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Across Texas, Athletic Fields Suffer in Drought

As one of the worst droughts in Texas history intensifies, a notable if lesser worry is the condition of athletic fields. Some fields are getting patchy already, and a summer of 90 or 100 degree temperatures still lies ahead.

Outdoor watering has been banned in Llano, so workers dug a ditch in late June before laying a pipe that will bring well water to football practice fields.

LLANO — The two practice fields used by high school football teams here still look green, but perhaps not for long. This Central Texas town banned outdoor irrigation using city water last week, so workers have laid hundreds of feet of pipe from the fields to an old well. No one is sure how much water the well may hold.

“We hope this is a temporary solution,” said Dennis Hill, the superintendent of the Llano Independent School District. “Ultimately, it needs to rain. It needs to rain a lot.”

Across Texas, as one of the worst droughts in history intensifies, numerous cities and towns have implemented water restrictions. Earlier this week, the federal Department of Agriculture designated most of the state a natural disaster area, allowing devastated farmers and ranchers statewide to apply for emergency low-interest loans. 

A notable if lesser worry is the condition of athletic fields. Too much dirt creates safety concerns, and some fields are getting patchy. Worse, a summer of 90 to 100 degree temperatures and tightening sprinkler restrictions lie ahead — not to mention that players will begin trampling the fields in August, when practice starts.

“The extreme heat and no rain is burning up our fields,” James Riggen, a maintenance official with the Midland Independent School District, said in an e-mail. He waters the high school football fields three to four times a week, more than other fields. Even so, he said, they “are looking spotted and brown.” Midland has had virtually no rain for nine months and begins mandatory watering restrictions on Friday. 

More cities are ordering water use cutbacks. Llano, where signs around town say “No Watering,” is an extreme case because of its dependence on the nearly-dry Llano River, but San Antonio and San Marcos allow watering just once a week.

Cities may exempt school fields from some water restrictions. Michael Peterson, the director of the buildings and grounds division at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said that if Austin goes to once-a-week watering, which could happen in late summer if there is not significant rainfall, he hopes to be allowed to continue running sprinklers twice a week, as he does now. San Antonio public schools currently are allowed to water their fields three times weekly for 40 minutes each, and Midland's high school football fields will continue to get water several times weekly, though junior high football fields get water twice weekly.

Cutting down on water will cut costs for some districts. "As a result of possible reduced state funding and the current drought, MISD made the decision to reduce watering at our elementary and secondary campuses," Riggen said. "Reducing our overall district water consumption will save dollars." However, for campuses like St. Edward's, in parts of the state more accustomed to getting rain, increased need for sprinklers may add to utility costs.

Of course, sports fields experience wear and tear even in the best conditions — near soccer goals, for example. And some schools may be accustomed to less than perfect fields. "You know, our kids have never been real spoiled as far as having a nice turf plus green grass," said Jeff Jones, Marfa's athletic director and head football coach. "We have a bunch of clovers on our field anyway." This year, Jones said, "We've got just some burned-up spots on the field and we're trying to water it as much a we can, but a little rain would sure go a long way."

The drought has created other problems besides just brown spots. Small pebbles brought to the surface during the process of aerating the field — digging out tiny plugs to let water filter into the ground more easily — become more obvious when the grass is thinner, Peterson said. The St. Edward’s fields remain quite green, although weeds are spreading on a practice soccer field.

Even artificial turf needs occasional water to wash off the grit, according to athletic officials, though they say this is not yet a serious concern.

In Llano, if the two football practice fields cannot get the estimated 54,000 gallons of water that they need each week, the community may feel the effect. That’s because practice would move to the game field, which is watered by a working well. But heavy use could make that field unsuitable for games, so Llano might have to play its entire schedule at opponents’ homes, hurting morale — and the local economy.

“A lot of folks come to the ball game,” Hill said, “and they buy some gas and eat dinner.”

Ingrid Husby contributed reporting. 

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