Editor’s Note • This story first post on July 23, 2021. It has been updated with new data and republished in light of persistent Utah and Great Salt Lake water issues reaching a new record high.
Utah experienced another hot, dry summer preceded by many more hot, dry summers. The Great Salt Lake reached a record low for the second consecutive year. Many Utahns are abandoning the notion of green lawns. Some municipalities forego watering parks or adopt new growth.
So is it time to drop the idea of public golf courses as well?
Unlike a public park, golf courses attract a niche group of attendees — mostly white and affluent — who engage in a single activity. A limited number of golfers can be on large stretches of land at any one time, and the courses are usable only in favorable weather conditions. And all those greens, fairways and tee boxes are gulping down a mind-boggling amount of water.
“People are starting to look at it, especially with climate change,” said Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor of urban and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, whose research focuses on green spaces and the environmental justice. “Golf courses are unsustainable now, and it’s likely to get worse.”
Salt Lake County harnesses by far the most water for its golf courses, which include a mix of public and private lands, compared to other counties in the state, surpassing even arid Washington County, which is home to the sun of St. George. According to US Geological Survey data for 2015, the most recent year for which information is available, golf courses in Salt Lake County used 9 million gallons per day of groundwater and water of surface. To put that into perspective, it’s like filling almost 14 Olympic swimming pools daily.
“We try to do everything we can [to conserve] because we realize that we are heavy users of water,” said Jerry Brewster, director of golf for Salt Lake County. “We absolutely use water.”
Why Golf Courses Can’t Stop Watering Completely
Although USGS information on golf course irrigation 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 staff in 2022 produced three years of irrigation numbers, with numbers not all matching information shared by the county in 2021.
Consumption rates also fluctuate greatly from year to year. In 2019, the county reported 659 million total gallons used between its six courses. That number rose to 827.7 million in 2020, then fell back to 663 million gallons in 2021. That’s enough water to support about 10,750 Utahns.
Mountain View Golf Course consistently swallows the most water, averaging 185 million gallons per year over the past three seasons. That’s about 1.3 million gallons per acre.
Brewster noted in a 2021 interview that the county is using technologies like smart irrigation and wetting agents to reduce water usage.
“We live in a high desert,” he said, “so we anticipated that, thought about it, and tried to plan ahead as much as possible.”
But, golf directors point out, they can’t stop watering altogether. Public courses do not depend on taxpayer funds – they have separate budgets, generating their own money from players. They need these players to visit the courses to stay afloat. In short, green greens generate greenbacks.
“Our primary feature of the golf course, the green, and the way the ball rolls and putts, is the one area where people judge the condition of your golf course,” said Division Manager Matt Kammeyer. Salt Lake City golf course, in an interview in 2021. as he worked to cut irrigation at the city’s six courses by 5%. “If you just play dirt, people won’t pay to go out.”
And letting the grass die could ultimately be extremely expensive. Salt Lake City officially abandoned its Wingpointe golf course in 2017 in part because of the cost of reviving it, estimated at $1 million.
“If you get to a point where he dies, you have to do one of two things,” Brewster said. “You have to reseed it, or you have to turf it…and you’re going to use 10 times more water to restore root structure.”
The pros and cons of golf courses
Salt Lake County public golf course operators highlight the benefits of their facilities.
“The great thing we do is provide golf at an affordable rate,” Brewster said. “We are not country clubs. We are not high end pay per day facilities. We are not resort golf courses.
Large swaths of green space like golf courses also provide environmental benefits in a county full of dense urban development.
“We provide riparian habitat,” Brewster said. “We have animals and birds.”
Rigolon recognized that having a large area of irrigated grass is better than asphalt or concrete. The grass has a cooling effect on hot days, prevents erosion and helps filter rainwater. Golf courses also tend to have tall trees and other natural features that benefit surrounding residents, even if they never pick up a 9 iron.
But, he said, unlike a park, which can serve as an inclusive gathering space and a bridge from one neighborhood to another, golf courses act more like “green walls.”
“They are almost closed. And in some places there are real fences,” Rigolon said. “The function and audience they serve are more exclusive than other green spaces…which is contrary to what you think public lands would be.”
Municipalities across the country have reinvented and redesigned golf courses into more inclusive spaces. Grafton, Ohio has converted an old golf course into a nature preserve.
Some lawmakers have floated the idea of building affordable housing on sprawling golf courses, with a communal park in the center.
“With golf courses, there are community benefits,” Rigolon said. “But especially in places like Salt Lake or other places where real estate is so expensive and people crave outdoor activities, the benefits to the community could be so much more.”
A pandemic rebound
Blame it on the sport’s perceived elitism, blame it on changing leisure trends, blame it on millennials, but golf participation has seen a slow and steady decline over the years, both nationally and in Salt Lake County.
In the United States, there were 6.8 million fewer golfers in 2018 compared to 2003, and 800 courses have closed in the past decade, leading to discussions about how to reuse open spaces .
Then the pandemic hit.
“I haven’t seen such a large one-year increase,” Kammeyer said.
City Courts saw attendance rise 25% in 2020 from the previous five-year average.
“It’s important,” Kammeyer said. “It’s not just Salt Lake City, the entire golf industry has seen a similar boost.”
Golf was one of the first outdoor recreational activities to be able to reopen safely during public health shutdowns — in the case of Salt Lake City, golf courses never closed.
“One of the things the pandemic has shown us is how much community service golf is,” Brewster said. “We saw unprecedented numbers of people going to the golf course because it was all they could do.”
The county’s six golf courses saw attendance rise from 316,201 in 2019 to 392,597 in 2021.
The industry measures ‘attendance’ as the number of nine-hole rounds, so it’s unclear if gains have come from the same golfers having more free time to play multiple rounds or if the pandemic has prompted more players to get into sports.
“It’s good to see that people still want to come out and play,” Kammeyer said.
Reinventing golf spaces
The spike in turnout could make it hard to sell the idea of converting golf courses into more inclusive and water-friendly spaces. But Rigolon said the move doesn’t need to be a revolution.
“That doesn’t mean we’re closing them down,” the professor said. “That means we may be starting with incremental changes.”
He suggested adding protected trails for walkers and cyclists. Or build playgrounds. Maybe we need more nine-hole courses and fewer 18-hole facilities.
“Football is a growing sport, especially among minorities,” Rigolon said. “Why not take advantage of the golf course a bit and turn it into football pitches, especially on the west side?”
Salt Lake City is already exploring the idea of repurposing sections of golf courses or adding amenities that appeal to non-golfers, through its “Reimagine Nature” public land master planning process. Ideas include re-wilding unplayable sections, adding concessions and welcoming new activities like cross-country skiing, disc golf and off-leash dog areas.
Although redesigning golf spaces is likely to meet some resistance, Rigolon said the fact that the conversation is even taking place gives him hope.
“If you ask me personally, the best time to start was yesterday,” Rigolon said, “and the second best is now.”
This article is published by The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of information, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.