Editor’s note • This story first published On July 23, 2021. Updated with new data and republished in light of Utah’s continuing water concerns and another Salt Lake record high.
Utah had another hot, dry summer preceded by plenty of hot, dry summers. Salt Lake hit a record low for the second year in a row. Many Utahs succumb to the concept of green lawns. Some municipalities are abandoning watering gardens or adopting new growth.
So, is it time to ditch the idea of publicly owned golf courses as well?
Unlike a public park, golf courses attract a specialized group of participants – mostly white and wealthy people – who engage in one activity. Only a large number of golfers can be on large tracts of land at one time, and courses can only be used under favorable climatic conditions. And all those green plants, fairways, and tee boxes gobble up an amazing amount of water.
“People are starting to look at this issue, especially with climate change,” said Alessandro Rigolon, associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, whose research focuses on green spaces and environmental justice. “Golf courses are not sustainable now, and it may be getting worse.”
Salt Lake County uses most of the water for golf courses, which include a mix of public and private land, compared to other counties in the state, and tops even arid Washington County, home to sunny St. George. According to US Geological Survey data for 2015, the latest year for which information is available, golf courses in Salt Lake County used 9 million gallons per day of groundwater and surface water. To put that into perspective, it’s like refilling roughly 14 Olympic-size pools a day.
“We are trying to do everything we can [to conserve] Because we recognize the fact that we are big users of water, said Jerry Brewster, Salt Lake County Golf Manager. “We definitely use water.”
Why golf courses can’t stop watering completely
While USGS information about the irrigation of golf courses in Salt Lake County is several years old, it is difficult to gather up-to-date data. A public records request sent to county parks and recreation employees in 2022 produced three years’ worth of irrigation numbers, with numbers not all matching the information the county shared in 2021.
Depreciation rates also fluctuate significantly from year to year. In 2019, the county reported 659 million total gallons of use between its six cycles. That number jumped to 827.7 million in 2020, then fell again to 663 million gallons in 2021. That’s enough water to support about 10,750 Utah.
The Mountain View golf course has consistently absorbed the most water, averaging 185 million gallons annually over the past three seasons. That is about 1.3 million gallons per acre.
Brewster noted in an interview in 2021 that the county is using technology such as smart irrigation and humidifiers to reduce water consumption.
“We live in a high desert, so we have been anticipating this and thinking about it and trying to plan for the future as much as possible,” he said.
But golf managers point out that they can’t stop watering completely. Public courses are not dependent on taxpayer money – they have separate budgets, and they generate their own money from players. They need these players to visit the tournaments to stay afloat. In short, green greens result in green coins.
“The core advantage of a golf course, the green, how you roll and shoot the ball, is the one area where people judge how your golf course is,” Matt Kamer, director of the Salt Lake City golf division, said in a 2021 interview. Where he worked to reduce irrigation in the six cycles of the city by 5%. “If you’re only playing on dirt, people won’t pay to go out.”
And letting the grass eventually die can be very expensive. Salt Lake City officially abandoned Wingpointe Golf Course in 2017 due in part to the cost of reviving it—an estimated $1 million.
“If you get to a point where you die, you have to do one of two things,” Brewster said. “You have to replant it, or you have to water it…and you’ll use 10 times as much water to re-establish the root structure.”
Pros and cons of golf courses
Salt Lake County publicly owned golf course operators point out the benefits of their facility.
“The nice thing we do is that we offer golf at affordable prices,” Brewster said. “We are not country clubs. We are not high end day fee facilities. We are not resort golf courses.”
Large areas of green space such as golf courses also provide environmental advantages in a county full of dense urban development.
“We provide a riverside habitat,” Brewster said. “We have animals and birds.”
Regolon admitted that having a large area of irrigated grass is better than asphalt or concrete. Grass has a cooling effect on hot days, prevents erosion and helps filter rainwater. Golf courses also tend to have large trees and other natural features that provide benefits to surrounding residents, even if they don’t pick up a 9 iron.
But, he said, unlike a park, which can serve as an all-encompassing gathering space and bridge from one neighborhood to another, golf courses are more like “green walls.”
“They are almost gated. In some places there are actual fences,” Rigollon said. “The function and the public they serve are more excluded than other green spaces…which goes against what you think public land would be.”
Municipalities across the country have reimagined golf courses and redirected them to more inclusive spaces. Grafton, Ohio has converted a former golf course into a nature reserve.
Some lawmakers have floated the idea of building affordable housing on sprawling golf courses, with a public park in the center.
“With golf courses, there are some societal benefits,” Rigolon said. “But especially in places like Salt Lake or other places where real estate is expensive and people crave outdoor activities, the benefits to the community can be so much more.”
Blame the sport’s perceived elite, blame it on changing entertainment trends, blame millennials, but participation in golf has seen a slow and steady decline over the years, both nationally and in Salt Lake County.
In the United States, the number of golfers decreased by 6.8 million in 2018 versus 2003, and 800 courses have closed in the past decade, leading to talk of how open spaces are being repurposed.
Then the epidemic struck.
“I haven’t seen a big increase this year,” Camer said.
City courses saw a 25% jump in participation in 2020 compared to the previous five-year average.
“This is important,” Camer said. “It’s not just Salt Lake City, the golf industry has seen a similar boost.”
Golf was one of the first outdoor recreational activities that I was able to safely reopen during the public health shutdown—in the case of Salt Lake City, golf courses were never closed.
“One of the things the pandemic has shown us is how much community service golf is providing,” Brewster said. “We saw unprecedented numbers of people who went to the golf course because it was all they could do.”
The county’s six golf courses saw participation increase from 316,201 in 2019 to 392,597 in 2021.
The industry measures “participation” as the number of nine-hole rounds, so it’s not clear if the gains have come from the same golfers who have more free time to play multiple rounds or if the pandemic has prompted more players to take up the sport.
“It’s good to see people still want to go out and play,” Kamer said.
Reimagining golf spaces
The sudden rise in participation could make it difficult to sell the idea of turning golf courses into more inclusive, water-filled spaces. But Regolon said the movement need not be a revolution.
“That doesn’t mean we closed it,” the professor said. “That means we may start with some incremental changes.”
He suggested adding protected lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. or build playgrounds. Maybe we need more nine-hole pitches and fewer 18-hole facilities.
“Football is a growing sport, especially among minorities,” Regolon said. “Why not take a little golf course, and turn it into some soccer field, especially on the West Side?”
Salt Lake City is already exploring the idea of reallocating sections of golf courses, or adding amenities that appeal to those without golfers, through the “Reimagine Nature” public lands master planning process. Ideas include reconfiguring non-playable sections, adding perks and accommodating new activities such as cross-country skiing, disc golf, and unrestricted dog areas.
While rethinking golf spaces will likely encounter some resistance, Regolon said the fact that the conversation is happening gives him hope.
“If you ask me personally, the best time to start was yesterday, and the second best time is now,” said Regolon.
This article was published by The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, educational, and media organizations that aims to inform readers of the Greater Salt Lake.