(Photo of Mick Riley GC in Murray, Utah by Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune)
In Washington and Utah, properties are making a point of showing how they’re being proactive with measures such as smart irrigation and the use of wetting agents and sunscreen dyes to reduce water usage while still preserving suitable playing conditions in the face of added demand. “We live in a high desert, so we’ve been anticipating this and trying to plan ahead as much as possible,” said Jerry Brewster, Director of Golf for Utah’s Salt Lake County.
The Latah Creek Golf Course in Spokane, Wash. is known for its 176 acres of beautiful green landscaping, but this summer, the club is specifically trying to dry out its golf course and property, KREM CBS2 of Spokane reported.
Drought conditions keep worsening across Eastern Washington, with the latest drought monitors showing more than a quarter of the state under exceptional drought conditions that amount to the worst the state has seen, KREM reported.
The City of Spokane has posted about a new campaign that urges community members to reduce their lawn watering, KREM reported, and local businesses across the area, including clubs and golf courses, are trying to reduce their water footprint.
“Man, they’ve had to really struggle and work hard to really try to keep this place green as best they can,” Head Golf Professional Steve Nelke, PGA, said of the efforts being made by the Latah Creek course maintenance staff.
In Nelke’s nearly 40 years in the golf industry, he has never seen a summer quite this hot and dry, KREM reported.
“We’ve dialed back the entire course,” added Dustin Redding, Latah Creek’s Assistant Superintendent. “But the roughs, if they have to go dormant, it’s not going to be detrimental to play.”
Latah Creek normally uses 900,000 gallons of water to hydrate its golf course each day, Redding said. To help reduce usage, Nelke added, watering has been cut down by 60%, mainly by focusing on reducing its application on the fairways.
“You have to get the greens and the tees as best you can,” Nelke told KREM. “Otherwise, goodbye to your business.”
While cutting down on water usage across the course, Latah Creek has also started using a sunscreen dye on the greens and tees that helps to keep the greens bright, while also shading the ground to keep in moisture, KREM reported. Growth regulators are also used to enhance turf quality.
“The heat kind of knocked us down a little bit, but you know, we take this seriously,” Nelke said. “There are going to be some brown spots, but for the most part, the customers really appreciate [how the course is being maintained responsibly and in accordance with current restrictions].”
KREM’s video report on Latah Creek can be viewed at https://www.krem.com/article/news/local/wildfire/spokane-drought-golf-courses/293-bbeafe42-ece4-47a3-ae83-0747b04e9349
In Utah, with The Great Salt Lake is on the brink of a record low, the purpose and use of publicly owned golf courses is also being subjected to increased scrutiny, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
“People are starting to look at the issue, especially with climate change,” Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, whose research focuses on green space and environmental justice, told The Tribune. “Golf courses are not sustainable now, and it’s going to probably get worse.”
Salt Lake County taps by far the most water for its golf courses, which include a mix of publicly owned and privately held lands, compared to other counties in the state, The Tribune reported— even more than arid Washington County, home of sunny St. George that has several popular resort courses.
According to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data for 2015, the most recent year with available information, Salt Lake County golf courses used 9 million gallons a day of groundwater and surface water, The Tribune reported—the equivalent of filling nearly 14 Olympic-size swimming pools daily.
While the USGS information about golf course irrigation in Salt Lake County is several years old, it’s hard to gather updated data, The Tribune noted. A public-records request sent to the county’s Parks and Recreation personnel produced 2.5 years’ worth of irrigation numbers, which include guesses, different metrics among courses, faulty meters and disputed readings.
The data did show, however, that the South Mountain Golf Course in Draper, Utah used 169 million gallons of water last year, or about 612,000 gallons per acre.
“We’re trying to do everything we can [to conserve], because we are cognizant of the fact that we are big water users” Jerry Brewster, Director of Golf for Salt Lake County, told The Tribune.
The county uses technology like smart irrigation and wetting agents to cut down water consumption, Brewster said. And given this year’s drought, his staff is looking for ways to cut back even further.
“We live in a high desert,” he said, “so we’ve been anticipating this and thinking about it and trying to plan ahead as much as possible.”
At Salt Lake City’s six golf courses, managers have reduced watering by 5% this year so far, The Tribunereported.
“Driving ranges [and] transition areas from one hole to the next—those are the areas we’re cutting off irrigation,” said Matt Kammeyer, Director of Salt Lake City’s golf division. “We’ve slowly dialed it back.”
But they can’t stop watering entirely, the golf managers pointed out, because public courses don’t rely on taxpayer funds and have separate budgets, generating their own money from players. As a result, they need players to visit their courses to stay afloat.
