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Golf Courses Develop Sustainable, Affordable Water Supplies October 13, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

Golf courses are developing more sustainable water supplies in a variety of ways, including capturing stormwater and using recycled water. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

This is the second of three stories that highlight measures being taken by golf courses around the country to mitigate the issues of rising costs and restricted access to water. The USGA Water Resource Center of contains more valuable information about golf’s use of water. Read part 1 in the series here, and part III here.

A sustainable water supply is vital for all golf courses. The 2014 survey, “Water Use and Conservation Practices on U.S. Golf Courses,” funded by the USGA, found that 67 percent of the nearly 2,000 responding golf courses use lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, canals and wells for their irrigation supply, while an additional 8 percent use municipal drinking water.

Unpredictable weather and growing demand for water have placed increasing strain on all of these water sources. As a result, water costs are rising and usage restrictions are becoming more common. In response to these challenges, golf courses are pursuing a variety of strategies to improve existing water supplies or develop alternative sources that are more affordable and reliable.

The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel, Calif., is one of the many golf courses consistently affected by drought. Capturing rainfall and storing it for use during the summer is a critical component of their water supply. 

Deepening and expanding on-site irrigation ponds allows Mount Vernon Country Club to limit what the club needs to draw from its well. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

“At the Preserve Golf Club, more than half of our irrigation requirement for the course comes from stormwater collection,” said Forrest Arthur, the district general manager for Santa Lucia Community Services. Currently, the Preserve’s five rainwater capture ponds hold an estimated 49 million gallons of water. “Management is continuously exploring and developing new strategies to capture and store additional stormwater.”

Unfortunately, capturing rainwater for golf course irrigation can be challenging. “Storage ponds can be unsightly as they empty, and evaporation loss can be difficult to control,” said Arthur. “You are also dependent on Mother Nature to supply enough rainfall to adequately fill storage facilities. It can also be difficult and quite expensive to retrofit existing courses that were not designed with stormwater capture in mind.”

All challenges aside, Arthur added, “In my opinion, the investment is worth the short- and long-term benefits, both financially and environmentally. In the western half of the United States, rainwater capture, coupled with conversion to more drought-tolerant grasses, may be the only remedy for golf courses hoping to survive strict conservation requirements.”

Mount Vernon Country Club in Alexandria, Va., is also working to improve its water supply. The club obtains irrigation water from a well and several surface ponds. New regulations limited the use of the well to less than 4 million gallons per month and not more than 12 million gallons annually.

“The annual restriction wouldn’t normally be an issue for us, but the monthly number could be a challenge during an extended summer dry period,” said Mike King, Mount Vernon’s superintendent. 

Alternative Water Sources Improve Golf Course Sustainability
Golf courses are developing more affordable and reliable water supplies in a variety of ways, including capturing stormwater and using recycled water.
  • The cost of irrigating golf courses is rising in almost every region of the country.*
  • In the Pacific Region, the median cost of water for an 18-hole golf course increased by more than 300 percent from 2005 to 2013.*
  • As water costs rise, courses are investing in more economical alternative sources.
  • Some golf courses are capturing rainfall for irrigation, while others are developing a more sustainable supply by converting to recycled water.
  • The use of recycled water on golf courses increased by more than 30 percent between 2005 and 2013.*
*Source: “Water Use and Conservation Practices on U.S. Golf Courses,” 2014

The new restrictions mean that the club will have to depend on water stored in its irrigation ponds if well limits are reached during a dry period. Unfortunately, the irrigation ponds had filled with silt over time, significantly limiting their storage capacities. Correcting this problem would help ensure that the course remains healthy during extended periods of dry weather.

The solution involved dredging and deepening the irrigation ponds to increase the total storage capacity from 1 million to 5 million gallons of water. The increased capacity allows Mount Vernon to make better use of the water flowing through the site and limits what they need to draw from their well. The improved pond system also helps the staff manage stormwater that enters the course from the surrounding community.

While some courses work to enhance existing water sources and utilize more of the water that passes through their property, others are investigating alternative water supplies, such as recycled water, that can improve their long-term economic and environmental sustainability.

“Recycled water refers to water that has undergone one cycle of human use and then received significant treatment at a sewage treatment plant to be made suitable for various reuse purposes, including turfgrass irrigation,” explained Dr. M. Ali Harivandi of the University of California Cooperative Extension. 

Using recycled water can help golf courses improve their long-term economic and environmental sustainability. (USGA/George Waters)

Recycled water is less expensive than drinking water and is less likely to face usage restrictions. However, recycled water also creates some management challenges for superintendents because of the dissolved materials present in the water, particularly salts. Pat Gross, director of the USGA Green Section West Region, said, “There need to be adjustments in management practices, budgets and golfer expectations if recycled water is to be used effectively.”

For many golf courses, lower water costs and a more predictable supply make those adjustments very worthwhile. According to that 2014 USGA-funded survey, the use of recycled water increased by more than 30 percent between 2005 and 2013. The report found that the greatest increase in recycled water use occurred in the Southwest, Southeast and Pacific regions, which typically have the hottest and/or driest climates.

Pacific Grove Golf Links, a municipal course in Pacific Grove, Calif., currently uses potable water for irrigation. “We are spending close to $7,000 for an acre-foot of potable water and prices continue to rise,” said Robert Esposo, Pacific Grove’s superintendent. “Irrigating with potable water is not sustainable for the golf course budget or the limited water resources in our area.”

To address this issue, the city and golf course have developed a plan that will allow the course to irrigate with recycled water by 2018. “Going from potable to recycled water will reduce our costs by approximately 25 percent,” said Esposo. “It will also present some challenges that we will need to work through, such as adjusting our fertility program, but the economic and environmental benefits will be worth it.”

Water is an interconnected resource; communities, businesses and individual users depend on one another to ensure there is a sustainable supply for everyone. As golf courses work to develop sustainable water supplies, they not only improve their own viability, they are also playing their part in the societal effort to use water responsibly.  

George Waters is a manager of education for the USGA Green Section. Email questions or comments to