Heat wave, historic drought weighs heavy on local courses

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Record drought, record heat, and no new golf courses on the record.

That's the situation facing the Las Vegas golf scene so far this year. Already mired in one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River Basin, Sin City sizzled last week with daytime highs up to 15 degrees above normal. The mercury continued to nip at the 90 degree mark early this week as local area golf courses scrambled to keep their fairways green and their customers happy.

"Instead of watering once a week we are watering every day," says Steve Swanson, superintendent at Siena Golf Club. "We had two months this winter that we didn't have to water and now all that savings is gone in less than two weeks."

In North Las Vegas at the recently opened Aliante Golf Club, the scorching temps also wreaked havoc on the new Gary Panks designed layout.

"You can pretty much take the wet December and January and cancel them out," Andy Deiro, Aliante's director of golf operations.

Temperatures are forecast to return to normal by this Saturday, but daytime highs could approach 90 again by next weekend. The water supply for the region's 50 plus courses, however, is much more difficult to forecast.

Lake Mead, the source of 90 percent of the Las Vegas metro area's water, has dropped 74 feet in the past two years and is at 59 percent of its capacity, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Lake Powell, further up the Colorado River, is down 95 feet and is at 50 percent capacity.

Clark County and its municipalities are currently under a "drought alert" from the SNWA. An alert is the second stage of a three stage drought plan, with emergency being the third and most severe. Under an alert, courses are restricted to using 6.5 acre feet of water per landscaped acre. Additional water usage leads to increasingly prohibitive surcharges.

With the summer-like temperatures and the omnipresent drought, Swanson says the surcharges are inevitable.

"We are expecting some hefty surcharges," he says. "We have rye grass year round, so it will be hard for me to stay within that 6.5 acre feet restriction. If you have a Bermuda (grass) base it is actually doable."

In an effort to conserve water, Swanson has already removed 40 acres of thirsty rye grass turf from this Brian Curley/Lee Schmidt designed course in Summerlin. If the region moves to emergency status, he may be forced to remove an additional 30 acres.

"I think we can still remove more without affecting the integrity of the golf course," Swanson says.

Unlike Siena, Aliante uses a base of Bermuda grass turf that is more drought and heat tolerant. Bermuda is overseeded with rye grass (fairways) and "poa triv" grass (greens) in the spring and winter months as it goes dormant.

According to the course's website, Aliante was originally slated to have 125 acres of turf and was billed as "player friendly" because of its large fairway landing areas. But Panks and management company OB Sports eventually scaled back to 100 acres to save water.

"I don't think we'll have to remove any turf," Deiro says. "Like 90 percent of the courses around here we have a Bermuda base and that helps us."

But only to an extent. Deiro says Aliante will still exceed the existing water threshold of one million gallons per month during the course of one typical summer day.

"It's a challenge (dealing with the restrictions)," he admits.

Not as challenging as trying to plan, design and build a new golf course around Glitter Gulch. Aliante was on the books long before the existing water restrictions were put in place. In July 2003, the Clark County Commissioners and Las Vegas Valley Water District approved a new measure limiting all new courses to 45 acres of turf for fairways, greens and tees and five acres for practice ranges.

For frame of reference, local courses built between 1995 and 2003 average between 100 and 160 acres of turf on tees, fairways and greens, and 10 to 20 acres of for practice ranges. Older courses, built prior to irrigation restrictions, can exceed 160 acres.

"It is essentially a moratorium on new golf course construction because you can't build a regulation, 18-hole course with 45 acres of turf," Swanson says.

At least one local water official disagrees.

"It was not designed to be a moratorium," says Doug Bennett, conservation manager with the SNWA. "It was intended to make people think more creatively about how they approach golf course design during a drought of epic proportions."

Whether it was intended to be or not, the 45-acre restriction has become something of a de facto clamp on new course development. The only Vegas project still on the books for design and construction, El Grande Hombre, is in a holding pattern for at least another year and a half.

At over 8,000 yards, El Grande Hombre would be the longest course in the state and one of the longest in the U.S. Walters Golf, the course's purveyors, has cited the drought and the bearish travel economy as the reason for the delay.

"The turf restrictions are one thing but I think a lot of people feel like this market is saturated with golf courses right now," Bennett says.

Droughts, heat waves, market saturation . all relevant and complex issues.

But the question on golfers' minds, both local and traveling, is how all this shakes out in terms of the going rate for 18 holes of golf in a city touting itself as one of the world's greatest golf destinations. Average peak green fees in Las Vegas are already among the highest in the country, with top tier courses charging over $250 for 18 holes and a cart.

Could further increases in water costs drive rates up even more?

"We've only been in this situation for a year and a half but so far it hasn't had any affect on rates," says Todd Heskett of Las Vegas Golf Travel, a local golf packaging company. "That could change next year but I doubt it. What might happen is that courses won't experience the type of profits they have in the past."

Nor does Heskett feel that side effects of the drought, such as sub par course conditions, will cause green fees to drop.

"Rates are already drastically reduced here in the summer and you sort of take what you can get" he says. "By the time the late fall and winter roll around, those courses put the rye grass down and start to water heavily again and they get back to their peak rates."

Golf course operators, like Adam Owen at Bear's Best, say the rate question will come down to individual courses.

"I can only speak for Bear's Best, but we will maintain optimum conditions from tee to green and we won't change the rate either way," he says. "We only have 80 acres of turf because we were built for the desert conditions. A course with twice that may think differently, and so might a course that only charges $40 or $50."

According to Owen, the big picture question isn't rates, but Las Vegas' perseverance as top tier golf destination.

"The question that needs to be asked is what will this do to the tourism industry if the golf courses can't function at 100 percent," he says. "If we have a bunch of brown front yards, that's not going to detract from tourism. If we have 10 to 15 brown courses, are people going to stop coming to Las Vegas to golf?"

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 TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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