my professor, Dr. Thiru, has encouraged me to publish my findings in relevant journals, which I will, soon (don’t hold your breath).
This does not conclusively mean all golf courses’ fertilising activity do not pose a threat; the risk increases with the use of cheap quick-release fertiliser, better drainage, higher rates, no equipment calibration, no training and also type of soil, so pay attention. It is said that cheap vitamins lead to expensive urine, likewise I like to say that cheap fertilising will lead to expensive drainage water.