How the West gets watered

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - It doesn't exactly pain Siena Golf Club superintendent Steve Swanson to tear up his golf course. Ripping out acres and acres of perfectly healthy turf can be therapeutic if contemplated in the appropriate light.

In this case, that light is survival.

Swanson is removing 14.1 acres of irrigated rough from this upscale layout in the golf rich suburb of Summerlin in the event the Southern Nevada Water Authority raises the region's drought status from "watch" to "alert." For its conservation efforts, Siena will receive a $300,000 rebate from the SNWA - enough to cover approximately one third of Swanson's "grass guzzling" labor costs.

"We can't just think in terms of the money. When I look at our golf course, I think it is going to benefit us," Swanson says. "It will be aesthetically pleasing, cost effective, and there's only so much water in Lake Mead. We don't need all this turf. We put all this turf in to sell houses, and now we don't need it."

Need has never been the operative word around the Valley that want built. But Sin City may have finally overstepped its bounds as a mecca of misbehavior - at least when it comes to water consumption. Mired in one of the worst droughts in history, Southern Nevada water officials are scrambling to find ways to conserve the precious liquid that makes life in this barren landscape possible.

"The water savings is going to have to come from somewhere because our already limited supply is becoming more and more limited," Swanson says.

Clamping down on water use at the region's impressive collection of golf courses has become a politically popular option.

"Let's see, you can go after 50 golf courses or 1.6 million people," Swanson deadpans. "It is not rocket science which one you go after. Let's be honest, a lot of this boils down to politics."

Politics historically have taken center stage in western water wars, but in the end it's a (not so) simple matter of supply and demand. The demand side in Clark County and its environs is still humming along like a well-struck tee shot. The Las Vegas metro area is home to more than 1.6 million people and is still growing to the tune of approximately 20,000 housing starts each year. Residential water use accounts for about 65 percent of all water consumption. Golf courses - despite public perception - absorb just five percent of the region's water.

"They are big and they are green and they are easy to pick on," says Dennis Silvers, host of a local golf talk radio program.

The supply side is becoming increasingly grim. Lake Mead, the source of 85 percent of Las Vegas' water, has dropped 74 feet in the past two years and is at 63 percent of its capacity (the SNWA website displays a Lake Mead water meter that reads like a macabre fund raiser chart). Lake Powell, further up the Colorado River, is down 95 feet and is at 50 percent capacity. Another meager snowfall in the surrounding mountains and the entire region could be subject to drought "emergency" measures.

Under this worst case scenario, it could be years before Las Vegas celebrates the opening of a new golf course.

"Even if we are in drought alert water budgets could go through the roof," Swanson says. "If you have to pay out over a million dollars for water you can't afford to operate a golf course because you'd have to charge too much to recover the costs."

Siena is not the only course making a preemptive strike on tighter water restrictions. Red Rock Country Club, a private course in Summerlin, is replacing 14 acres of rough with drought tolerate plants and xeriscape. South of town, the Boulder City Golf Course is ripping out close to 30 acres of grass. Yet despite drastic times and drastic measures, some industry insiders believe Glitter Gulch's golfing future is tied to the economy, not the environment.

"You can build a technologically sound, environmentally sensitive course that conserve as much water as you need," says Mark Rathert, a Denver, Co. based architect heading up the Boulder City Golf Course project. "I would say the economy and the (lack of) growth in the game is a bigger consideration than the water."

Water woes in America's Desert Playground

Las Vegas isn't the only Southwestern golf stronghold feeling the effects of the prolonged drought. California's Coachella Valley, home to such major golf destinations as Palm Springs, Palm Desert and La Quinta, recently experienced an about-face in its water pricing policy. Since 1949, the Coachella Valley Water District has been the beneficiary of a generous appropriation of Colorado River water.

But on April 28, the federal government slashed the amount of river water earmarked for the CVWD by 31 percent, leaving a shortfall of over 100,000 acre feet of water for 2003. The CVWD, in turn, informed local golf courses they had one week to convert to groundwater. From Desert Hot Springs to Indio, courses scrambled to make the transition before their lush green turf perished in the unrelenting desert heat.

"There was an initial state of shock for all of us," says Pat Lizza, a spokesman for The Plantation (country club) in Indio. "I guess we had it so good for so long that it is time for reality."

Oh, and how good it was. Water in the Coachella Valley was priced as low as $20 an acre foot before the reduction in river water. The same amount in Las Vegas easily could cost upwards of $600. Lizza says the annual water budget at The Plantation was around $25,000. The water budget at a high-end Vegas course, by comparison, ranges from half to three quarters of a million dollars.

This inexpensive, seemingly unlimited supply of water transformed a region 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell once described as "the most desolate region on the continent" into an oasis of more than 100 emerald green golf courses and one of the country's most impressive collections of waterfalls and water features.

