Troubled waters - golf's future in a thirsty world
29th October 2008
Some golf course operators will soon find themselves battling for enough water to keep their businesses afloat
The United Nations has urged world leaders to put the looming crisis over water shortages at the top of the global agenda. In the U.S., there’s scarcely a region not taking stock of its water supplies and how they are governed. There’s also growing concern within the golf industry that its most important natural resource could be drying up. How worried should we be, and what can we do about it? One thing seems certain: to do nothing is to risk everything.
More and more golf course operators today find themselves battling for enough water to keep their businesses afloat.
The good sense of conserving even in times of plenty is hardly a new idea. The concept is central to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Yet as history’s litany of failed economies and even empires affirms, it is a lesson man struggles to heed. The command of power and resources transitions constantly and fortunes move with that flow.
As the United States ventures deeper into a 21st century of soaring oil prices and sinking financial confidence, concern over the fate of one resource, perhaps the ultimate resource, may come to override all else. Water.
Record droughts across the country have drained lakes and rivers, forcing communities and lawmakers to take stock of water resources and the regulations that govern them. Even in areas spared the worst, irregular weather patterns, including floods and record snowfalls, have dealt their own problems. The net result is growing uncertainty about the constancy of supply.
As one of the most visible and significant consumers of such a staple, golf often finds itself in the firing line. Unlike a manufacturing plant whose use of water plays out behind brick walls, golf courses are easy targets every time they run a sprinkler. That golf is a game where the product is a leisure activity, not food or medicine, further emboldens opponents.
As a result, more and more golf course operators find themselves battling for enough water to keep their businesses afloat. Scarcity may not be new to the Western U.S. but its degree and what’s at risk is certainly on the rise. In California and Nevada, for example, local water districts are writing checks for as much as $3 per square foot to landowners, including golf courses, who get rid of turf in favor of low-water use landscaping.
East of the Mississippi, the prospect that there might not be enough water to go around has arrived with an alarming jolt. South Carolina is suing North Carolina over withdrawals from the Catawba River that spans their border. Georgia wants to move its state line north to get more of the Tennessee River, contending it mistakenly lost a portion of the river in a flawed survey in 1818.
Across the board, the stakes are high and the rules of engagement invariably hard to follow. Myriad governments, agencies, authorities and other groups have a say in who gets how much water and when. In some instances laws are changing. But even where laws remain unchanged, their interpretation is being redefined. Regardless of the method, the goal is the same: ensuring enough water for the not-so-rainy days.
The upshot for golf course owners is an unavoidable battle on multiple fronts. It will not be enough to carry on blithely once rains return to drought areas or even in areas where water may be plentiful today.
Golf will need to present a sound scientific case that its water use is clean and efficient. It will need to underpin that case with the economic rationale that more than just a sport, golf is an industry that delivers a $76 billion annual bounty, according to the latest economic impact study. That case will need to be presented to politicians and the public, all the while balanced with the ethical consideration that at the end of the day there are things in the life of a community more important than a game.
Moreover, the case cannot be made and won overnight. On the contrary, many predict it will become as much a part of taking care of business as negotiating insurance rates or complying with labor laws. As Bruce Charlton told members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects when they elected him president early in 2008, water is the “bloodstream” of any golf course. “And the water issue will be ongoing and will only rise in importance.”
Populations and therefore consumption continue to grow. One recent Virginia Tech projection suggested that the U.S. could be home to as many as one billion people by the end of this century. Pitted against a finite resource, any increase in demand diminishes the share available.
As long as golf needs water it will need to say so.
The immediate question is whether golf can get its act together soon enough and astutely enough to shape its fate or whether regulators will do so first. Dr. Bob Carrow, a University of Georgia professor who is the lead scientist developing a comprehensive educational program on water conservation on golf courses for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, says the window of opportunity for golf to get in ahead of stringent, potentially damaging regulation is closing.
There are two fundamental obstacles for golf course owners. One is physical. No two golf courses are created equal; so while water supply might be in clear and present danger for one owner, another just a few miles down the road may not share that sense of urgency. Some owners have their own legal representation. Many independent owners do not. Getting a critical mass and necessary resources behind any campaign could be tough.
The second consideration is cultural. As one attorney representing the industry’s claim to water observed: “Golf course owners are not used to kicking and clawing and scraping to get what they want.” Property taxes and depreciation prompted toes into those waters, but for the most part issues affecting golf operations have been local and dealt with from facility to facility.
In contrast, many other industries devote significant resources to protecting their collective interests. In addition to lawyers, they retain lobbyists and channel money to political candidates. Golf is so disparate, with multiple business models and stakeholders, that such long-term, unified campaigning is virtually unknown.
If golf course owners have been slow to rally, industry suppliers including irrigation companies, turfgrass growers, and chemical manufacturers have been highly active. Along with researchers, their efforts and innovations have markedly improved golf’s record on prudent water use.
Water is now applied more precisely and efficiently than ever. New turf varieties require less water or get by on lesser quality water; products exist to help plants get more out of what rain does fall, and soil moisture sensors dictate irrigation on the basis of need not intuition.
That is all good news that needs telling to the right people. That was the rationale for the first National Golf Day in Washington, D.C., in April 2008. Golf course owners, superintendents, builders, PGA professionals and club managers, came together to present golf’s story to lawmakers and media.
David Fay, World Golf Foundation chairman and United States Golf Association executive director, told an audience at the National Press Club that attendees represented a “very strong industry coalition.” Fay stressed golf’s “extremely positive” impact on the nation’s economic health, its “environmental stewardship” as well as the industry’s “very positive charitable and human impact” on society.
Those three elements – economy, environment, community – offer sturdy legs for a stool on which any future industry campaign could stand.
Still, it takes time to win hearts and minds. It is worth noting that a week after the first National Golf Day, Earth Day, conceived to generate awareness of environmental degradation, celebrated its 38th anniversary.
That is not to say that golf has not won political gains or at least concessions on the water front in some parts of the country. But ask anyone who has fought those battles in Florida, California, Georgia, Colorado, or the Carolinas, and they will tell you it is hard going. Especially when supply is low and emotions are high.
Their experience suggests, like that of the Pharaoh in Joseph’s story, that it makes more sense to take action when you can afford to, rather than waiting until you must.