September 16, 2009

Drying Out

America's courses are curbing their addiction to water

Mineral deposits show how far the lake level has dropped.

Mineral deposits show how far the lake level has dropped.

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.

TRACKING EVERY GALLON

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.

Water pumped from the Colorado River is apportioned according to a 1928 agreement, which annually allocates 15 million acre-feet among seven states. Because Las Vegas was barely even a hick town when the agreement was signed, Nevada's share is tiny, just 300,000 acre-feet a year, or 2 percent of the total U.S. draw. (An acre-foot equals a little less than a third of a million gallons; California and Colorado, between them, take about 2.5 trillion gallons a year, or roughly half the total.) Recycling enables Nevada to leverage its allotment, either by using the same water more than once or by returning treated wastewater to the lake and thereby earning a "return flow credit." Conservation and recycling efforts have been so effective that Nevada uses only about 265,000 acre-feet a year, or less than 90 percent of its allotment. Recycled water is becoming increasingly important in other parts of the country, too. According to a study published by the Environmental Institute for Golf, 12 percent of 18-hole golf facilities in the United States now do at least part of their irrigation with recycled water. More than half would do so if it were available.

THE DOWNSIDE OF SALT

Irrigating with recycled water has a serious downside, however -- as the valley's golf clubs have discovered, and as golf superintendents and farmers in other parts of the country are finding out. Processed wastewater inevitably contains things that potable fresh water doesn't, primarily salts. This problem is especially acute in Nevada, because the Colorado River is high in salts to begin with and recycling nearly doubles their concentration, with the result that a typical Las Vegas golf course, irrigating entirely with recycled water, does the equivalent of applying 10 or 11 tons of salt per acre per year. The salt harms the turf and other plantings directly; it also creates a number of more subtle problems, by gradually clogging air and water channels in the soil, reducing the ability of roots to absorb nutrients, promoting previously unfamiliar plant diseases and inducing the sprinkler-valve equivalent of atherosclerosis.

The negative effects of recycled water are not confined to courses that depend on the Colorado River. Sand Creek Station, an 18-hole public facility in Newton, Kan., irrigates with effluent water from a wastewater-treatment plant owned by the city, which obtained a $450,000 federal grant to build a supply line to the site. The course performs an environmentally valuable public service by, in effect, providing the final stage of the city's wastewater-treatment program: Sand Creek's fairways and greens help to filter out remaining impurities as the water is returned to the ground. But those impurities, which are also mainly salts, accumulate in the soil, where they create the same maintenance and cultivation challenges that Las Vegas superintendents face. Dale Devitt, a professor of soil and water at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told me, "Salinity is one of those things you won't notice at first, because the changes are very subtle, especially when you're growing salt-tolerant grasses like Bermuda grass. But at some point you cross a threshold, and it's downhill from there." Golf courses with severe unaddressed salinity problems are sometimes forced to "sand cap" damaged areas and start over.

To prevent such disasters, courses that irrigate with recycled water usually have to aerate and top-dress more frequently, treat the water itself, and apply various supplements to the turf. They also typically have to irrigate more heavily, to push the salts and other contaminants below the root zone -- a practice that undermines efforts to conserve. Recycled wastewater also often contains elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphates, and that means that irrigating with it can be like applying fertilizer year-round. (Sand Creek and most courses in Las Vegas have to treat their greens with chemical retardants to prevent excessive growth, and their ponds are highly susceptible to algal blooms.) Farmers who irrigate with recycled water face related difficulties. An agricultural irrigation technique that once seemed environmentally enlightened -- repeatedly capturing irrigation runoff and reapplying it to the same fields -- rapidly raises the soil concentration of salts and other undesirable substances and can eventually render the fields unsuitable for growing anything. So much water has been pumped from the aquifer under the Coachella Valley, in Southern California, that land in some parts of that region, which includes 126 golf courses, has subsided more than a foot since 1998, as the aquifer has been depleted. In response, the Coachella Valley Water District is building a pipeline to supply 50 golf courses with recycled water -- an environmental necessity, undoubtedly, but a solution that will create difficulties of its own.

As irrigation with marginal water has increased in many parts of the country, interest has grown in the golf industry for turf strains that are less susceptible to salt damage. The best known of those strains is Seashore paspalum, a warm-season perennial grass that has a high tolerance for salinity. Seashore paspalum survives salt levels that would kill almost anything else, including nuisance grasses like Poa annua, and researchers have maintained plants for long periods in water as salty as seawater.

Yet Seashore paspalum isn't the miracle grass it's sometimes portrayed to be. Robert N. Carrow, a professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Georgia, is one of the country's leading experts on Seashore paspalum, and he has helped to develop some of the most promising strains. He told me that the grass has been oversold, or, at least, under-explained: "Unfortunately, some people in the industry have promoted the idea that you can irrigate Seashore paspalum with ocean water. It is true that the ecotypes with the highest salinity tolerance can survive periods of ocean-quality stress, but you can't maintain them that way for long periods of time." Irrigated courses planted with Seashore paspalum need the same salt-management practices that other irrigated courses do. Carrow said, "If you let salts build up, you'll eventually kill paspalum, too. You know the salt flats in Utah? They're devoid of plants for a reason."

