Editor’s note • This story published for the first time on July 23, 2021. It has been updated with new data and re-released in light of ongoing Utah water concerns and the Great Salt Lake hitting another record low.
Utah has experienced another hot, dry summer preceded by many other hot, dry summers. The Great Salt Lake hit a record low for the second year in a row. Many Utahns shy away from the idea of green lawns. Some municipalities are giving up watering parks or welcoming new growth.
So is it time to abandon the idea of public golf courses as well?
Unlike a public park, golf courses appeal to a niche group of participants—predominantly white and affluent—who are dedicated to a single activity. Only a limited number of golfers can stay on the large areas at the same time and the courses can only be used in favorable weather conditions. And all those greens, fairways, and tee boxes gobble up an incredible amount of water.
“People are starting to care about the issue, especially 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 environmental justice. “Golf courses are not sustainable now, and it’s likely to get worse.”
Salt Lake County taps by far the most water for its golf courses, which include a mix of public and private land compared to other counties in the state, even surpassing arid Washington County, home of sunny St. George. According to US Geological Survey data for 2015, the most recent year with available information, Salt Lake County golf courses used a whopping 9 million gallons of ground and surface water per day. To put that in perspective, it’s like filling nearly 14 Olympic-size swimming pools every day.
“We try to do everything we can [to conserve] because we recognize the fact that we are large consumers of water,” said Jerry Brewster, Salt Lake County golf director. “We absolutely use water.”
Why golf courses can’t stop watering altogether
Although USGS information on Salt Lake County golf course irrigation is several years old, it is difficult to collect updated data. A public records request sent to the county’s parks and recreation staff in 2022 yielded irrigation numbers for three years, with numbers not all matching the information the county shared in 2021.
Consumption rates also fluctuate wildly from year to year. In 2019, the county reported a total of 659 million gallons used between its six courses. That number jumped to 827.7 million in 2020 and then dropped back down to 663 million gallons in 2021. That’s enough water to feed about 10,750 Utahns.
The Mountain View Golf Course consistently swallows the most water, averaging 185 million gallons per year for 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 use.
“We live in a high desert,” he said, “so we expected it and thought about it and tried to plan as far ahead as possible.”
However, golf managers point out that they cannot completely stop pouring. Public courses don’t rely on taxpayers’ money – they have separate budgets and generate their own money from players. You need these players to take the courses to stay afloat. In short, green greens create greenbacks.
“Our key attribute of the golf course, the green and how the ball rolls and putts, is the only area where people judge how your golf course is,” said Matt Kammeyer, director of the Salt Lake City golf department, in a 2021 interview as he worked to reduce irrigation by 5% on the city’s six plazas. “If you just put dirt out, people won’t pay to come out.”
And ultimately letting the lawn die could be extremely expensive. Salt Lake City officially abandoned its Wingpointe Golf Course in 2017, in part due to the cost of reviving it – estimated at $1 million.
“When you get to a point where it’s dying, you have to do one of two things,” Brewster said. “You’ll have to reseed it or re-grass it… and you’ll use ten times the amount of water to restore the root structure.”
The pros and cons of golf courses
Salt Lake County public golf course operators highlight the benefits of their facilities.
“The beauty of what we offer is that we offer golf at an affordable price,” Brewster said. “We’re not country clubs. We are not high end daily fee facilities. We are not resort golf courses.”
Large green areas such as golf courses also offer ecological advantages in a densely built-up district.
“We provide riparian habitats,” Brewster said. “We have animals and birds.”
Rigolon acknowledged that a large expanse of watered lawn is preferable to asphalt or concrete. Grass has a cooling effect on hot days, prevents erosion and helps filter rainwater. Golf courses also typically have tall trees and other natural features that provide benefits to surrounding residents, even if they never pick up a 9 iron.
But unlike a park, which can serve as an inclusive meeting point and bridge from one neighborhood to the next, golf courses appear more like “green walls.”
“They’re almost fenced off. And in some places there are real fences,” said Rigolon. “The function and audience they serve are more exclusive than other green spaces…which is contrary to what one would think of as public land.”
Municipalities across the country have reimagined golf courses and repurposed them into 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 expansive golf courses with a municipal park in the middle.
“There are some community benefits to golf courses,” 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 greater.”
A pandemic leap
Blame the sport’s perceived elitism, blame changing leisure trends, blame millennials, but golf participation has seen a slow and steady decline over the years both statewide and in Salt Lake County.
In the United States, there were 6.8 million fewer golfers in 2018 compared to 2003, and 800 golf courses have closed over the past decade, prompting debate about how the open spaces could be repurposed.
Then the pandemic struck.
“I haven’t seen that much of an increase in a year,” Kammeyer said.
Attendance at the city’s courses increased 25% in 2020 compared to the previous five-year average.
“That’s significant,” Kammeyer said. “Not just Salt Lake City, the entire golf industry has seen a similar boom.”
Golf was one of the first outdoor recreation activities to safely reopen during the public health shutdown — in the case of Salt Lake City, the golf courses never closed.
“One of the things the pandemic has shown us is how much of a community service golf is,” Brewster said. “We saw an unprecedented number of people going to the golf course because it was all they could do.”
Attendance at the county’s six golf courses increased from 316,201 in 2019 to 392,597 in 2021.
The industry measures “attendance” as the number of rounds of nine holes, so it’s unclear whether the gains are due to the same golfers having more free time to play multiple rounds, or whether the pandemic has prompted more players to take up the sport.
“It’s good to see that people still want to go out and play,” Kammeyer said.
Rethink golf courses
The surge in participation could make it difficult to sell the idea of converting golf courses into more inclusive, water-related spaces. But Rigolon said the movement didn’t have to be a revolution.
“That doesn’t mean we turn them off,” the professor said. “That means we might start with some gradual changes.”
He suggested creating protected paths for hikers and cyclists. Or build playgrounds. Maybe we need more nine holes and less 18 holes.
“Football is a growing sport, especially among minorities,” Rigolon said. “Why don’t you take a little bit of the golf course and turn it into a few soccer fields, especially on the west side?”
Salt Lake City is already exploring the idea of repurposing portions of golf courses or adding amenities that will appeal to non-golfers as part of its Reimagine Nature public lot master planning process. Ideas include rewilding unplayable sections, adding concessions, and adding new activities such as cross-country skiing, disc golf, and off-leash areas for dogs.
While reconsidering golf courses is likely to face some resistance, Rigolon said the fact that the conversation is even happening 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 news, education and media organizations dedicated to educating readers about the Great Salt Lake.