Golf courses aren't the only guilty party when it comes to over consumption in the valley. The 300-square mile basin receives just three inches of water annually, yet per family water use is nearly three times the national average.

"The days of unlimited water in the Coachella Valley appear to be over," says Brian Curley, a golf course architect based in Scottsdale, Ariz. who along with partner Lee Schmidt has designed and built courses in Nevada, Arizona and California.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Trilogy Golf Club at La Quinta, new home of the PGA Tour's Skins Game. The Gary Panks designed course opened in Feb. with an irrigation system dependent upon river water. Three months later, the development had to cough up an additional $200,000 to get a well in place. At The Plantation, each member was assessed $900 for the installation of a new well capable of meeting the course's irrigation needs.

"Suddenly, water is a huge issue in the Coachella Valley," says Panks.

Big enough an issue to stymie the golf course construction industry?

"Probably not," says Panks. "When you have a drought, it is politically correct to address things the public thinks are politically correct, like golf courses."

Politics aside, the wheels are already in motion to wean courses off of ground water. Coachella Valley water officials are hopeful new restrictions, water imported from other areas, and a "return flow credit" for water that seeps back into the river will enable the Valley to get back to business as usual.

Southern Arizona out front

Unlike its desert cousins, Southern Arizona has been dealing with water issues head-on for years. Courses in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area are limited to 4.8 acre feet of water per acre, per year - a conservative total that yields approximately 80 to 90 acres of turf. Some modern desert tracks use as little as 60 to 70 acres and have been appropriately dubbed "target style" courses.

"We've been dealing with this for years here," Panks says.

And experience has bred expertise. Architects like Panks and Curley are masters of massaging 80 to 90 acres of turf into a relatively green golf course. Panks' latest Phoenix area design - the Cattail Course at Whirlwind Golf Club - is anything but a desert target style course. As Panks likes to say, many of his layouts are "golf courses that happen to be in the desert."

Curley couldn't agree more. He and Schmidt believe it is feasible to design and build a golf course most players would consider "lush" with 80 to 100 acres of turf. It's not always as easy as just laying out 18 turf friendly holes, Curley says. Golf courses are primarily tools for selling real estate, and development footprints can make designing in the desert with limited turf a formidable task.

"When you have single corridors that play between houses it is tough to design a course with turf limitations," Curley says. "When holes run parallel to each other, you have some other options. The most recent trend is to use landscapes you can still play from instead of turf."

The trend Curley is referring to can be found on numerous courses around Scottsdale and Phoenix. Instead of rough around the perimeter of fairways, architects use small rocks known as decomposed granite or even sandy waste bunkers to frame holes. Neither of these playing surfaces are more penal than two- to three-inch high rough, according to Curley.

"The idea is to convert areas where you'd find an errant tee shot to areas you can play out of without using grass," he says.

Better technology, better courses, less water?

The severe droughts in the Southwest are forcing arid golf destinations like Southern Nevada and the Coachella Valley to take a hard look at how golf courses are designed, built and maintained. Neither region wants to follow in the footsteps of drought-ridden Denver, Co., where a handful of courses have been forced to shut down due to a lack of water.

At least one water expert doesn't think it will come to that in Southern Nevada.

"We have some of the best superintendents in the world and they will reinvent the way golf is played here," says Doug Bennett, conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "I think we can produce even more visually stunning golf courses that are still playable."

Bennett says new courses, such as the Boulder Creek Golf Club in Boulder City, use irrigation systems that are nearly twice as efficient as those from just four or five years ago. He also says hitting courses with unreasonable regulations is not in the cards, so to speak, for the Las Vegas golf market.

"Since the mid 1990s we've had a regulation in place that limits courses to five acres of turf per hole," he says. "Some really good courses have been built under that restriction."

In terms of irrigating that acreage, Bennett says the SNWA is "goal focused" in its approach.

"We want to trim ten percent of water use off the industry," says Bennett. "Some courses are already under (the benchmark) and some are significantly over. Those that are under or are getting themselves under through turf removal get rebates. Those that are over get hit with surcharges."

In typical Vegas fashion, these surcharges can dig deep into a course's wallet. For the first 20 percent a course is over its water budget, a 200 percent surcharge kicks in. If the course is over 20 percent, it's 500 percent.

Back at Siena Golf Club, Swanson is acutely aware of the surcharges the SNWA heaps on thirsty courses. By August, he and his staff will have removed a total of 17 acres of turf. If the region moves into a drought emergency, Swanson is prepared to remove 40 more acres.

"That would cost us a total of $1.2 million but it is better than paying a surcharge," says Swanson.

Courses in and around Southern Nevada may be able to avoid paying hefty surcharges by removing significant chunks of grass. But from the date palms of La Quinta to the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip, one thing holds true for the entire Southwest: when it comes to water, it is time to pay the fiddler.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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