The SNWA's turf-replacement program requires that converted areas be planted with replacement vegetation, in such a way that the canopies of the plantings, at maturity, will provide ground coverage of at least 50 percent. The purpose of the rule is to ameliorate Las Vegas's airborne-dust problem, which is sporadically severe, and to reduce the ground's absorption and re-radiation of solar energy -- the so-called urban heat-island effect, which can raise air temperatures and even alter local weather patterns. Pat Mulroy told me, "The old mantra for desert landscaping in southern Nevada was a cactus, a rock and a dead-cow skull. What we want is desert landscaping that has a single root system but can spread all over the ground. That keeps the temperature of the rocks down -- in the summer it gets pretty hot around here." But there are downsides. The main one is that the non-turf plantings have to be irrigated, too. (Every plant I saw in a golf-course turf-removal area, other than weeds, had its own emitter, a small, black-plastic nozzle that was feeding it controlled amounts of water.) As a result, the biggest long-term decreases in water usage on Water Smart courses have often come not from removing grass but from using SNWA rebate money to modernize obsolete irrigation systems, and from adopting better maintenance practices and doing things like reconfiguring tee boxes to match the watering radii of new, low-flow sprinkler heads.

"The popular idea is that if you remove turfgrass you're going to save unbelievable amounts of water, but the reality is that there are tradeoffs," Dale Devitt told me. "Removing the turfgrass is one thing, but if you don't control what goes back in, and just plant trees instead, within a period of time there's no savings at all. We've demonstrated that one mature oak tree requires as much water as 1,600 square feet of low-fertility Bermuda grass. People will sometimes remove turfgrass but leave 50-foot-tall trees behind, without realizing that the trees were totally dependent on the irrigation that the turfgrass was receiving."

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

FINDING A SUSTAINABLE BALANCE

During my visits to Las Vegas golf courses, I was often accompanied by Nicole Lise, who works in the public-information office of the SNWA. Lise first saw the city in the 1970s, on a vacation with her parents. The area's explosive population growth hadn't begun yet, and her family's first reaction was to wonder where all the hotel and casino employees went when their shifts ended. "We thought maybe they lived in the hotels," she told me, "because we didn't see any houses." No one visiting Las Vegas today would suffer the same misapprehension. When I asked Pat Mulroy whether metropolitan Las Vegas might not ameliorate some of its water problems by taking steps to cap its population growth and halt its horizontal spread across the valley, she said, "Please share with me how you're going to do that. Under our constitution everyone who owns private land has a right to develop it to its highest and best use, so controls on that end have to come from the land-use side. What I have said to this community is, yes, you can continue growing, but you cannot do it the way you have in the past. You have limited water resources and you live in a fragile environment, so you're going to have to plan development that is much friendlier with outside water use."

Las Vegas is at the far end of the scale when it comes to water difficulties, but Mulroy's warning can be extended to golfers in all parts of the country. American golf is suffering a growing shortage of a resource that's just as important as irrigation: golfers themselves. Between 1990 and 2008, according to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golf courses in the United States grew by almost 25 percent, from fewer than 13,000 to roughly 16,000, yet during much of that period participation by golfers fell. In fact, Americans played 20 million fewer rounds in 2008 than they did in 2000 -- and the decline has presumably accelerated since then, as the tanking economy has forced thousands of players to cut back or quit. (Several private clubs in my area have recently discounted or even eliminated initiation fees, in an effort to replace members who have resigned.) That means that the total cost of golf in the United States is being shared by a shrinking pool of players -- and the higher the cost becomes the more likely the pool is to shrink further, a vicious cycle. Reducing the game's consumption of increasingly scarce and expensive natural resources is the right thing to do for many reasons, but the easiest one to understand is self-interest. There are many golfers in the country who would play less often, or not at all, if every round cost them $42 -- the amount that Spanish Trail players, as John Pollok said, pay for water alone.

Nongolfers, when contemplating golf's environmental impact, often hit upon a simple first step: Let's just get rid of golf. (J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the SNWA, told me, "Everybody wants a fall guy that isn't them.") It's certainly true that the game is far better suited, environmentally speaking, to some regions than to others. But even a desert area can support some number of thirsty outdoor recreational facilities, including parks, swimming pools and athletic fields of all kinds, as long as the costs and tradeoffs are managed intelligently. The largest consumer of Colorado River water, by far, is agriculture, and in many parts of the river's basin federal subsidies and other incentives have historically encouraged overuse rather than rational allocation. Millions of gallons are diverted each year for such questionable purposes as growing cotton in Arizona and flood-irrigating rice fields in Texas -- two longstanding practices that probably make less sense, economically and environmentally, than hitting small white balls into holes.

