Can golf cure his water addiction?

Drought makes it difficult for golf fans to justify heavy water use in the game

A golfer plays near some pipes carrying treated wastewater used to water the golf course at The Ranch at Laguna Beach in Laguna Beach, California, on May 2. (Rick Loomis for The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — At The Ranch at Laguna Beach, golfers are playing down below The dramatic shadow of a vast valley, hop on electric buggies and wander along the bright grassy paths.

Among the lush greenery, you’d never know California was emerging from a historic, massive drought.

Golf and the climate of Southern California make the guys uncomfortable. The sport is often the target of water cuts by organizers – and by environmentalists who believe the game uses too many resources in a water-scarce world.

Kurt Bjorkman, general manager of The Ranch, is quick to agree. He will also tell you that golf can be part of the solution. Since reopening in 2016 after an extensive renovation, the course has reduced water use by switching to reclaimed water and planting less thirsty grass varieties.

“We know that water is a very precious resource,” Björkman said. “If we want to have a beautiful golf course, we’re going to need to do some things different.”

Of all the water absorbed by golf courses in 2020, 21 percent was recycled, according to a 2022 report from the Golf Course Superintendents of America, a group of golf course managers.

This is no problem on the east coast, where water is plentiful. But in dry areas like Southern California and Arizona, it’s becoming harder for golf fans to justify the game’s heavy water use and the strain it puts on natural resources.

“You’re seeing overcrowded country clubs, 36 holes of golf, slowly starting to disappear because kids don’t want to play because it doesn’t feel right,” Bjorkman said. “It doesn’t look right.”

Golf was first played in Scotland in the late Middle Ages on rolling grassy hills that were a far cry from the highly manicured greens of today. The game had almost no carbon footprint and required no specialized irrigation.

Some creatives want to get back to that. Courses across the country have created wildlife corridors for salamanders, butterflies and woodpeckers. Some have even turned to artificial turf.

The course at The Ranch was recently renovated, reduced from 18 holes to nine. The water-sucking Bermuda grass was uprooted and replaced with a mix of drought-tolerant kikuyu and poa. The sand in the course’s sand traps is made on site from recycled glass. Single-use plastics are prohibited, and the kitchen uses ingredients from an on-site organic farm and composts food waste.

Bjorkman However, what he is most proud of is using entirely reclaimed water. The course purchases all of its water from a treatment facility located directly behind the greens, which converts sewage waste and other wastewater into water suitable for irrigating the 2,200-yard turf..

“It’s hard for us to accept that using 20 million gallons of fresh water to build a golf course is a luxury,” Björkman said.

About 70 miles away, near Los Angeles, La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, like The Ranch, draws most of its water from a reclamation plant, just beyond the 14th green. The course still relies on municipal water for irrigation on hot days, but its annual water bill is about $200,000, about one-fifth of the typical water bill for a California golf course, said Pamela Dreyfuss, director of sustainability at La Cañada Flintridge Country Club.

Dreyfus and Bjorkman say golf courses can provide greater environmental benefits than alternatives such as highways, shopping malls and residential projects.

But these projects are still the exception. In the affluent desert suburbs of Phoenix, golf courses regularly violate water limits, according to an Arizona Republic investigation last year. Industry experts say many golf courses use a blend of Bermuda grass that is not drought-tolerant because of the perception that golfers prefer to play on it — or, at least, that its bright green color is more attractive to nearby homeowners. Ground crews often paint grass with environmentally damaging nitrogen sprays to make it greener.

There are still no true industry-wide sustainability standards in golf. The ongoing merger between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf, two professional golf giants, is a case in point. While LIV Golf made sustainability commitments prior to the merger, the PGA Tour has not done so publicly.

While nonprofits such as Scotland-based GEO Foundation and Troy, New York-based Audubon International certify courses based on a variety of sustainability factors, their credentials have not yet been widely adopted.

Environmental organizations have accused Audubon International of greenwashing and trading on behalf of the National Audubon Society, a bird-watching organization with which it has no connection.

Christine Kane, CEO of Audubon International, said the group takes “birdlife and tree management” into account when working on golf courses. She said her group is not a competitor to the bird conservation group, adding that Audubon is “a name that is everywhere”.

Whether they care about sustainability or not, golf courses in the West will face more restrictions due to drought.

Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, warned the PGA that if this year there is as little rain as the previous three years, the US Open at Los Angeles Country Club, which was held in June, will be played in a drought. severe in the state. Protocols by which only tees and greens can be watered.

They knew it. “They accepted it, and they were ready for it.”

California’s historic January rains eliminated that possibility this year, but it’s only a temporary reprieve. Kessler says that while the golf industry as a whole appears to be more flexible in controlling water use, many course owners are embracing the new water regulations.

He wants regulators to give golf courses a total water budget, rather than limits measured by the day or week, because course staff know how to ration limited water to meet golf courses’ specialized irrigation needs.

“At any modern golf course in the Southwest, a superintendent can pull out his smartphone and control half the (sprinkler) head,” he said.

Bjorkman believes that other courses that have the potential to use reclaimed water, or reduce the amount of grass planted in their fairways, should be required to do so, along with the use of organic soil amendments. “For me, this is low hanging fruit,” he said.

John Buss, senior advisor at the Center for Biological Diversity, said golf has “huge opportunities” to do a better job of adapting to climate change. But he said that could mean getting rid of the shimmering greens that soak up the water in day cycles forever.

“Some of this will require golfers to change their expectations of what the course should look like,” he said. “I hope that courses more like California than Scotland will become the norm, and will not only be expected, but also desirable.”

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