Mexico Open at Vidanta

Vidanta Vallarta

H20 + Golf

By David Owen Illustrations by Otto Steininger
September 10, 2013

This past summer, during a long stretch of hot weather, one of the two wells at my golf club went dry. The dead well had served only the clubhouse, the maintenance area and the house of a former superintendent, not the golf course, but the news was ominous, and the president of the club suggested that we discreetly find out whether our neighbors were having trouble, too. Our golf-course irrigation system is fed by a pond. During periods of high demand, we top it off with our second well, which we added seven or eight years ago, as a backup. If we lost that, too, what would we do?

Luckily, the problem turned out to be the pump, not the aquifer, and we solved it the way I solve problems with my house: by spending a lot of money for something no one will ever see. We got off easy, in other words—but the emergency was a reminder of the importance of a resource that most golfers, most of the time, don't think much about. Water is in many ways a bigger environmental challenge than energy, and not just for golf, because with water there are no "alternatives." You either have it or you don't, and when supplies are low, lush fairways seldom appear on nongolfers' priority lists.

In 2005, Golf Digest named ShadowGlen Golf Club, in Manor, Texas, one of the 10 Best New Affordable Courses in the United States. Six and a half years later, the club was out of business, except for the odd small party, conducted in the cart barn. The problem was water. When the course opened, in 2003, the club irrigated with potable water, which it purchased at a discounted rate from the local utility. Then a regional drought intensified just as the water contract expired. "It was absolutely devastating," Blake Chaffee, the club's general manager, says. "We didn't have enough water in the ponds to even push up the irrigation heads." ShadowGlen and the city eventually reached a new agreement, and the course reopened. It now irrigates exclusively with reclaimed water, which it receives, at no charge, from a municipal waste-processing plant on the other side of the highway. But the club had to pay for a pipeline to bring the water from the plant, and the hiatus, which lasted eight months, was hard on the course and the club's finances. Recovery has been slow.

A golf course can be an ideal end user for processed wastewater because fairways and greens can function as a final filtering system. (Before ShadowGlen began using it, effluent from the waste plant was pumped into a creek.) For golf superintendents, though, reclaimed water is not problem-free. Processed waste can be high in nitrogen and phosphates, which act like fertilizer, and superintendents have to manage the change, both on their turf and in their storage ponds. Reclaimed water can also be high in salts, which can accumulate in the soil and can damage turf and irrigation equipment.

If you talk to experts about golf and water, you invariably hear about two promising turf strains: buffalo grass and Seashore paspalum. "These are grasses that were not available to us even 30 years ago," Kimberly Erusha, the managing director of the United States Golf Association's Green Section, told me. Buffalo grass is highly drought-resistant, and, unlike the grass that most of us think of merely as grass, it's native to North America. (Bentgrass, Bermuda, bluegrass, fescue, Poa annua, rye, zoysia and all the other familiar U.S. turf types were imported from elsewhere during the past few centuries, often for grazing livestock.) Buffalo grass doesn't do well in shade or in high-traffic areas, and if it gets too much water other grasses tend to crowd it out. Its main golf use, so far, has been in out-of-play areas. Agronomists keep improving it, but it's not a golf panacea.

Seashore paspalum is highly salt-resistant. It grows naturally in coastal areas in the South and can survive the occasional tidal surge. (In 2008, Hurricane Ike fully submerged Moody Gardens Golf Course, in Galveston, Texas, yet the parts of the course that were sown with Seashore paspalum came through fine.) But you can't irrigate it with seawater, as people sometimes claim, and if you use reclaimed water you still have to manage the nutrients and the salts. A golf course that was sometimes spoken of as an advertisement for Seashore paspalum was another Texas development, Kings Crossing Golf & Country Club, in Corpus Christi. Bill Coore designed it in 1986, and he used some paspalum, at a time when the grass was virtually unknown in the golf world. The club liked it so much that it eventually planted it in all its fairways and rough areas. In the 1990s, Richard L. Duble, who was then a turfgrass specialist on the faculty at Texas A&M, played the course with its superintendent, and wrote, "I was impressed with the appearance and playability of the grass. Perhaps most striking was the uniformity of the turf and the complete absence of other grass species."

