Utah lawmakers say more information on golf course water might lead to ‘uninformed’ conclusions

Bill to require water-use disclosure gets watered down, then denied a vote on House floor.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Next to the Mountain Dell golf course, water trickles through Mountain Dell Reservoir on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

Utah lawmakers have shut down a measure that would have mandated transparency around water applied on Utah golf courses, arguing the public might draw “uninformed” conclusions if these facilities were required to reveal how much water they use.

Even after HB188 sponsors agreed to dramatically water down the bill, on Friday the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee declined to advance the measure for a vote on the House floor. Republican members said the bill unfairly singled out one water-intensive industry for scrutiny and sends a message that golf courses waste water.

“They do their best to make sure the grass receives just the right amount of water so it doesn’t create mud holes,” Rep. Thomas Peterson, R-Brigham City, said at an earlier committee hearing. “These are substantive investments; communities make it. Golf is a significant driving force in our community. It seems like we are publicly shaming them.”

Friday’s vote came after the substance of HB188 was replaced with new language that dropped public disclosure requirements in favor of a 5-year study into how the state’s 115 golf courses and driving ranges use water. But it also barred public disclosure of any of the data generated by the study.

The switch annoyed conservation advocates who viewed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, as a common-sense way to build public understanding about where Utah’s water goes.

“This puts a major barrier on the public and the media to understand how much water golf courses are using in Utah until after the year 2028,” fumed the Utah Rivers Council in a statement. ”The substitute comes on the heels of a major new golf course being proposed with Tiger Woods in Wasatch County next to Jordanelle Reservoir that will greatly increase water use in the region. Without access to public water use figures, no one will know how much water this golf course uses until the end of this decade.”

But some lawmakers suspected the real point of water-use disclosure was to target the golf industry for criticism, arguing it gave a pass to other big users of outdoor water — cemeteries, schools, churches, parks, ball fields and ski areas.

“I’m concerned we are putting information out there. I can see how that could be used as a club to those who are uninformed on this issue,” said Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem. “I don’t see a need to publicize it. If we’re going to be transparent, let’s be transparent with the information to those who can use it properly.”

In other words, the general public might draw wrong conclusions from the data golf courses would have been required to post under the original version of the bill, which Welton introduced in hopes of encouraging greater efficiency.

“It’s optics,” he told the committee. “In government, we should be transparent to our residents. If you don’t have the data, it feels like you’re hiding from that and you’re not putting it out there out of fear of accountability.”

In its initial form, the bill would have required golf courses to post their annual water use on their websites.

“This is a great bill that gives citizens accountability for water use, encourages water restrictions without the heavy hammer of government telling them what to do from a top-down approach that fits all,” Welton said. “I love golf courses. I have no desire to dry them up.”

At the bill’s first committee hearing last month, a golf industry representative opposed the measure but endorsed the idea for a study that became the central feature of the substituted bill.

“We don’t want to come across as not caring about our water resources. It is something very important to the golf industry,” said Ryan Peterson, executive director of the Golf Alliance for Utah. “Every single one has an on-site staff superintendent and they pay that person not only to make sure the fairways are cut nicely and the greens roll appropriately, but also to make sure the resources that we’re using are used appropriately.”

About three-fourths of Utah’s golf courses are publicly supported, with four operated by the Utah Division of State Parks. The rest are private, although some are open to the public. Peterson said some use municipal water, others use untreated secondary water, and others re-use water, so it’s hard to compare courses’ water-use patterns.

“Many have installed high-tech sprinkler systems and turf-management programs,” he said. “Parks, schools and universities, and cemeteries don’t have those things.”

Although the bill was held in committee, it is likely to get a second look in an interim session.