The sea of tall grass and wildflowers that once covered this county is all but gone, but an experiment at Cottonwood Creek Golf Course may lead the way to restoring some of the Blackland Prairie to Waco.
The U.S. Golf Association is teaming with the city of Waco to establish stands of prairie vegetation on about 30 acres of rough. Working with the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and Baylor University ecologists, they plan to make Cottonwood a research site for how to make golf courses ecologically friendly.
Once established, the prairie sections will need no water and will be mowed only once a year, officials said. But city officials are optimistic the payoff will be aesthetic as well as economic.
They hope the miniature prairie, planted with little bluestem, sideoats grama, Indiangrass, firewheel, coreopsis and bluebonnets, will draw butterflies, wildlife and nature lovers.
“Ultimately, instead of having a 174-acre golf course, I’d like use to have a 174-acre park that happens to have a golf course on it,” parks and recreation director Rusty Black said.
He said the restoration and management techniques learned at Cottonwood could be applied to other parks and open spaces, such as the Cotton Belt Trail, roadsides and park areas that don’t have heavy foot traffic.
The U.S. Golf Association already has committed $60,000 to pay for consulting from the wildflower center, which is part of the University of Texas system.
City officials haven’t yet calculated the cost of restoration, but they expect to do most of the work in-house.
Jim Moore, outreach and education director for the golf association, said the Cottonwood experiment will be studied closely.
“That’s the reason we’re supporting it,” said Moore, who lives in Waco. “We want to use Cottonwood as a case study or example for courses all over, not just in Texas. Basically, it’s a living laboratory for USGA and Lady Bird Wild- flower Center.”
To determine which areas of the course will be converted to native grassland, Moore had Cottonwood staff fit hundreds of golfers with GPS devices to map their movements. They found large areas of rough where no one ever ventured.
The roughs are not being irrigated anyway. They are mostly buffalo grass, a short native range grass that goes dormant in drought and doesn’t need supplemental water.
The grass was planted when the course was established in the 1980s on surplus land the Veterans Administration deeded to the city. Golf course superintendent J.D. Franz said water conservation on golf courses was not a major concern at that time, and the decision to use buffalo grass was farsighted.
Much of that buffalo grass will be preserved, but the remote areas will be replaced with a much more diverse mixture of grasses and wildflowers that will be mowed perhaps once a year, or possibly burned.
The roughs now are mowed about six times a year, so the real savings will be in maintenance, Franz said. But the pocket prairie also will demonstrate new ideas for water conservation, he said.
“We want to lead the way,” he said. “We want to show that we’re trying as much as we can to conserve water. People might come out and say, ‘I like this kind of native landscape.’ ”
A related project involves installing a new irrigation system for the tee boxes that will reduce the area of irrigated hybrid Bermuda grass from 21 acres to 3 or 4, saving about 8 million gallons a year or about 10 percent of Cottonwood’s total water use.
The golf course uses treated city water but uses an on-site well to put an equivalent amount of groundwater back into the city system.
City officials hope the prairie restoration and irrigation improvements will earn Cottonwood Creek certification under the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf.
Mark Simmons, director of research consulting for the Ladybird Wildflower Center, said the restoration work could begin this winter, but not to expect stunning results right off the bat. In fact, the prairie sections may look weedy for a few years.
“It isn’t like bedding out petunias,” he said. “It’s a complicated system. A prairie has hundreds or thousands of species. When it’s been degraded, for whatever reason, you start pushing it through thresholds through which it can’t get back without a lot of work.”
The original ecosystem of the Blackland Prairie, a narrow ribbon of fertile clay that runs from San Antonio to Paris, Texas, took thousands of years to develop. The roots of prairie grasses could reach 15 feet into the soil and developed beneficial fungal mats that helped them grow and outcompete trees.
The Blackland Prairie was mostly plowed under a century ago for cotton and grain, and less than 1 percent of the original ecosystem remains.
Restoring the disturbed areas means battling aggressive non-native grasses such as Johnson, Bermuda and King Ranch bluestem grass. That takes time and vigilance, Simmons said.
“One of the problems is the perception that if it’s native, it should be cheap and it won’t need watering,” he said. “That’s not true. It takes effort to get things established. But there are long-term gains.”
He said restoring the prairie will bring back butterflies, mammals and birds, including quail, which have all but vanished from this area.
Cottonwood already gets its share of wild visitors.
Golf course officials have seen foxes, bobcats, armadillos and snakes. A surveillance camera set out to catch vandals who were thought to be cutting cordon ropes around the maintenance shed revealed that the culprits were coyote pups sharpening their teeth on the ropes.
Simmons said he is impressed with the vision and sophistication of the representatives of the USGA and the city on this project.
“If you start putting Blackland Prairie in city roadsides and parks, you’ll end up having one of the biggest preserves of Blackland Prairie,” he said. “If you look at the city as a preserve, it turns everything on its head. You’d be one of the first cities in the country, maybe the world to do this. And you’ll beat Austin to it.”