A recent segment on water use in the American West by comedian John Oliver singled out Utah for being, what he considers, ridiculous and blatant waste of water in the face of a drought, not least because of its many golf courses.
To be fair: golf generates over $805 million for the state, according the latest Golf Alliance data for Utah. The sport also supports more than 9,625 jobs, stimulates tourism, stimulates residential construction and generates demand for retail and other goods and services.
Yet Utah, the second driest state in the union, is home to some 140 golf courses, many of which are displayed in their green finery against beautiful red desert rock formations. And nowhere is this more prominent than with the four St. George’s city-run golf courses and eight private course—a point also raised by Oliver.
Michele Randall, Mayor of St. George, the fastest growing city in the United States attributes the city’s growth to the city’s friendliness and cleanliness, in addition to its vast recreational resources, which no doubt include golf courses. And clearly, the pandemic has sparked increased interest in golf, with its inherent social distancing and outdoor environment. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) said 3.2 million Americans played golf for the first time last year, a 33% increase from 2019. The NGF also had 28 million American golfers in 2020.
So how much water exactly do Utah golf courses use? Does the popularity of golf and its economic benefits justify the water it uses, especially in times of drought? Alan Davis, chief superintendent of golf courses at Willow Creek Country Club, Sandy, Utah, and past president of the Utah Golf Course Superintendents Association (UGCSA), says few people know what makes golf courses green . Hint: it’s not always water.
Davis points to the latest US Geological water survey, showing that golf courses in Utah are not among the top users of water in the state. That distinction goes to agriculture, which uses 2 billion gallons a day. The public uses 621 million gallons per day, while golf courses use 21 million. Additionally, according to a UGCSA report, only 4% of Utah’s turf is found on Utah golf courses. And 44% of Utah golf courses have reduced their irrigated area in the past six years.
The Golf Alliance for Utah says, “Overall, Utahans need to know how much their course superintendents study this topic. [the drought] and what they are doing about it.
Joel Williams, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources (DWR), saw John Oliver’s segment and, while he admits it’s part of a comedian’s job to make fun, he did. noted that things are going better than they look. “As ordinary citizens, we always want to have somewhere to point our finger and say, ‘Oh, they’re the problem,'” Williams says.
Golf may not be that place. The DWR recently met with golf courses in Utah to discuss their water conservation tactics, and state officials came away satisfied. “We’ve seen them do their bit and step up…and they’re doing it more effectively than the owners,” he says.
There are many methods that golf courses have been using for some time to conserve water, Davis says. For every golf superintendent, water is a constant topic of conversation, and has been for years. “We just try to stay on top of the drought and talk to the superintendents regularly to see what they’re employing,” he says.