Golf Courses That Play Well and Save Water

10/02/2015 05:42 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2016

Golf is a very old sport that started in the middle ages. It is one of the oldest sports still played with great popularity today. The sport started in Scotland and was played in the abundant green grass that covered most of the country. Today as we are in the midst of a four year drought in California, people question if this sport warrants the amount of water required to keep the courses green.

Golf courses in California are known for their heavy water use in order to keep their grass green all year round. But I had heard that a golf course in Carmel, California took a serious approach to water conservation that resulted in a savings of 30 million gallons of water last year. Santa Lucia Preserve is a 20,000 acre community of which 18,000 acres are designated as a nature conservancy. It is located in the Santa Lucia Hills above the town of Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula. Because the land is part of a conservancy, the Preserve has a mandate to safeguard the health of the land, as well as to share knowledge on sustainability. I arranged a meeting with Mike Kelly, COO of the Preserve, and Forrest Arthur, General Manager of Santa Lucia Community Services District, to hear about their sustainability effort, particularly how they have been saving water.

When you enter the Preserve you feel that you are entering a national park. As I drove through the Preserve I saw deer, hawks, and wild turkeys. Our meeting was at the Hacienda, which is 9 miles from the main gate. The Hacienda was built in the 1920s by George Gordon Moore, a wealthy lawyer from New York. There was speculation that F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled his iconic character, Jay Gatsby, after him. Moore was an avid sportsman and had a dream of having a hunting preserve, and riding facilities. Moore purchased 22,000 acres in the mid 1920s. It was sold many years later and has had several owners and some of the land was sold off. It became the Preserve in 1999. The Hacienda has been beautifully restored and now has rooms for guests of the Preserve, as well as a dining room.

Mike Kelly met me in the lobby of the Hacienda. He gave me an overview of the property and the golf course. There are 300 home sites; 109 are built and there are several under construction. The Tom Fazio designed golf course is 365 acres, of which only a small portion is irrigated. When the golf course was built in 2001, special catchment basins were installed to capture water run off to several capture ponds located around the golf course. In addition to water runoff , these capture ponds also capture rainwater. Mike Kelly explained that the golf course capture system has the potential to collect roughly 40 million gallons of water a year .The Preserve golf course has reduced the area of turf that is irrigated and has been allowing turf to dry out more. As Mike explained that it allows for a faster playing surface that many players prefer.

In a news release by the Golf Channel on March 24, 2015, more courses are letting their turf grass dry out. they stated that more courses are letting their turf grass dry out. More than two-thirds of the golf courses in the United States are keeping their turf drier than they had been in the past. They stated that it is better for everyone and improves the bottom line. On June 8, 2015 in the Los Angeles Times, David Wharton highlighted the new approach in golf course design. Jack Nicklaus is currently redesigning the Sherwood Country Club course in Thousand Oaks, California to use less water. As part of the redesign he will be overseeing they will be removing at least 7 acres of turf, revamping the irrigation system to use less water, and planting California native plants.

In Palm Springs California courses are also on the forefront of redesigning courses to use less water. They are using wetting agents, which help to retain water in the soil as well as sophisticated monitoring devices in the soil. Wetting agents are chemicals that allow water to spread more easily throughout the soil. Many of these golf courses are able to control each irrigation head on a golf course by computerized systems. These systems are able to regulate how often they water and how much water they use. In Palm Springs many of the courses use recycled water.

Rick Silva, in the Water Conservation Unit at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, works with golf courses in Los Angeles to save as much water as possible. Rick told me that courses have done a very good job of reducing their water use. He said that the LADWP set targets for golf course water use, and they have actually come in below the targets. The courses have done this primarily through decreasing the amount of irrigated turf, as well as switching out to warm season grasses that go dormant in the winter and require less water all year round. Similar to the courses in Palm Springs, they also use computer systems to regulate water use by each irrigation head. Soil sensors tell them where water is needed, and many use recycled water.

At Santa Lucia, Forrest Arthur joined our meeting and told me about another capture pond they hope to build that will recapture another 8,000,000 gallons of water a year for the golf course to use. With the addition of this pond, the capture system will provide up to 70% of the golf course's water requirements.

Forrest gave me a tour of the capture ponds, and we drove past one of the holes on the golf course. He showed me a section of turf that has dried out due to the irrigation being cut off that was located just next to the green. The green itself was being irrigated. We then went to the maintenance offices where I was able to see the computer systems that monitor the overall water use by the Preserve and another that monitors and controls the water use for the golf course. The Preserve has strict limitations of water use for landscaping of the home sites. Homeowners that are using too much water are notified. Because they track the water use closely they are also able to see anomalies that might indicate a problem. Forrest told me of one such instance where an increase in water use was noticed, and when they went to the home a water leak was discovered and was repaired quickly. Many of the homeowners are not at the properties year round, so having a monitoring service like this is important.

The other computer system is for the golf course. This system shows the amount of water use with monitors for the capture ponds and the wells. It has weather monitors and soil sensors. They also have controls for the irrigation system and have the ability to control each irrigation head on the course. The Preserve has a wastewater treatment plant that supplies 5 million of recycled water per year for the golf course. Like other golf courses in California, they use wetting agents to help the water retention.

Forrest said that in the past, 70 acres of land at the Preserve were irrigated for the golf course. They have cut that down by 30%. Half of the water needed to irrigate the remaining acreage comes from the capture ponds and the wastewater treatment plant. To put this in some perspective relative to other courses, per a CBS news report, an 18 hole course in the US, averages 90 million gallons per year in water use. It is worth noting that this statistic is across the US. California courses can use more than that. At Santa Lucia Preserve after their water saving efforts, recycling efforts, and recapture systems, they use about a third of that amount.

What really struck me was the great attention and effort that this particular golf course has made to save water, and I thought it was worth highlighting. I know that some folks feel strongly that any potable water used to water a golf course is a huge waste if crops are being allowed to die due to lack of water. Golf does bring in a huge amount of revenue to our state. Golf courses help to cool down our cities. So I think there is a place for them. Courses that are paying attention to water use should be shown as a model for other courses to follow.