Golf Courses Go Green With Less Green — Two Approaches
Despite its reputation for indulging in water-wasting ways — or perhaps because of this reputation — people take note when Las Vegas makes a special effort to conserve water. Las Vegas is viewed as the prodigal son of cities, much lauded when it takes up the good cause of water conservation after its profligate ways.
The city of Atlanta, for one, found inspiration from Las Vegas’s water saving efforts. A story in the Atlanta JournalConstitution stated, “When it comes to water, the Big Peach has a thing or two in common with Sin City.” Atlanta officials hired consultants from Las Vegas to help them deal with their unprecedented drought.
That Las Vegas conservation efforts often make a bigger splash and get more attention than do Arizona’s is grounds for a critical apprisal of their water saving strategies, especially if you are from Arizona. University of Arizona student researcher Tim Cloninger considered golf courses which are significant water users, comparing Las Vegas and Arizona strategies to promote more water-efficient courses. His study shows two much different approaches that yield different results.
Due to a lack of progress in meeting conservation goals, the Southern Nevada Water Authority in 1991 launched an aggressive multi-million dollar water conservation plan called “water smart landscapes.” The rebate program pays residential or commercial water users, such as golf courses, $1.50 for every square foot of turf replaced with desert landscaping with no cap on the acreage.
Cloninger reports that golf courses have been star achievers in the rebate program. Since 2002, 24 of the 52 Las Vegas Valley golf courses have converted 425 acres of turf to a desert landscape. On average, the turf reduction program for golf courses saves one billion gallons of water per year.
Cloninger describes Arizona’s much different approach to ensure water savings on golf courses. The Las Vegas approach of cash up front encourages immediate results and is suitable for a city getting started late and needing to catch up. Arizona has taken a more long-term, institutional approach, with laws and regulations put in place to ensure that golf courses are constructed and managed for greater water efficiency.
Arizona was thinking about golf course water use in 1980 when the Legislature passed the Groundwater Management Act. The GMA established the Arizona Department of Water Resources which then developed management plans in each of the newly established five Active Management Areas. The management plans regulated golf course water use within the AMAs. Golf courses with over ten acres of irrigated turf are considered large turf facilities, covered by the Industrial Conservation Program of the AMA Management Plan.
The management plans recognize that key to ensuring golf course water savings is regulating the amount of turf. Less turf means less water use. Beginning with the First Management Plan in 1984, ADWR regulated acreage of golf courses built after January 1984. The plan limited new golf courses to 23.8 acre-feet of water per hole. At an application rate of 4.6 acre-feet a golf course could have no more than five acres of turf per hole. For an 18-hole golf course, this allows 90 acres of turf.
This new model golf course contrasted with the pre-1984 design defined by a tree-lined layout with more turf. Cloninger reports that ADWR regulations required golf course architects to design more narrow, target style layouts that concentrated the turf in the playing areas. On average, the golf courses within AMAs built after 1984 have 30 acres less turf than the pre-1984 courses.
Along with golf course design another Management Plan strategy is to encourage the use of renewable sources of water. A golf course in Arizona using 100 percent of a “renewable” source of water is not regulated by the maximum total annual water allotment. If one drop of groundwater is used to irrigate the course, however, the golf course is regulated by the total annual water allotment.
Cloninger reports that since First Management Plan was implemented in 1985 the trend for golf courses to use a renewable source of water is on the rise. For example, in the Tucson AMA in 1995, 34 percent of the water use was from renewable sources, and in 2006, 53 percent was from a renewable source.
Cloninger’s study shows that in 2006, the 330 golf courses in Arizona used approximately 160,000 acre feet of water. Of those 160,000 af, approximately 80,000 af were groundwater, 38,000 af surface water, and 46,000 af effluent.
Cloninger concludes that in shaping desert golf course design ADWR conservation plans have saved a significant amount of precious groundwater. In the Phoenix AMA, 1,706 golf course holes or roughly 95 18-hole golf courses have been constructed since the First Management Plan was implemented in 1985
The average size of an eighteen hole golf course in the Phoenix AMA prior to the ADWR regulation was 105 acres of irrigated turf; after 1985 the average size decreased to 84 acres of turf. Applying the ADWR regulatory application rate of 4.9 acre feet per year for turf, the Phoenix AMA potentially saves 3.18 billion gallons of water per year by reducing the size of courses.
That compares very favorably to Las Vegas where the SNWA has spent millions on the golf course turf reduction program over the past seven years saving approximately one billion gallons of water annually. Cloninger concludes that Arizona’s GMA demonstrates that the workings of effective policy and regulations is a far better water-saving option than the extensive and costly Las Vegas turf reduction program.