Truckee’s turf dilemma
[Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series looking at the poor field conditions at Tahoe Truckee High School and possible solutions.]
Early next year the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District will try to solve the problem of the poor condition of playing fields at area schools.
The fields in question are all natural grass, which is slowly disappearing across America in favor of synthetic turf, an innovative design that simulates the softness and feel of natural grass with little bits of crumb rubber and sand combined with underneath padding.
Many high school, college and professional teams have made the switch in the name of safety, money and the environment. Many members of the Tahoe-Truckee community want the synthetic turf because of the long-term savings on water and maintenance costs, particularly in Tahoe’s inclement winter climate.
And while no one is denying that the field conditions at local schools need to be improved, the real issue is funding, especially the high initial cost of synthetic turf.
“Where does that money come from?” said Chris Cooper, the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District’s maintenance director. “That’s the issue with the artificial turf.”
Debate will officially begin in January when school district board members share reports comparing the costs of natural grass versus synthetic turf. But the good news for the Truckee community is that schools in the region have already dealt with the same issues.
On Truckee’s eastern and western fronts, two groups are now praising the installation of synthetic turf to solve problems that accompany natural grass fields. On one end, Woody Barry, of University of Nevada, Reno game day operations, said he has no complaints with the university’s decision to replace the Wolf Pack’s natural grass field with synthetic turf in 2000.
“There are a lot of people out there that have gone to these surfaces,” said Barry, who has worked at Nevada for eight years. “You can’t go wrong, and the big reason why is maintenance. The only maintenance is clean-up.”
Nevada bought from the Canadian firm FieldTurf, whose 2000 field sales of 130 tripled over the previous year. Nevada was among a list of colleges like the University of Washington and University of Massachusetts that followed the University of Nebraska’s lead.
Besides cost-savings, one of the main reasons Nevada made the switch to FieldTurf was so the university’s athletic teams could use it more often, Barry said. About a year ago, Nevada installed another 4.2-acre field that is used for club and intermural sports and as a practice field for the football team.
“Now those fields are used almost every day until 10 p.m.,” Barry said.
He added that the two fields have saved 20 percent in water costs and that Nevada team trainers have reported very few non-contact injuries, like turf toe and twisted ankles.
Barry said each field cost Nevada roughly $800,000 and that the university leased the fields, borrowed the money and eventually paid it back.
To the west of Truckee, Nevada Union High School teacher and head football coach Dave Humphers is celebrating a recent victory about a field rather than on the field. On Nov. 19, after more than a year of deliberation, Humphers was there to witness the Nevada Joint Union High School District Board’s unanimous vote to support the construction of a new synthetic turf field at Hooper Stadium in Grass Valley. The combination of a possible grant, district funds and fund-raising efforts will pay for the new field.
“It will be a beautiful facility not just for football. We’re talking about the usefulness of P.E. classes, youth sports and adult sports,” said Humphers, who spearheaded a fund-raising campaign that has raised about $160,000. “It can be usable 24-7. Our current (natural grass) field is roped off six months out of the year. It’s too muddy, so it gets roped off while the grass grows back.”
Humphers pointed out that an annual rainfall of 53 inches in the Grass Valley area contributes to the usability dilemma of a natural grass field. Like Barry, Humphers said the school district will save 5 million gallons of water per year. Not only that, Humphers also brought up maintenance savings.
“The groundskeepers and maintenance guys will never again mow that field,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be re-seeded, fertilized, top-dressed or aerated. It’s permanently lined.”
It’s those savings that helped Humphers and others ease the minds of those concerned with the high initial cost of the new field.
“The negative is the up-front cost, but the cost-savings will pay for it in five to eight years,” he said.
The biggest problem that Humphers confronted in convincing the public was in the area of safety. But that’s because people were tripped up on the word “turf.”
“It’s important for people to understand this isn’t first-generation AstroTurf where there were more injuries (than natural grass),” he said. “We’ve looked at committed safety studies comparing injuries that have shown synthetic turf fields to be quite a bit safer.”
Not only have schools like the University of Nevada and Nevada Union High School endorsed synthetic turf on the grounds of cost and safety, they also point out the benefits to the environment.
“Environmentally, no fertilizers go in the watershed, you save water and recycled tires now have a use,” Humphers said.
When Tahoe Truckee Unified School District trustee Patricia Gibbons-Johnson took a tour of the four Truckee High athletic fields with football trainer Gary Lewis earlier in the 2004 fall sports season, she was appalled.
“I’m not an expert on turf, but it looked to me like it would be unsafe if you were running on it,” Gibbons-Johnson said. “Even untrained eyes could see it. There were bare spots, and there were squishy, lumpy areas that would probably stop an athlete’s progression.”
Gibbons-Johnson seemed to be one important member of the community as a whole who hadn’t realized how bad the problem had gotten. Lewis, also a concerned parent, has lobbied heavily for a synthetic turf solution. Gibbons-Johnson agrees, but it’s the funding that makes her wary.
“We need to figure out a way to make it safer and the answer is synthetic turf, and no one’s really argued,” she said. “The price (of turf) has gone down, but I don’t see a way to fund a new field. It’s vital for the kids, but how we pay for it is the question.”
Truckee High athletic director and head football coach Bob Shaffer echoes Gibbons-Johnson’s sentiments.
“If it’s going to benefit the safety of our kids as well as the safety of the other athletes who are coming to our school, I don’t see how anybody can object to that,” he said. “Because of where we’re at, it’s hard enough to grow grass as it is because of the short season.”
Shaffer and Lewis would like to see a new synthetic turf field installed in Truckee’s Surprise Stadium, a natural grass field that has taken a beating from 30 years of Truckee football and physical education classes.
Cooper, the district’s maintenance director, might represent the line of thinking that turf advocates like Shaffer and Lewis have to convince.
“Everybody thinks that we’re going to save a ton of money on water, repair of sprinklers, mowing, fertilizing, aerating, and thatching,” Cooper said. “But when you need to replace that field for three-quarters of a million dollars, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. We won’t be able to patch it like you can a regular field. We’re not going to be able to send a pickup truck down with a load of dirt and fill in a hole.”
But Barry and Humphers said that sections of a synthetic turf field can be replaced quite easily.
“The field is guaranteed for 8 to 10 years,” Humphers said. “When it needs to be replaced eventually, it will not be replacing whole field, like a wear-spot on your carpet.”
Barry used the carpet analogy as well and even mentioned a specific incident in which part of the Nevada turf was burned by the smoke machines used when the team runs out on the field.
“It’s just like plastic, so it’s going to melt,” he said. “But we just cut the damaged section out, and laid it in there with the sand and rubber.”
Cooper also said snow removal would be difficult on synthetic turf, but Barry said removing snow from a recent storm in Reno on Nov. 27 was easier than on natural grass.
Cooper also keeps track of athletics’ injuries in the district, and he has compared the Alder Creek Middle School’s use of its new synthetic turf field to the middle school’s use of the high school track field last year. Over the same time period, Cooper said there were five reported injuries on the new turf field and two on natural grass.
“There’s been bruising, head-hitting and slight concussions,” he said. “But I’m not saying the artificial turf is causing more injuries. There could be other factors. They could be using the field more than they used the track field. I would even say the kids are more rambunctious on the artificial turf field because it’s fun and it’s new.”
Cooper is also afraid that the community will abuse the privilege of a new state-of-the-art field. He has already spent money on “Keep out” signs and moving boulders to keep citizens off the Alder Creek field.
“Because people are going on them with quads we have this extra expense,” he said. “And I have no belief they won’t come in on their snowmobiles this winter.”