“Our primary feature of the golf course, the green, and how the ball rolls and putts, is the one area where people judge how your golf course is,” Kammeyer said. “If you’re playing off just dirt, people aren’t going to pay to come out.”
And ultimately, letting turf die could be extraordinarily expensive, The Tribunereported. Salt Lake City officially abandoned its Wingpointe Golf Course in 2017 due partly to the cost of reviving it, which was estimated at $1 million.
“If you get to a point where it dies, then you have to do one of two things,” Brewster said. “You have to reseed it, or you have to sod it—and you’re going to use ten times the amount of water to reestablish the root structure.”
Operators of publicly owned golf courses in Salt Lake County also point to the benefits of their facilities, The Tribune reported.
“The beautiful thing that we do is we provide golf at an affordable rate,” Brewster said. “We aren’t country clubs. We aren’t high-end daily fee facilities. We’re not resort golf courses.”
Large tracts of green space like golf courses also provide environmental pluses in a county full of dense urban development.
“We provide riparian habitat,” Brewster said. “We have animals and birds.”
Having a large area of irrigated turf is preferable to asphalt or concrete, acknowleged Rigolon, the University of Utah professor. Grass has a cooling effect on hot days, prevents erosion and helps filter stormwater. Golf courses also tend to have large trees and other natural features that provide benefits to surrounding residents, even if they never pick up a 9-iron.
But, Rigolon added, unlike a park, which can serve as an inclusive gathering space and a bridge from one neighborhood to the next, golf courses act more like “green walls.”
“They are almost gated. And in some places there are actual fences,” he noted. “The function and public they serve is more exclusionary than other green spaces, which is contrary to what you would think public land would be.”
Municipalities throughout the nation have reimagined and repurposed golf courses into more inclusive spaces, The Tribune reported. California’s Orange County is exploring how to close two of its golf courses and transform them into affordable recreational opportunities for low-income neighborhoods. Grafton, Ohio, has converted a former golf course into a nature preserve. In Texas, communities are acquiring golf courses and turning them into parks that have the added benefit of protecting homes from storm surges.
Some lawmakers have also floated the idea of building affordable housing on sprawling golf courses, with a communal park at the center.
“With golf courses, there are some community benefits,” Rigolon said. “But especially in places like Salt Lake or other places where the real estate is so expensive and people are craving outdoor activities, the community benefits could be so much more.”
Another consideration now has to be how the pandemic has boosted golf participation, The Tribune noted. Salt Lake City courses saw a 25% jump in participation in 2020, compared to the previous five-year average.
“I’ve not seen an increase in one year this substantial,” Kammeyer said. “[It’s] significant [and it’s] not just Salt Lake City—all of the golf industry has experienced a similar boost.”
Golf was one of the first outdoor recreation activities that was able to safely reopen during public health closures, The Tribune reported—and in Salt Lake City’s case, the golf courses never closed.
“One of the things that the pandemic showed us is how much of a community service that golf is,” said Brewster . “We saw unprecedented numbers of people that went to the golf course because it was all they could do.”
The county’s six golf courses saw participation swell from 316,201 in 2019 to 354,628 in 2020, The Tribune reported. And according to Kammeyer, traffic has held steady at city courses throughout 2021. “It’s good to see people are still wanting to get out and play,” he said.
The spike in participation could make it difficult to sell the idea of converting golf courses into more inclusive, water-wise spaces, The Tribune noted. But Rigolon said the movement doesn’t need to be a revolution.
“It doesn’t mean that we shut them down,” the professor said. “It means that maybe we start with some gradual changes.”
His suggestions include adding protected pathways for active transportation, building playgrounds, and perhaps putting more emphasis on nine-hole courses, versus 18-hole facilities, The Tribune reported.
“Soccer is a growing sport, especially among minorities,” Rigolon said. “Why not take in a little bit of the golf course, and turn it into some soccer fields, especially on the west side?”
Salt Lake City is already exploring the idea of repurposing sections of golf courses, or adding amenities that appeal to nongolfers, through its “Reimagine Nature” public lands master-planning process, The Tribune reported. Ideas include re-wilding unplayable sections, adding concessions, and accommodating new activities like cross-country skiing, disc golf and off-leash dog areas.
While a draft plan has yet to be released, and rethinking golf spaces is likely to meet some resistance, the fact that the conversation is even happening gives him hope, Rigolon said.
“If you ask me personally, the best time to start was yesterday,” he said, “and the second best is now.”