How much water do golf courses use? Is it time to reconsider amid drought?

J

im Behnke parks his electric-powered golf cart on the sidewalk and stares out at what looks like the crossroads between two worlds. To our right, the dusty orange rock of the Southwest desert, with a few scattered shrubs and not much else. To our left, the lush greenery of a grassy fairway, veiled under the mist of sprinklers. Here, even on a golf course, the grass seems incommodious — an artificial, prickly green invader that interrupts the desert landscape.

Behnke, 66, comes here, to the private golf course at Entrada in St. George, almost every day. He’s retired, lives in the neighborhood and knows more about golf than most. He’s played every course in Utah, and at least one course in all 50 states. That’s why, when Entrada decided to overhaul its then-23-year-old golf course in 2019, its leadership consulted with Behnke.

He can talk about innovative tee boxes or fast-moving greens endlessly. But conversations these days stress the course’s need for water efficiency. “We have to use less water,” Behnke says, his short, silver curls jutting from beneath the brim of a gray Titleist cap. That’s why the course is upgrading the irrigation system, which previously used about 145 million gallons per year. Golf course managers, players and ordinary citizens alike are realizing that such numbers aren’t sustainable. Entrada hopes to get down to somewhere in the range of 105 million to 115 million gallons a year using the most innovative methods, and not a moment too soon. 

Jim Behnke, Chairman of the Greens Committee at Entrada at Snow Canyon loves golf, but he also knows the game must adapt to survive.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

These days — at a time when the Western U.S. is facing a 20-year “megadrought” that happens to be the worst in modern history — the mere optics of green fairways in the desert prompt questions about the relative importance of golf and how it fits into the parched landscapes of Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Arizona.

The Colorado River’s water levels are at an all-time low. The Lake Mead reservoir dropped to its lowest levels ever recorded following a 20-year decline, threatening a historic agreement between Western states governing how its water is apportioned. States are having to rethink how much water there is as well as how it’s used. The largest water guzzler in Utah, by far, is farming. But golf courses, while a small contributor to water use in comparison to sectors like public use and hydroelectric power, suck up more water than the state’s livestock.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s most recent water use data for Utah shows the state uses about 38 million gallons of water on golf courses per day — enough to fill almost 58 Olympic-size swimming pools. “Golfer expectations, I think, need to change,” says T.A. Barker, superintendent at the Fore Lakes Golf Course in Taylorsville, Utah, and director of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

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T.A. Barker, certified golf course superintendent at Fore Lakes Golf Course in Taylorsville, Utah, believes that golf will evolve as the western drought worsens.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It might seem unfair to “pick on” golf when industries like snowsports and agriculture put more duress on our resources, but those industries currently prove more beneficial by providing higher rates of overall employment and revenue, even though golf can be a potent financial force in terms of revenue per acre of water used.

The most recent available numbers for employment and economic impact from golf are from 2012, with the next release planned for 2023. But that (admittedly outdated) report states $805.6 million of direct, indirect and induced economic output; $250.1 million of wage income; and 9,625 jobs credited to the golf industry in Utah. Those numbers are likely to have risen thanks to golf ’s bump in popularity during the pandemic, but they’re still dwarfed by Utah’s main outdoor industry. Outdoor snow recreation, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, accounts for $4.9 billion in gross domestic product, $2.7 billion in compensation and 61,890 jobs. 

Golf has long enjoyed a prominent place on the mantle of upper-class America — particularly among men — which makes it a potent flashpoint for issues at the intersection of economy, recreation, equity and climate change. And understanding why, as well as what the future might look like, starts with understanding what golf is — not as a game, but as a consequential social factor.

“A golf course’s impact on neighboring communities and, by implication, on a global water system is … a legitimate focus of human rights litigation and advocacy,” wrote Richard P. Hiskes, University of Connecticut emeritus professor of political science and human rights, in the May 2010 issue of the journal Human Rights Quarterly.

Golf — especially in the West — is an activity most often pursued by relatively few. According to the most recent data from the National Golf Foundation, about 250,000 people played the sport in Utah in 2021. That number includes all kinds of golf, from driving ranges and Topgolf to more traditional, 18-hole courses. That’s a lot of people — but that’s only about 8% of Utah’s population. And that small percentage tends to skew to be upper class. With that in mind, the question then becomes, “How much water ought to be dedicated to a game that benefits relatively few?” 

The edge of the newly renovated Entrada at Snow Canyon golf course transitions into an area of natural vegetation and dirt, where previously there was turf.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

This isn’t to say public golf courses don’t have communal benefits and aren’t accessible in their most basic form. A prospective player can pick up some used clubs at a thrift store and play late in the afternoon for a reduced price at a municipal course. But that isn’t normally how the story goes.

