Water is scarcer and costlier, but golf courses can continue to operate successfully if they’re willing to change.

You’ve heard the dire talk about the world running out of fresh water. You also may have heard that the next big war could be fought over water, not oil or land.

The talk is unnerving, but it’s real. A national water crisis is impending and is already impacting the Southwest.

The golf course industry is and will continue to be on the front lines of the crisis, meaning golf courses will continually be scrutinized for their water use. Golf courses can expect more water restrictions, not just in the West but everywhere. Water costs will continue to escalate.

A superintendent from a golf course in drought-stricken California recently received a phone call from a representative of the course’s water supplier, notifying him that the course’s water supply would be shut off in 30 days. The superintendent was stunned.

In Georgia, a planning committee allocated a 0 percent increase of water use for all golf courses through 2050. So, if 20 new golf courses open between now and that time, the state’s current courses will have to share that water allotment with the new courses.

Effluent water use is an answer to the freshwater crisis, but not the answer. Effluent can be expensive and of poor quality for irrigation. It’s also not available to many courses since they lack the infrastructure necessary to transport it.

“Everybody knows that water is going to be our biggest issue for the foreseeable future,” says David Robinson, Marriott Golf’s senior director of golf grounds.

Golf’s water woes

The cost of potable water is going up and will probably never come back down. Free and low-cost water for golf courses will soon be a thing of the past, says Jim Moore, director of the United States Golf Association’s (USGA) Green Section’s Education Program.

“Golf courses are going to get less water, and it’s going to cost more,” states Moore.

Bill Love, president of W.R. Love Inc. Golf Course Architecture in College Park, Maryland, says that water availability and distribution will pose huge challenges for some golf courses.

“When you’re hooked into a water supply that’s shared by many other businesses and industries and other residential areas, golf is pretty low on the totem pole [for use],” Love says.

Robinson says increased water costs are already impacting golf courses’ budgets.

“We’re not making the kind of revenue that we used to, but our expenses keep going up,” says Robinson, who oversees the agronomy of about 80 Marriott courses. “If we can’t figure out a way to maintain golf courses for less money, then we’re going to be in trouble.”

Even if money is available to throw at the problem, what people in the industry need to realize, especially golfers, is that you can’t throw money at it, Moore says. If there’s not enough water available to keep a golf course wall-to-wall green, you can’t buy something that isn’t available, he adds.

More courses will be forced to use effluent water, but that doesn’t mean their irrigation problems will be solved, Robinson says. Effluent costs are rising as more municipalities realize there’s a demand for it. Effluent can also have severe quality problems. Robinson says a Marriott course had to stop using effluent for irrigation because the sodium content in the water was so high.

Making adjustments

Even though water will be scarce, that doesn’t mean golf courses won’t be able to adjust and function successfully, but they can’t sit idly by, Moore states. They have to want to change.

Moore expects that turfgrass reduction, which is already popular in the Southwest, will become more common in other areas of the country. He also expects more golf courses to cut back yardage to 6,500 yards and less.

“I don’t doubt that we’re going to take care of a lot less acreage than we have [been],” Moore says.

Drought-resistant turfgrass varieties are also on the verge of becoming more popular, Moore adds. The USGA and other turf organizations have been researching them for the last 30 years.

“These grasses haven’t been adopted as widely as we’d like to see,” Moore says, “but the technology is there.”

He likens the situation with drought-resistant varieties to that of hybrid cars. Not many Americans drive hybrid cars now, but they might reconsider driving them when fuel reaches $6 a gallon.

“We have amazing drought-tolerant grasses that we can be using,” Moore says. The problem is the grasses aren’t viewed as “pretty,” he explains. They’re also more expensive, more difficult to establish and have to be managed more closely in terms of traffic.

“But they’re really good, and, in terms of playing quality, they’re outstanding,” Moore adds.

He says it may come down to having a golf course that’s not as pretty and green or not having a course at all.

That said, progress has been made in the turf-doesn’t-have-to-be-green-all-of-the-time department, which bodes well for saving water, says Love, who stresses that water reduction is also a design issue. So, when reducing maintained and irrigated turfgrass, it’s vital to do it in a way that doesn’t look forced, Love adds.

“You have to have a good understanding of topography, natural systems and plant communities,” he explains.

A grass-based natural landscape, such as a prairie, can be beautiful and breathtaking to look at, and it relies only on natural irrigation, notes Love. The challenge for architects, superintendents and others involved is to create such landscapes on golf courses. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where areas are just taken out of play without considering the aesthetics.

“They look like superintendents forgot to maintain them,” Love explains. “A naturalized area that is 20 feet wide and 150 yards long is going to look bad.”

The key is to weave such areas in and around play to make them appear natural.

“Then those areas look coordinated,” Love says.

Mark Esoda, the certified golf course superintendent at the Atlanta Country Club in Marietta, Georgia, advocates that golf courses and other entities begin to harvest and store water, something that isn’t happening enough. By 2050, “Golf courses will only be able to use the water that they can store,” he adds.

The Atlanta Country Club has embarked on a program to enhance its water capability annually, which includes drilling a new well, upgrading the pump station, and installing new liners in irrigation lakes. The club’s buildings and parking lots are also constructed to harvest water.

“It’s whatever we need to do to make sure we have water and are storing it for the future,” Esoda explains.

Robinson is an advocate of upgrades. He surmises that most of the 15,500 golf courses in the U.S. have old irrigation systems. A block system with six heads has at least one head that is inevitably irrigating a wet spot, Robinson says. A new system and even partial upgrades will help golf courses save water.

“If it was my money, especially if I was in a market where I had to pay for water, I’d be looking hard at upgrades,” states Robinson.

The education factor

While Love believes most superintendents are “keenly aware” of their need to reduce water, he knows they’re instructed to do otherwise.

“I’ve watched superintendents overwater their golf courses because they’re under pressure from their clientele to have green courses,” he notes.

It’s up to superintendents, architects, the USGA and others to educate golfers, owners, general managers, pros and other golf course decision-makers about the water situation.

“We tell our clients, ‘When you think about irrigation now, you need to think about where you’re going to get it, and is that supply going to be reliable or reduced in the future or nonexistent,’ ” says Love, noting that water efficiency education will be ongoing.

No superintendent will get fired because his golf course is too lush and green, but superintendents must let the people they work for know that the water they’re using now may not be there in the future, Moore says. Such a situation also presents superintendents the chance to be part of the solution and the education process, he notes.

That’s the approach Robinson wants Marriott Golf’s superintendents to take. Earlier this year, Robinson and Marriott Golf rolled out the Environmental Sustainability Performance Award (ESPA) program, an initiative designed to serve as a benchmark for environmental stewardship across the company’s golf portfolio. Water conservation and water quality management are two key components of the program.

“With our ESPA program, we’re constantly challenging our guys to review their irrigation practices,” Robinson says. “If you do that, you’ll learn ways to reduce water [use].”

Superintendents and other golf course personnel should approach water conservation as being “the right thing to do,” adds Robinson.

“If there are ways we can improve systems and our practices to reduce the amount of water, we should do them,” he says. “It’s also the right thing to do for the health of the plant.”