Liquid Assets: Water, Golf and Sustainable Development

The Keswick Club, Virginia


Chances are you don’t think much about water, and why should you? You can turn on your tap at home and run it for as long as you like with very little economic or environmental consequence. Most places in the world aren’t so lucky, and one day soon, perhaps, neither will we be. Increasing demand and widespread drought (last year was the hottest on record in the U.S.) have strained our finite water supply as never before. No surprise, golf is feeling the brunt of it.

It has become such a burning issue that the U.S. Golf Association felt compelled to convene a two-day, 20-speaker conference in November, “Golf’s Use of Water: Solutions for a More Sustainable Game.”

“We know that water issues will not diminish in the years to come,” says Dr. Kimberly Erusha, head of the USGA’s Green Section. “And even though the golf industry has long recognized that we’ve got a responsibility to carefully manage this natural resource, we believe that finding solutions is going to require collaboration between private and public partnerships. The water summit seemed like the right way to start.”

Golf courses’ use of water has become so critical that it’s surpassed growing the game as the sport’s top priority. “There will be more and more demands and the cost will go higher and higher,” says Greg Lyman, the Environmental Programs Director of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “There are some places in golf where the water costs are just staggering—the Las Vegas valley, for instance. It’s not uncommon to have annual water budgets of a million dollars.”

As the spigot slows to a trickle, not surprisingly there’s been a torrent of regulations affecting recreational use. “It’s a competitive resource now,” says Peter McDonough, the superintendent at The Keswick Club in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Before people assumed it would always be plentiful. You didn’t think about it because there were no alarm bells coming from local, state, or federal governments.”

Although golf might seem like the ultimate water hog because of all its green turf, that’s not really the case. According to the USGA, total golf course irrigation in the U.S. accounts for just one half of one percent of water use and it gets better every year thanks to more knowledgeable superintendents, more natural areas, and more sophisticated irrigation systems with in-ground water sensors. But because of its perceived elitism and vast land needs, golf is an easy target. Communities need to decide the value golf adds in the way of environmental, social, and economic aspects. Chances are it stacks up pretty well, even just from an agricultural point of view.

“Golf courses are producing a ‘high value agricultural crop’ as the economic benefits per acre are higher than for most crops,” a recent University of California, Berkeley, study concluded. “As governments establish principles to allocate water and land resources among various activities, golf courses should be allowed to compete.”

A big part of the solution lies with golfers themselves becoming a little more water wise, for example accepting less than Augusta National-like conditioning. If water is indeed the new oil, then brown will have to become the new green. “For decades golfers have based their expectations off the pro game on TV,” says architect Jay Blasi, whose design credits include the very eco-friendly Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Washington. “While this doesn’t make much sense, it is the case, so we are seeing 7,000-plus-yard courses with over-the-top landscaping, super bright green fairways, and blinding white-sand bunkers. In most instances, these traits are not sustainable.”

So maybe it’s time we all thought a little more about water use, whether we’re turning on the tap or teeing up a ball. “There’s no doubt that courses are going to look different,” says Erusha. “We’re going to see varying shades of green and that’s okay. We can still provide a high-quality playing surface that’s a lot of fun. Golfers will like the extra roll they’ll get.”