As Duble pointed out, though, the absence of other grasses (and the poor health of the surrounding trees) was a consequence of the high salt content of the club's irrigation water, which came from a brackish creek and could be tolerated only by the paspalum. And salt, presumably, eventually got to the paspalum, too. Kings Crossing went out of business in 2009. Coore told me that the club "managed to kill the course in a single summer," but the murder, if that's what it was, actually took years. There has been talk recently of reopening the course, perhaps as a muny, but before that can happen the club will need a different water source, and something will have to be done about the salts now in the ground. (Salt remediation—in which contaminated soil is treated almost like toxic waste—is expensive.) Salt-tolerant turf can actually make a golf club's long-term water-related challenges more dire, by concealing soil problems until affordable solutions are no longer possible.

None of that means that interesting new grass strains and recycled water are unimportant. But promising-sounding water solutions often come with challenges of their own. "The breakthroughs aren't as dramatic as flipping a switch," Erusha told me. "Science is a series of steps over time." The only certain remedy is tautological: to reduce water consumption, you have to reduce consumption of water. As a result, golf superintendents in dry regions have been forced to become some of the country's leading experts on conservation, just to keep their jobs. If they watered their fairways the way some of my neighbors water their lawns, they'd have driven their clubs into bankruptcy long ago.

A course that has made a major commitment to water reduction is Pasatiempo Golf Club, in Santa Cruz, Calif. The club buys all its water from the city, which made it clear a number of years ago that in any water crisis golf would be considered a dispensable activity. The club has responded primarily by removing irrigated turf. "We eliminated about a third of our golf course," D. Scott Hoyt, the general manager, told me. "We have about 90 acres, and we pulled 30 out of irrigation and inserted what we call native grasses." The club also upgraded its irrigation system. The new one, by Toro, has more than 2,000 individually-controlled sprinkler heads, which can be run from a computer in the superintendent's office. A possibly surprising benefit of the turf-removal project has been that the golf course now looks more like what it did when Alister MacKenzie created it, in 1929. "It took our members a while to adapt to the change from wall-to-wall green to something that's much more distinctive," Hoyt says. "But now everybody loves it."

Clubs that cut back on irrigation have to deal with more than golfers' expectations about conditioning. When Augusta National —another MacKenzie masterpiece—opened, in 1933, it quickly acquired a reputation as a very long course. The holes were actually normal lengths, but the club had installed an in-ground fairway irrigation system, a rarity at the time, and balls didn't roll as far as they did on unwatered hardpan, which golfers of that era often played on elsewhere. Today, unirrigated courses are highly uncommon, even in places where rain sometimes seems to fall almost all the time, and one effect has been to soften the impact of modern advances in playing equipment. My course is 110 years old. It got its first fairway-watering system fairly recently, in the 1980s, and we have members who remember when the ground was so hard that a medium-long player could occasionally drive the eighth green from the first tee. That was in the days of persimmon woods and balata balls. If we stopped irrigating tomorrow, there would be times of the year when even seniors like me would have trouble keeping tee shots in play. Having the ability to water the fairways has kept an old, short course from seeming obsolete.

Pasatiempo faced a related issue when it removed turf from areas where golfers were accustomed to having easy shots. "It's taken a long time to establish the native grasses," Hoyt told me. "One reason is that we're trying to achieve what we call 'findable-and-playable' grasses. We don't want some kind of miserable thick fescue that would look really good and outline the course but if you hit your ball in there you'd never be able to find it." Hoyt's crew has planted several strains, and maintaining the intended mix has taken work. "There's been a lot of weeding and mowing and spraying and Roundup and regrowing," he says. "We've been working on that for three or four years, and we're probably about 60 percent there."

Meanwhile, though, the club is saving $150,000 a year on water, and its costs should fall further once the non-turf areas require less maintenance. The club is also in a better position to withstand droughts and cutbacks, and within a couple of years it hopes to improve its position still more, by gaining access to processed wastewater from the Scott Valley Water District, which has a treatment plant on a hill overlooking the club. The plant currently dumps all its effluent into the Pacific Ocean, through a pipe that runs right past the course.

Includes additional reporting by Luke Kerr-Dineen.