The trick is to find a sustainable balance. All Las Vegas residents have a stake in the health of the local golf industry because the region's economy depends almost entirely on tourism, for which golf is a major draw. Yet there are limits. Five years ago, the city imposed a moratorium on new courses. That decision prevented mindless proliferation and, serendipitously, improved the ability of existing courses to withstand the subsequent recession, as well as to absorb the rising cost of various critical resources. Angel Park, on the day I visited, was fully booked.

INNOVATIONS AND CHALLENGES

On a rainy morning this past June, I went to see Rutgers University's Adelphia Research Center, an experimental farm in Freehold, N.J. The most striking fact I learned there is that every blade of turfgrass I've ever seen or trod upon in North America was almost certainly a member of an invasive species. Cultivated grass covers 32 million acres in the United States, and virtually all of it originated in other parts of the world and was brought to this continent by immigrants, mainly to feed their grazing animals. Fescue and ryegrass come mostly from Europe, Bermuda grass and Kikuyu from Africa, bentgrass from the Mediterranean, zoysia from Asia, and Kentucky bluegrass from central Europe. The turf we use in lawns and fairways initially co-evolved with domesticated livestock and is the product of many centuries of selective breeding -- which, in recent decades, has been guided by agronomists, who have become extraordinarily skilled at manipulating and combining valuable traits. William Meyer, a Rutgers professor and the director of the university's Turfgrass Breeding Project, showed me his test fields. He and his colleagues choose the most promising cultivars, crossbreed them and develop new commercial varieties, and they add to their breeding stock by searching out promising strains in places like Italian sheep pastures and old French graveyards.

Research like Meyer's has led to exciting advances in the cultivation of grass, such as the creation of strains that require less water, have better playing characteristics, and are more resistant to damage by insects, fungi and golf-cart wheels. And those advances have been accompanied by innovations in maintenance technology. A growing number of courses have in-ground moisture-detection systems, and someday soon course crews will be able to cut fairways using mowers equipped with electronic turf sensors and global positioning systems, enabling them, as they mow, to gather minutely detailed data concerning current turf conditions that can be uploaded to a central computer and used to control precise applications of water and chemicals.

Innovations like those will become increasingly important as golf's environmental challenges mount, but technology and turf-breeding breakthroughs are not a total solution. Stacy Bonos, a colleague of Meyer's, told me that turf researchers have good job security because problems related to grass growing are never solved once and for all, in part because turf diseases and pests conduct breeding programs of their own. The kinds of easy answers that golfers and course operators yearn for -- weed-free fairways that thrive on seawater, slick greens that love heat and are immune to bugs and fungus -- are unlikely to materialize. And every exciting technological advance inevitably comes at a cost: New turf species and super-efficient irrigation systems aren't cheap.

Yet there are a few relatively easy answers to some of golf's environmental and economic challenges. UNLV's Dale Devitt made an observation to me about turf replacement that applies to golf's other resource-related issues, too. He said, "When you talk about water savings in a landscape, the big savings don't come so much from changing what you're growing. The big savings come from reducing the size of the landscape."

For this past year's U.S. Open, the par-4 seventh hole at Bethpage Black was stretched to 525 yards. The expansion of golf's scale in recent decades has mainly been the result of technological advances in clubs and balls, as well as improvements in player conditioning and swing technique. Those advances have made golf more fun to play, in many ways, but length, in itself, has added little to the game, because advantages in golf are always relative. (Phil Mickelson can hit the ball farther than Tom Watson did in his prime, but so can Tom Watson.) What is indisputably true is that making golf longer has enlarged its environmental and economic footprints: Bigger golf holes require more land, turf, water, fertilizer, fuel, chemicals and maintenance equipment, as well as increasing labor costs, stretching the time required to play, reducing the appeal of walking, and increasing green fees -- and in recent decades all those needs have been magnified by changes in golfers' expectations about acceptable levels of course grooming. Faster greens and tighter fairways consume more resources and cost more to maintain, and they are more vulnerable to a long list of plant diseases and climate-related stresses; keeping grass uniformly green, in most environments, requires steady chemical intervention, in addition to irrigation. The most direct way to shrink golf's environmental impact, and to contain its growing costs, would be to shrink golf itself -- in professor Devitt's phrase, to reduce the size of the landscape -- and to re-examine conventional ideas about things like weeds and putting speed. Golf hasn't always been played on 7,500-yard billiard tables.

Many exciting technological advances related to conservation and golf-course maintenance are being developed. But technological innovation alone can't solve all of golf's environmental and economic challenges, and even the most promising-seeming discoveries have a history of carrying unintended consequences and hidden costs. Golf's governing bodies have dithered on the distance question since the early 1990s, but that attitude seems increasingly unsustainable. We can take the initiative in shrinking golf's landscape, or we can allow economic crises and environmental disasters to shrink it for us.