As Utah faces serious issues with drought and water shortages, including a dying Great Salt Lake, lawmakers have thrown millions of dollars at an array of solutions. But one practical idea to cut back consumption — requiring golf courses to track and share their water data — quickly got the kibosh at the Legislature this session.
HB 188 initially required every golf course in the state to meter water use, report it to the state and publish it on the course’s website. Some claimed the proposal unfairly targeted golf courses and would make them look bad. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Doug Welton, disagrees.
“I’m not one for the heavy hand of government, but I am for responsible use,” the Republican from Payson said in an interview. “You can’t make improvements if you don’t have the data.”
Welton even watered down his bill and instead turned it into a study on golf courses’ consumption in an attempt to get at least some information. Lawmakers brushed off that proposal, too, claiming the public would misuse the data and make “uninformed” conclusions. The bill didn’t even make it out of committee.
“The public is smart enough to figure out and make good determinations for themselves,” Welton said, “especially if we give them good data.”
Turns out, water use at most of Utah’s golf courses is already a public record. It just takes time to request and compile.
How we obtained data on all Utah’s golf courses
The Salt Lake Tribune sent public records queries to every golf course managed by a public entity, like a city or county, for water used every year for the last five years. We also sent requests to public utilities and water districts that supply private golf courses with irrigation water. The records and responses received account for 90 of Utah’s 114 golf courses, or about 79%.
The remaining private golf courses use private water supplies. The state engineer requires 10 of them to report their annual water use, which we obtained from the Utah Division of Water Rights website. (Some of them haven’t reported use for 2022, although it should be posted soon — it was due by the end of March.)
The rest buy water from one of the state’s hundreds of private canal companies or have their own wells and water rights. In those cases, we called the canal companies and golf courses to see if staff would share their water use information. Some sent over what they knew, but most declined. A few didn’t answer the phone or respond to messages, which may be because they haven’t yet opened for the season.
We also collected information on each golf course’s acreage and ownership via county records and parcel maps. Here’s what we found.
Several golf courses don’t track their use
Many golf courses in Utah simply don’t meter or track water use. That includes some publicly owned courses, like Beaver City’s Canyon Breeze Golf Course, Provo’s Timpanogos Golf Course, Tremonton’s Skyway Golf Course, Murray Parkway, Millard County’s Sunset View Golf Course and the Green River Golf Course, which is managed by the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. Some municipalities only installed meters on their golf courses last year, including Sandy, Ogden, Logan and Brigham City.
Lehi City delivers water to the Thanksgiving Point golf course, but because it does not meter its pressurized irrigation water, it could not provide information. American Fork’s meter at its Fox Hollow golf course didn’t work in 2019, 2020 and 2022.
All said, The Tribune was unable to get data for about 30 golf courses, either because water use isn’t measured or private golf courses couldn’t be reached or refused to share it. Three of Utah’s golf courses are no longer in operation, including Belmont Hot Springs/Camper World in Garland, Sherwood Hills in Cache County and Wingpointe in Salt Lake City.
Some courses included water consumed in the clubhouses and restrooms, while others only reported outdoor irrigation. Indoor use is a small fraction of what’s used outdoors, but it goes to show how useful a uniform tracking and reporting system could be.
Which golf course uses the most water?
All said, Utah’s golf courses soaked up about 23,600 acre-feet in 2022 and 25,400 acre-feet in 2021. Those figures don’t include the roughly 25% of courses that did not have or did not share their data. An acre-foot is about enough water to support two Utah households.
Golf courses cover around 15,500 acres in Utah. That’s more than 24 square miles.
Copper Club appeared to use the most water in the state, at about 1,085 acre-feet per year according to information obtained from the Utah Division of Water Rights and Magna Township. Kennecott owns the property but does not manage the golf course. A spokesperson for the mining company said their golf well is also used for industrial purposes, so the number is inflated. They do not track water use at Copper Club.
The 150-acre Sand Hollow Resort golf course in Hurricane used the second-most, reporting 943 acre-feet in 2022 and 1,018 acre-feet in 2021. Not surprisingly, golf courses in sunny Washington County fill most of the slots for the top 10 water users, given they’re located in a warm desert climate and open year-round. But Hidden Valley Country Club in Sandy used a comparable amount of water to irrigate its 223 acres, sprinkling 546 acre-feet in 2021.
Most of Utah’s golf courses are publicly owned
About 57% of the state’s golf courses are at least partly owned by a public agency. Cities and counties own 56 of the state’s golf courses. The Utah Department of Natural Resources owns or manages four, including the Green River, Palisade, Soldier Hollow and Wasatch Mountain courses.
Two golf courses are partially owned by public entities — Carbon County owns about half of the Carbon Country Club and Utah State University owns most of the Logan Country Club, but neither agency tracks water use at the properties.
Hubbard Golf Course at Hill Air Force Base is owned by the United States government. It used 334 acre-feet last year to water 144 acres.
Many of Utah’s golf courses cut their water use last year, some by a lot
Last year saw little rain, leaving turf across the state parched. Even in those conditions, however, about 40 golf courses cut their water consumption compared to 2021.
Salt Lake City reported a whopping 284 acre-feet saved at its Mountain Dell Golf Course, which covers 381 acres. Richfield’s 106-acre Cove View Golf Course cut consumption by 277 acre-feet, although its location in arid San Pete County means it still used more water than courses in colder climates. It reported 685 acre-feet irrigated in 2022, compared to 962 acre-feet in 2021.
St. George’s Sunbrook Golf Club cut use by 224 acre-feet last year, and Layton’s Sun Hills conserved about 100 acre-feet.
About two-dozen courses reported using more in 2022 than the year before. Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club used 137 more acre-feet. Overlake Golf Course in Tooele used about 100 additional acre-feet, and the Moab Golf Course used 80 more acre-feet.
Drying up golf courses probably won’t save the Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake basin is home to 85 of Utah’s golf courses, which cover about 20 square miles.
Roughly 20 courses didn’t have or provide data. If we assume they use the average amount of water that other golf courses use in the lake’s watershed, all those properties consumed about 20,000 acre-feet per year in the last few years. That’s around the same amount of water The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agreed to donate to the Great Salt Lake annually.
The lake has run about 1 million acre-feet short in water inflows over the last few years, causing it to recede to record lows and dry into toxic dust.
Excluding Kennecott Copper Club’s shaky data, the top five golf courses using water that would otherwise flow to the Great Salt Lake include Hidden Valley Country Club, Golf the Round, Mountain Dell, Stonebridge and Mountain View. All used more than 400 acre-feet in 2021, the most recent year with complete data for those courses.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify Kennecott’s affiliation with the Copper Club Golf Course.
Great Salt Lake Collaborative intern Emma Keddington contributed to this report.
This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.