Utah has seen yet another hot, dry summer preceded by a lot of other hot, dry summers. The Great Salt Lake is on the brink of a record low. Many Utahns are surrendering on the notion of green lawns. Some municipalities are giving up on watering parks or embracing new growth.
So, is it time to give up on the idea of publicly owned golf courses, too?
Unlike a public park, golf courses appeal to a niche group of participants — predominantly white and well-off — who engage in a single activity. Only so many golfers can be on the large swaths of land at a time, and the courses are only usable under favorable weather conditions. And all those greens, fairways and tee boxes gobble up a mind-boggling amount of water.
“People are starting to look at the issue, especially with climate change,” said Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, whose research focuses on green space and environmental justice. “Golf courses are not sustainable now, and it’s going to probably get worse.”
Salt Lake County taps by far the most water for its golf courses, which include a mix of publicly owned and privately held lands, compared to other counties in the state, topping even arid Washington County, home of sunny St. George. According to U.S. Geological Survey data for 2015, the most recent year with available information, Salt Lake County golf courses used a whopping 9 million gallons a day of groundwater and surface water. To put that in perspective, it’s like refilling nearly 14 Olympic-size swimming pools daily.
“We’re trying to do everything we can [to conserve] because we are cognizant of the fact that we are big water users” said Jerry Brewster, director of golf for Salt Lake County. “We absolutely use water.”
Why golf courses can’t stop watering altogether
While the USGS information about golf course irrigation in Salt Lake County is several years old, it’s hard to gather updated data. A public records request sent to the county’s Parks and Recreation personnel produced 2.5 years’ worth of irrigation numbers, which include guesses, different metrics among courses, faulty meters and disputed readings.
The data did show, however, that the South Mountain Golf Course used 169 million gallons of water last year, or about 612,000 gallons per acre.
Brewster noted that the county uses technology like smart irrigation and wetting agents to cut down water consumption. And given this year’s drought, his staff is looking for ways to cut back even further.
“We live in a high desert,” he said, “so we’ve been anticipating this and thinking about it and trying to plan ahead as much as possible.”
At Salt Lake City’s six golf courses, managers have reduced watering by 5% this year so far.
“Driving ranges, transition areas from one hole to the next, those are the areas we’re cutting off irrigation,” said Matt Kammeyer, director of Salt Lake City’s golf division. “We’ve slowly dialed it back.”
But, the golf managers point out, they can’t stop watering. Public courses don’t rely on taxpayer funds — they have separate budgets, generating their own money from players. They need those players to visit the courses to stay afloat. In short, green greens generate greenbacks.
“Our primary feature of the golf course, the green, and how the ball rolls and putts, is the one area where people judge how your golf course is,” Kammeyer said. “If you’re playing off just dirt, people aren’t going to pay to come out.”
And letting turf die ultimately could be extraordinarily expensive. Salt Lake City officially abandoned its Wingpointe Golf Course in 2017 due partly to the cost of reviving it — estimated at $1 million.
“If you get to a point where it dies, then you have to do one of two things,” Brewster said. “You have to reseed it, or you have to sod it ... and you’re going to use 10 times the amount of water to reestablish the root structure.”
The pluses and minuses of golf courses
Operators of publicly owned golf courses in Salt Lake County point to the benefits of their facilities.
“The beautiful thing that we do is we provide golf at an affordable rate,” Brewster said. “We aren’t country clubs. We aren’t high-end daily fee facilities. We’re not resort golf courses.”
Large tracts of green space like golf courses also provide environmental pluses in a county full of dense urban development.
“We provide riparian habitat,” Brewster said. “We have animals and birds.”
Rigolon acknowledged that having a large area of irrigated turf is preferable to asphalt or concrete. Grass has a cooling effect on hot days, prevents erosion and helps filter stormwater. Golf courses also tend to have large trees and other natural features that provide benefits to surrounding residents, even if they never pick up a 9-iron.
But, he said, unlike a park, which can serve as an inclusive gathering space and a bridge from one neighborhood to the next, golf courses act more like “green walls.”
“They are almost gated. And in some places there are actual fences,” Rigolon said. “The function and public they serve is more exclusionary than other green spaces ... which is contrary to what you would think public land would be.”
Municipalities throughout the nation have reimagined and repurposed golf courses into more inclusive spaces. California’s Orange County is exploring how to close two of its golf courses and transform them into affordable recreational opportunities for low-income neighborhoods. Grafton, Ohio, has converted a former golf course into a nature preserve. In Texas, communities are acquiring golf courses and turning them into parks that have the added benefit of protecting homes from storm surges.
Some lawmakers have floated the idea of building affordable housing on sprawling golf courses, with a communal park at the center.
“With golf courses, there are some community benefits,” Rigolon said. “But especially in places like Salt Lake or other places where the real estate is so expensive and people are craving outdoor activities, the community benefits could be so much more.”
A pandemic bounce
Blame it on the sport’s perceived elitism, blame it on changing recreation trends, blame it on millennials, but golf participation has seen a slow and steady decline over the years, both nationwide and in Salt Lake County.
Then the pandemic hit.
“I’ve not seen an increase in one year this substantial,” Kammeyer said.
The city’s courses saw a 25% jump in participation in 2020 compared to the previous five-year average.
“That’s significant,” Kammeyer said. “It’s not just Salt Lake City, all of the golf industry has experienced a similar boost.”
Golf was one of the first outdoor recreation activities that was able to safely reopen during public health closures — in Salt Lake City’s case, the golf courses never closed.
“One of the things that the pandemic showed us is how much of a community service that golf is,” Brewster said. “We saw unprecedented numbers of people that went to the golf course because it was all they could do.”
The county’s six golf courses saw participation swell from 316,201 in 2019 to 354,628 last year.
The industry measures “participation” as the number of nine-hole rounds, so it’s unclear if the gains came from the same golfers having more free time to play multiple rounds or if the pandemic spurred more players to take up the sport.
Whether the trend holds as workers return to their offices and families spend more time taking out-of-state summer vacations remains to be seen. According to Kammeyer, traffic has held steady at city courses throughout 2021.
“It’s good to see people are still wanting to get out and play,” he said.
Reimagining golf spaces
The spike in participation could make it difficult to sell the idea of converting golf courses into more inclusive, water-wise spaces. But Rigolon said the movement doesn’t need to be a revolution.
“It doesn’t mean that we shut them down,” the professor said. “It means that maybe we start with some gradual changes.”
He suggested adding protected pathways for active transportation. Or building playgrounds. Maybe we need more nine-hole courses and fewer 18-hole facilities.
“Soccer is a growing sport, especially among minorities,” Rigolon said. “Why not take in a little bit of the golf course, and turn it into some soccer fields, especially on the west side?”
Salt Lake City is already exploring the idea of repurposing sections of golf courses, or adding amenities that appeal to nongolfers, through its “Reimagine Nature” public lands master planning process. Ideas include re-wilding unplayable sections, adding concessions and accommodating new activities like cross-country skiing, disc golf and off-leash dog areas.
While a draft plan has yet to be released, and rethinking golf spaces is likely to meet some resistance, Rigolon said the fact that the conversation is even happening gives him hope.
“If you ask me personally, the best time to start was yesterday,” Rigolon said, “and the second best is now.”