Low on water for growth, Washington County water managers playing hardball with new golf course developers

Washington County Water Conservancy general manager is just saying no to new golf courses.

(Tom Wharton | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sun River Golf Course near St. George in 2017.

St. George • Water managers in southwest Utah’s Washington County will no longer play ball with developers where golf is concerned.

Washington County Water Conservancy general manager Zach Renstrom’s response to developers asking for water for new golf courses in the St. George metro area can be summed up in one word: no!

“Every time anyone comes and starts talking about a [new golf course], I simply tell them we don’t have any water and [they] need to look somewhere else or do something else,” Renstrom said. “So far, they’re looking to do other things than a golf course.”

Water not keeping pace with growth

Renstrom’s no-water stance for new golf courses is due to several factors. For starters, the proposed 140-mile Lake Power Pipeline that state and local officials once counted on to pump more than 27 billion gallons a year to Washington County is now a no-go for the foreseeable future due to low water levels in that reservoir and the Colorado River.

Further fueling water managers’ angst is Washington County’s soaring population, which is projected to double in the next 30 to 40 years. Without Lake Powell water, the district must find another way to secure an additional 47,000 acre-feet of water by 2042 to meet the increased demand.

Finally, Utah golf courses soak up a lot of water — 23,600 acre-feet in 2021, not counting totals from courses that did not share their data. All told, golf courses in Utah total a combined 15,500 acres or more than 14 square miles.

Washington County’s courses were among the thirstiest in the state, according to a special report conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune. For example, Sand Hollow, a 150-acre upscale course in Hurricane used the second-most in the state — 943-acre feet — in 2022. Six of the top 10 golf courses that were the biggest water users that year were located in Washington County.

Making dollars but little sense?

Golf is big business in the St. George metropolitan area, where the sun shines 300 days or more a year and the temperatures hover well over the century mark for much of the summer. In 2023, the area’s 14 golf courses attracted roughly 447,000 visitors to the area and resulted in an economic impact of nearly $151 million, according to the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office.

While Zion National Park remains the area’s top draw with respect to visitors and economic impact, tourism officials say, golf lags but is on the upswing.

“It’s a critical area for Washington County,” said Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office Director Brittany McMichael. “Anything with an economic impact number over 150 million is significant.”

In St. George alone, the four courses the city owns and operates grossed $7 million in revenue last year. Halfway through this fiscal year, the city’s take from its courses is up $570,000 from this time a year ago,” said Colby Cowan, St. George’s director of golf operations.

The water district’s decision not to supply water to new golf courses is expected to have little impact on St. George.

“It doesn’t affect us because we have no plans to build new golf courses,” Cowan said.

Nor, it seems, does anyone else. Renstrom said the last water request he fielded from golf course developers was several months ago. After telling them there was “no way” the district would supply water for a conventional water-intensive golf course, Renstrom said the developer floated the idea for a course that would use artificial turf on the green and tee areas and xeriscape everything else.

“But I haven’t heard back from those people,” Renstrom added.

While golf course developers could always seek to finagle water elsewhere, Renstrom said such efforts would likely come up dry because private water-rights owners are not inclined to sell. Moreover, cities are not looking to approve new courses.

“I don’t know anybody [who is] talking about new golf courses anywhere right now,” the water manager said.

Focusing on conservation

For his part, Cowan said the city’s focus is on conservation, reducing water usage. St. George uses secondary or reuse water on its golf courses. To reduce water usage on municipal courses, the city has put more drought-resistant Bermuda grass on fairways, cut down on watering and seeding, let native grasses grow in out-of-play areas and used wetting chemicals to preserve the moisture content in grass and plants, among other things.

As a result of such measures, he said, St. George conserved 88 million gallons two years ago and another 22 million gallons last year.

“We are trying to lead the way and to be as proactive as we can,” Cowan said.

Edward Andrechak, president of Conserve Southwest Utah, lauded such efforts but said much more needs to be done at golf courses throughout the area.

“Golf courses in southwest Utah, while an important element of our economy, should also be key regional contributors to our water conservation culture,” he said. “The 14 golf courses in Washington County use approximately 12% of the total water consumption in the county.

“As a result, Andrechak added, “Conserve Southwest Utah expects these course operators to engage in all types of water conservation … We welcome the opportunity to work with these course operators, in collaboration with the Washington Country Water Conservation District, to achieve best-in-state per course water use performance in the future.”

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