The topic of water availability and cost has never been as critical as it is now in the West. The depleted Colorado River water system – which includes Lake Powell and Lake Mead – has forced the seven Lower Colorado River Basin states to cut back on their river allocation. Regional and state regulatory agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada are mandating in many areas that golf courses reduce water use. In Nevada, for example, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) approved a resolution that will impose a significant water allotment reduction from 6.3 to 4.0 acre feet of water per acre beginning in January 2024. That is a 35% decrease and the 4.0 acre feet per acre requirement is approximately 1.5 acre feet per acre less than the bermudagrass consumptive use requirement in southern Nevada. That allotment is also 3-3.5 acre feet per acre less than what is needed to irrigate an overseeded golf course. The math doesn’t pan out, which means courses need to think about eliminating overseeding, reducing turf and upgrading to one of the new bermudagrasses that use less water.
In Arizona, a finite water allotment and maximum turf acreage is nothing new, but the amount of water golf courses will receive changes considerably in 2025, especially for those courses that irrigate over 90 acres of turf. In California, water regulations vary significantly from region to region and city to city. While recent rains have been impressive, California seems to always be a few months away from drought restrictions.
Some golf courses operate under the idea that they will wait to cut back on water until regulators tell them to. That is a dangerous game to play. When the time comes, regulators may not only tell them how much to cut but also how to do it – e.g., they may state that courses can only irrigate on certain days and only at night. Additionally, regulators may impose a cut of 30% or more – but 30% of what? Is the cut based on last year's water use or a multiyear running average? I’ve heard this quote many times in the past few years regarding golf and politics: “If golf doesn’t have a seat at the table, they will be on the menu!” In other words, if leadership in the golf industry is not proactive about participating in state and regional water discussions, someone will dictate the rules for them and golf courses will be in harm's way.
Every golf course should proactively engage with their water purveyor, as well as with regional and state water authorities. Proactively implement water conservation strategies. Don’t wait for the authorities to make decisions for you. The network within the golf industry is strong and there are many examples of courses making significant changes to reduce water inputs and lead the industry. Here are a few strategies that have proven successful along with conservative estimates of potential water savings. I have also included some strategies still on the horizon that the USGA and a few pioneering courses are working on to deliver even bigger water savings:
- Update the irrigation system (5%-8%)
- Irrigation maintenance like leveling sprinklers, optimizing flow/pressure and replacing nozzles (5%-10%)
- Using wetting agents and growth regulators (5%-15%)
- Eliminate overseeding (25%-30%)
- Condense the overseeding period (10% or more)
- In-ground soil moisture sensors and portable moisture meters (5%-15%)
- Turf reduction – 3-7 acre feet per acre (60%-100%)
- Turf conversion: cool-season to warm-season (25%-30%), old bermudagrass varieties to new hybrid bermudagrass (10%-15%)
- Subsurface drip irrigation of larger turf areas (50%-80%)
- Change the narrative around golfer expectations (Good potential!)
Don’t be on the menu; take a proper seat at the table and get out in front of impending water cutbacks. A proactive approach will highlight the amazing work golf course superintendents do to apply only as much water as necessary and demonstrate to the public and water authorities that the golf industry is a leader in water conservation.
West Region Agronomists:
Brian Whitlark, senior consulting agronomist – firstname.lastname@example.org
Cory Isom, agronomist – email@example.com
Information on the USGA’s Course Consulting Service