Drying Out

America's courses are curbing their addiction to water

November 2009

An earthen causeway connects Pyramid Island -- near the southwestern end of Lake Mead, 20 miles from the Las Vegas Strip -- with the Boulder Harbor boat launch facility, on Lakeshore Road. Two cantilevered piers extend like wings from the causeway's sides. There used to be a "No Fishing" sign at the end of one of the piers, but it served no purpose beyond stating the obvious: The lake's volume has shrunk by more than 50 percent since 1998, and the piers overhang dry land. The lake's rapid decline is mainly the result of an ongoing drought in the Southwest and of reduced snowfall throughout the watershed of the Colorado River, which feeds it. A section of the lake to the south of the causeway used to be reserved for scuba diving; today, you can explore it in hiking boots.

The shrinking of Lake Mead and the rapid growth of metropolitan Las Vegas -- which depends on the lake for water, and has quadrupled in population during the past two decades -- have forced southern Nevada to adopt some of the most stringent conservation regulations in the United States. Every gallon that goes down a drain indoors in Las Vegas is treated and then either reused or returned to the lake (which was created during the Great Depression by the construction of the Hoover Dam), and homeowners can be fined for doing things like watering their gardens on the wrong days of the week or allowing runoff from a sprinkler to flow onto a sidewalk. Needless to say, the rules have affected the area's four dozen golf courses, which operate on water budgets assigned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and pay punitive multiples of the normal rate if they exceed their allocations. Perhaps surprisingly, golf operators and superintendents have been among the strongest supporters of the conservation program, which has given them financial incentives to reduce their irrigation expense, to replace turfed areas with less-thirsty forms of landscaping, and to explore plant species and maintenance practices that are better suited to local conditions.

The specific environmental challenges that affect golf courses in and around Las Vegas are different from those in many other parts of the country, but the general problem is universal: The earth's stores of fresh water and other crucial resources are limited, and we are depleting them. Golfers -- who compete for those resources with people who don't necessarily view weedless fairways and double-digit Stimpmeter readings as global priorities -- are feeling the consequences, both directly (in the form of higher costs and reduced availability) and indirectly (in the form of additional scrutiny from water authorities, land-use officials, environmentalists and others). Even so, golfers aren't the environmental villains they're often portrayed to be. Pat Mulroy, who is the SNWA's general manager, told me, "People love to beat up on golf, but what very few people realize is that golf courses have the most sophisticated, high-tech irrigation systems possible, and, as a result, they are the most efficient irrigators in the valley." In recent years, golf superintendents in Las Vegas and other stressed areas have gotten so much better at making do with less that, in terms of resource management, they now sometimes have as much to teach as to learn -- and not just about maintaining golf courses. Their experience also provides a preview of a number of difficult environmental and economic issues that all golfers, everywhere, are going to have to confront in the years and decades ahead.

Spanish Trail Golf and Country Club, a 27-hole facility designed by Robert Trent Jones, was built in 1984 and, therefore, is ancient by Las Vegas standards. You can easily find it in a satellite photograph: It's the emerald rectangle left of the intersecting runways of McCarran International Airport. The property includes a 400-acre gated real-estate development, whose winding, tree-lined streets have names like Harbour Towne Avenue and Crooked Stick Way. Many of the original home buyers were retirees from the East, and the entire complex reflects their prelapsarian expectations about desert landscaping: The yards are as green as Connecticut lawns in May.

The director of golf-course maintenance at Spanish Trail is John Pollok, who came to Las Vegas in 2008 from a golf course in Los Angeles. In L.A., Pollok's annual water bill was $250,000; at Spanish Trail, it's six times as high. "We do about 36,000 rounds of golf a year," he told me over lunch in the clubhouse this past spring. "If you calculate that out, it means that every golfer who heads down our first fairway represents $42 in water costs." That's a huge nut, and it forces the club to track every gallon. Pollok's crew constantly monitors soil moisture and can adjust irrigation levels, sprinkler head by sprinkler head, to make sure they're never putting out more than just enough. Irrigation costs have made Spanish Trail an enthusiastic participant in the SNWA's Water Smart Landscape program, which, among other things, pays cash rebates to water customers who convert turfed areas into "xeriscapes." (The word comes from the Greek xeros, meaning "dry.") In 2007, the club renovated one of its three nines under the program and, in the process, removed 38 acres of turf, mostly from the periphery of the course.

The SNWA's rebate program is mainly intended for home-owners, who are among the world's most clueless irrigators and fertilizer- and pesticide-appliers, but golf courses, in many ways, provide the best demonstration of how the program is meant to work. Angel Park Golf Club, a 45-hole public facility about five miles north of Spanish Trail, has removed 76 acres of grass, replaced much of the turf on its driving range with pinkish, pea-size gravel, turned off a fountain and eliminated three lakes. (Water features, because of evaporation, can require more irrigation than fairways do.) An important element of southern Nevada's water-conservation efforts has been the conversion of golf-course irrigation systems to recycled wastewater. For a decade, Angel Park irrigated with potable water, which the city pumped from Lake Mead, 30 miles to the southeast and 1,500 feet lower in elevation. During an especially dry year, in the mid-1990s, the club used 650 million gallons. Not long afterward, the Las Vegas Valley Water District (one of the seven municipal agencies that make up the SNWA) built a wastewater recycling plant a short distance from the course, and the club connected to the new main and built a reservoir. Bill Rohret, the superintendent, took me to see it. He splashed his hands near the intake valve, to show there was nothing scary about recycled water, which, he said, was clean enough for bathing. The club's annual SNWA water budget is a little less than 320 million gallons, about half its peak consumption, and Rohret usually doesn't have to struggle to meet it.

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