The Campaign for Sustainable Water Use

At the USGA Water Summit, examples of efficiency and savings in areas of high demand and low supply

By Hunki Yun, USGA
November 6, 2012

USGA President Glen Nager kicked off a summit discussing solutions for promoting golf's sustainability with the responsible, efficent application of water. (USGA/Kyle Coburn)

Grapevine, Texas – The first day of the USGA’s summit about the use of water in golf coincided with Election Day, so it was fitting that a common theme of the discussions brought to mind a popular political axiom.

Just as all politics are local, so are the challenges relating to golf’s use of water.

“It is difficult to make broad statements about water use in golf,” said Greg Lyman, director of environmental programs for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “Golf course water use and cost vary significantly across regions.”

Lyman was one of 11 speakers during the first day of the two-day summit convened by the USGA and titled “Golf’s Use of Water: Solutions for a More Sustainable Game.” They spoke to more than 100 professionals representing a wide spectrum of businesses and organizations – course superintendents, course managers, researchers, municipal water managers and representatives from private industries.

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The day began with an address by USGA President Glen Nager, who laid out the significant stakes facing the game.

“It is impossible to maintain a golf course without water,” said Nager, “and the industry increasingly is realizing that this invaluable resource needs to be managed responsibly, efficiently and sustainably.”

As an example of the regional differences, Lyman cited a national survey of golf courses conducted by the GCSAA about course maintenance practices. In the Southwest, golf courses use an average of 149 million gallons of water each year, while the average course in the Northeast uses 13.8 million gallons annually.

Golf’s use of water is most urgent in the Southwest and the West, where courses’ thirst has clashed with ever-decreasing supply. Texas has suffered from a prolonged drought over the past two years, while Las Vegas has been adjusting to a dwindling supply from the Colorado River, which provides the city with 90 percent of its water.

Doug Bennett, conservation manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, presented the steps his region has taken to tackle the shortage. In addition to implementing widespread measures such as regulating the amount of turfgrass for new development, Bennett and his team introduced water budgets for the area’s golf courses that carried both a carrot and a stick. Water use exceeding the budget carried higher pricing, while water use below the budget received a financial reward on top of the money saved from buying less water.

As a result, golf courses made a huge contribution in reducing the city’s per capita water use from 347 gallons per day in 2002 to 220 gallons today. Bennett’s goal is to further reduce it to 199 gallons a day.

The efforts made by the local courses also changed the community’s view of water use by golf.

“Those who don’t golf want to attack golf whenever there’s a shortage,” said Bennett. “Now, people see golf as a responsible industry. The measures have been effective in turning public opinion.”

Still, the perception of golf courses as large consumers of water is prevalent, especially in communities facing shortages.

“The common reaction when the public is asked to cut back water is, ‘Don’t ask me to conserve when the golf course down the street is using so much,’” said Mary Ann Dickinson, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, which works with more than 300 groups to manage water use.

But that perception is often the reverse of reality. In Las Vegas, for example, golf courses represent 6.8 percent of water use, while 44 percent of the water goes to residential use.

“The general public doesn’t understand that golf course managers are doing a very good job and generally are ahead of other irrigation users,” said Dickinson. “The average consumer doesn’t know how much water they’re applying, and are shocked when they learn.”

Since golf courses have such a high profile, many are making efforts to improve their image and working with local regulators, both individually and in groups.

Pat Gross, a USGA agronomist who consults with courses in California, offered the example of Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz. Faced with a mandatory water cutback, the course enlisted course designer Jim Urbina to reduce the area of irrigated turf by 20 acres.

In Georgia, a state that faced a massive drought several years ago, Mark Esoda, the superintendent of Atlanta Country Club, formed a group to work with legislators and regulators and proved that the golf industry could monitor itself and use water responsibly and efficiently.

Now, 97 percent of the courses in Georgia use the group’s best management practices, and the self-regulating efforts led by Esoda have been so successful that when the state passed legislation regulating water use, golf was the only industry not affected by the bill.

Although water supplies vary by region, the issue will become more widespread as the country deals with a growing population and aging water delivery systems. Veronica Blette of the Environmental Protection Agency cited a survey that predicts at least 36 states will experience water shortages in the next few years.

Overall, the golf industry receives good marks for improving efficiency in its use of water, and Dickinson has witnessed plenty of progress over the past couple of decades.

“But that doesn’t mean all golf courses are managed as well as they could be,” said Dickinson. “There is a lot of opportunity.”

Looking forward, more courses around the country will face the challenges already borne by courses in drought-stricken areas. The experts gathered by the USGA offered insights, examples and encouragement for courses that are facing or will soon face water shortages.

By applying some of the solutions discussed at the Water Summit to their unique situations, golf courses can become better community citizens and offer an example in sustainability and stewardship.

“The solutions are based on the local level,” said Dickinson “That’s where you need to negotiate. I don’t know any municipality that wouldn’t welcome that discussion.”

Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at hyun@usga.org.

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