Water Conservation and the Environment: Are Golf Courses Getting it Right?


The Associated Press ran an in-depth piece last month on how California golf courses are dealing with the current drought. In the wake of a state ordered 25% cut in the use of drinkable water, golf courses in The Golden State are taking drastic measures.

“The new buzzword in the industry is ‘Brown is the new green.’ We can’t provide the same kind of product as we’d like to anymore,” says Mike Williams of Hidden Valley Golf Club in Norco. “Everybody can’t play on a lush green surface like the Masters.”

As California combats drought-like conditions, many are taking a look at how the golf industry as a whole can better innovate and be efficient when it comes to water conservation efforts.

“Golf course superintendents around the world know that it makes good sense to reduce water usage to be good environmental stewards and to help improve business profitability” says Rhett Evans, CEO for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “They are continually using improved irrigation technologies and turf grasses that are more drought resistant. Water management and drought management programs continue to be priorities for our industry.”

Here’s a few of the water conservation measures golf courses are taking around the country:

1. Tearing out the grass in places where it won’t affect the game – water agencies in California are running turf reduction rebate programs, offering $2 to $3 for every square foot of turf removed. El Niguel Country Club applied for rebates last year to rip up 22 acres, and the final phase is now underway to save 12 million gallons of water a year.

2. Planting drought-resistant vegetation and switching grass – A move the golf industry says is necessary for its long-term survival as the drought drags on. Bermuda grass needs less water and doesn’t grow as quickly.

3. Letting the turf turn brown in spots – See Williams comments, above.

4. Installing smart watering systems – wireless soil probes can provide real-time feeds to groundskeepers on their cellphones. The readouts indicate exactly where to water and exactly how much, to within a fraction of an inch, eliminating the need for sprinklers that drench large areas. Learn more about The Toro Company and their state-of-the-art computerized irrigation control systems that include weather stations, ET (Evapotranspiration) information and soil moisture sensors.

5. Other measures – Using reclaimed water, installing liners in artificial lakes, turning off sprinklers in areas of less foot traffic and considering on-site facilities that treat wastewater from the sewers.

Starting Early

Golf course superintendents and greenskeepers aren’t the only ones looking at conservation efforts. Nowadays, these measures start at the planning and development stage.

One such early case study is Hunting Hawk Golf Club in Glen Allen, Virginia, which opened in 2000.

Due to minimal groundwater resources and a low base flow in the nearby river, the architect (Bill Love) designed a series of ponds and streams throughout the golf course to capture surface runoff during rain events and to recycle irrigation water. Rainfall provides the only source of water for irrigation. The ponds and streams are incorporated as strategic and aesthetic features for golf holes, but they also all flow into one large impoundment of over eight acres in the lower portion of the property, which is the source for irrigation water.

A more well-known architect is Greg Norman. Since 2004, The Shark, one of golf’s greatest players over the last 30 years and successful course designer, has been a Trustee of the Environmental Institute for Golf, a philanthropic organization run under the auspices of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

“My design team and I work in concert with the development team to create golf courses that blend with their surrounding environment and enhance the property’s natural features. Each course is designed to be constructed efficiently and environmentally sound while providing both a playable and memorable experience for golfers of all levels,” says Norman.


Looking Ahead

There are nearly 16,000 golf courses across the U.S., and in California, golf is a $6 billion industry and employs nearly 130,000 workers, according to the California Golf Course Owners Association. An average 18-hole golf course sprawls over 110 to 115 acres and conservatively uses almost 90 million gallons of water per year, costing some courses upwards of $500,000 a year to keep that oasis look.(NPR – April 16, 2015).

Ed Osann, a water use expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes the golf course industry must shift away from using drinkable water over the next decade or risk its future.

“We may not be at the most severe part of this drought yet,” he says. “This could get worse before it gets better.”

Stephen Friedlander, Vice President of golf at The Resort At Pelican Hill in Newport Coast sums things up perfectly:

“If you’re in the golf industry and you’re not a water quality and a management person, then what are you doing?”

Read More:

1. Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA)
2. Environmental Institute for Golf (EIFG)
3. American Society of Golf Course Architects 4. We Are Golf
Golf Course Architecture
Greg Norman Golf Course Design
California Golf Course Owners Association

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