“Despite members of the working class being able to access the sport, the sort of social imagination and material reality of the sport is very different,” Hugo Ceron-Anaya, professor of sociology at Lehigh University, says. “You have wealthier-than-average folks playing, and that, I think, is part of the tension.”

The median price of 18 holes at a public course on the weekend, according to a 2018 Golf Channel survey, was $36. That figure could vary significantly given the many variables surrounding it, but regardless, it helps explain that tension — which figures to increase as the population of the West continues to swell. States in the region are growing faster than anywhere in the nation. Utah, according to the most recent U.S. Census numbers, leads the way. Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona all crack the top 10. 

With this impeding squeeze of a growing population and dwindling water resources, the benefits of a golf course can be achieved in a way that’s more advantageous for a wider swath of the public, says Alessandro Rigolon, a professor in the University of Utah’s department of city and metropolitan planning.

“We are dedicating a lot of water to a resource that very few people are using on a daily or weekly basis when we could use that water for a soccer field that hundreds more people are going to use,” he explains. “In a context of competition and scarcity for water, using that water for a hobby that only a few do is subsidizing that hobby.”

Which is why stewardship, Barker says, is all the more important. “We want to do our part,” he says. “But we also want to please our golfers.” In other words, he knows change is necessary — if not explicitly to support the environment, then at least to keep courses financially afloat.

At Entrada on that sunny St. George day, Behnke and I continue our drive through the course, pausing at a fairway. St. George is a tough area for green lawns; the temperature can reach over 100 degrees in summer and under 20 in winter, which means whatever grass Entrada plants must be versatile. This particular variety of grass — flagstick grass — is normally a cold-weather variety, but this strain has been genetically engineered to withstand the heat. It also requires less water than what Entrada had before. Between the new grass and the new irrigation system, Behnke says the course is hoping to save 30 million to 40 million gallons per year. And — aside from the environmental benefits — that can also make for a new way to enjoy the game.

“I think having courses not use as much water is going to actually take us back to the old Scottish roots of learning how to play,” he says. “You learn how to roll the ball off the ground, you learn how to hit different shots off the ground, and go from there. Which is, to me, a lot more fun than just throwing the ball in high every time.”

Better technology and new strains of grass are one potential contributor to salve golf’s water problem. Rigolon offers a few others. His goal is to make the water used by golf courses reach further, for the benefit of more than the players. A light touch, he explains, could take the form of simple versatility: making a golf course more of a park by adding a basketball court or a playground, for example, or welcoming the use of its paths for joggers or dog walkers.

Salt Lake City, he explains, as part of its “Reimagine Nature” initiative, has looked at integrating other uses into public courses. Other, less golf-friendly options would be to downsize golf courses — turning an 18-hole course into a nine-hole course and turning the back nine into a large, regional park.

A more extreme measure would be to close some courses. “You don’t get rid of all of them, of course,” he says. But a few closed courses could potentially address several Western concerns at once by creating more accessible green space, using less water and, as in California, even serving as a site for new affordable housing.

Whether or not Rigolon’s proposals become reality, some golf courses are sure to remain. And for the people tasked with managing them, the question of water often distills to a simple economic reality.

“If water is being properly priced,” says Ed Osann, director of the National Water Use Efficiency, Water Initiatives, Healthy People and Thriving Communities Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “then you may have fewer of these irrational placements of extremely high water-using operations in areas that have great water scarcity. I think that professional golf course managers, and their association, are quite conscious of the significance of water use by golf courses. Attitudes about water consumption have changed.” Which is why Barker, like Behnke, is enthusiastic rather than apprehensive about what could be next for the game. “I think golf will evolve,” he says.

Behnke and I scuttle along in the golf cart, approaching the final act of the tour he’s given me. We coast to a stop in front of a green fairway that gives way to a sea of volcanic basalt rock. There are piles and piles of it, jagged and dark. It’s one of the few courses in the continental U.S., Behnke explains, that features lava formations. It has been known to golfers past as a dreaded stretch where golf balls went to die, requiring almost perfect shots to avoid getting sucked in. Behnke casually acknowledges that you can learn a lot about those golfers by how they react to tough situations, like when they hit the ball into these saw-toothed stones.

When it comes to water, climate and their overlap with golf and its social niche, maybe the same is true of us, as Americans and as Westerners. In however small of a purview, perhaps golf — quite visibly and literally — can show us what we value. 

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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