At a ‘water summit’: Arizona golf-course superintendents gather to share best practices on water management

Desert Mountain Club

As a rule, industries with an economic reliance on a valuable resource tend to be extremely careful in how they use it.

Farmers in Yuma County and elsewhere in Arizona, for example, have become experts in laser leveling fields, crop management and water-conserving irrigation techniques.

The same is true of golf, an industry that in 2014 added $3.4 billion to the Arizona economy, directly provided almost 23,000 jobs paying over $302 million annually, and, yes, used more than 130,000 acre-feet of water in 2010, the most recent year for which the Arizona Department of Water Resources has completed data.

On June 21, the Cactus & Pine Golf Course Superintendent Association, which represents golf-course managers throughout the state, held its annual “Water Summit” at the spectacular Desert Mountain Golf Club near Cave Creek in north Scottsdale.

The effective use of water was the sole topic of discussion. Golf is an industry that cannot exist without its two vital ingredients – turf grass and the water that makes turf grasses grow. As such, the Water Summit was populated with speakers whose interests are tightly focused on squeezing every possible drop of value from the water golf courses use.

“We work in the original ‘green’ industry,” suggested Warren Gorowitz, vice-president of sustainability for the Ewing Co., an irrigation and landscape supplier for the golf industry.

A common public perception of golf, said golf course-design consultant Gary Brawley, is that in a water crisis “all golf courses should be shut down.

“We need more public awareness of the fact that we as an industry are leading the way in efficiency. We are great at what we do with water.”

Discussions ranged from irrigation efficiency, replacing unnecessary turf with native landscaping (a national trend) and water-conscious course design to effective water-pump management.

The summit also addressed issues of public policy and regulation of golf courses – a not-insignificant part of modern life for a water-reliant industry whose biggest Arizona footprint is in areas regulated by the state Groundwater Management Code.

“Key industries like golf contribute tremendously to the state,” said Hunter Moore, natural resources policy adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey. “The governor actually uses the (Waste Management Phoenix) Open” as a forum for pursuing economic development for Arizona. 

“Half of water used at municipal courses is re-use water,” Moore told the golf superintendents. “That’s a great story to tell.”

Jeff Tannler and Ryan Jackisch of the Arizona Department of Water Resources briefed the roughly 100 attendees on regulatory issues.

Jackisch noted tenets of the Groundwater Management Code as they apply to active-management areas such as metro Phoenix. State law, for example, allows no more than 90 acres of irrigated turf grass for an 18-hold championship-style course built since the state’s groundwater management laws went into effect.

Tannler noted that water use by the golf industry in Arizona from 2008 through 2014 has been “fairly steady” – a fact attributable in large part to the industry’s long-held efficiency standards. Arizona golf, he said, has been “very efficient in its water use.” 

A major component of water efficiency appears to be turf removal – a best-management practice pioneered in large part in Arizona, where so-called “target” courses and narrower fairways have become the norm.

So is precision irrigation. Paying careful attention to the distribution of a sprinkler head and carefully monitoring turf-moisture readings have reduced water use on many Arizona courses by 10 to 20 percent.

The USGA features a case study of the Paradise Valley Country Club, which reduced its water budget by up to 20 percent annually after leveling sprinkler heads and tearing out turf to less than 90 acres total.

“The trade-off in water usage has been significant,” said course superintendent Rob Collins.

Big picture, the object of wringing as much out of the water budget in an age of water scarcity is industry health. That was a factor not at all lost on one featured speaker, golf-course architect Andy Staples:

“As an architect, the way I survive is to make sure the game of golf survives,” said Staples.

“Never has (water) efficiency been more attainable than now – or more important than now.”