Water and golf courses

I first was exposed to the issue of golf course and (or, rather, versus) water conservation as a Masters student at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, via the complaints of a colleague. Her gripe was that (a) golf courses use a tonne of water, and (b) to the extent that golf courses even use recycled water, or less water than before, golf courses still use a tonne of water – for golf.

Bear in mind, this is population health. We’re sensitive to people washing their cars with potable fresh water, bought at cents per kilolitre. It’s a manner of global insanity, peculiar to the developed world.

So to the National Geographic’s recent article, Drying of the West.

The wet 20th century, the wettest of the past millennium, the century when Americans built an incredible civilization in the desert, is over. Trees in the West are adjusting to the change, and not just in the width of their annual rings: In the recent drought they have been dying off and burning in wildfires at an unprecedented rate. For most people in the region, the news hasn’t quite sunk in.

Between 2000 and 2006 the seven states of the Colorado basin added five million people, a 10 percent population increase. Subdivisions continue to sprout in the desert, farther and farther from the cities whose own water supply is uncertain. Water managers are facing up to hard times ahead.

“I look at the turn of the century as the defining moment when the New West began,” says Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “It’s like the impact of global warming fell on us overnight.”

I was particularly struck by the attending photo gallery (click for larger images):

national geographic image 1

national geographic image 2

A fantastic complement to the argument that the mass depletion of fresh water, regionally, has yet to sink in (this is a recognisable complaint of mine, regarding Australia).

The increasing efficiency with which golf courses use water is not to be denied. However, like Prof. Broom’s original complaint: it’s golf. Is it worth this?

water use table

Example 1: During periods of drought as defined by water level in the Edwards Aquifer, water is not served in restaurants unless requested. During the summer months 4 million glasses of water would have to be refused in restaurants each day to save enough water to equal that used on one golf course. How many people are served in restaurants each day in this area?

There are roughly 1.3 million people in the Bexar, Kendall, Comal County area and about 56 golf courses.

Example 2: Conversion of old toilets to new water saving toilets is a great water saver. Each flush saves at best about 3.4 gallons depending on how much water the old toilet used.

Lets pretend there is only one toilet in the three county area and we convert it to a new water saving toilet.
In peak summer watering months that toilet would have to be used over 138,000 times to save the water put on one golf course each day.

That water saving toilet would have to be used over 6 times each day by each man, woman and child in the three county area to save the water put on all 56 golf courses each summer day.

There is a level, of course, of personal responsibility in this – what are our solutions to this market? Standard, one imagines:

  • We can tax the market, both to restrict, further, the depletion of fresh water, while raising funds necessary to ameliorate the effects of depletion (recycling, etc. – there is certainly no way to create rain with money);
  • We can encourage voluntary off-setting of the effects of the depletion;
  • We can pursue cap-and-trade markets for water use (a distributional implication being should golf courses even start out with a water allocation at all? Who, ultimately, does the State give the property rights?).

Hell, we could form a mob, charge the golf courses and tear them up. Not exactly a market solution, per se – but how many markets will clear, anyway, when we run out of water?

Returning to the National Geographic and news sinking in, there is – again – that idea of personal responsibility. Those pictures were from Nevada; the table from San Antonio data. This is a suburb in Arizona:

national geographic pic

In this world we cannot get people to drive their 4WDs (SUVs) with any sort of efficient multi-occupancy. Here, we see we cannot manage the same with swimming pools. City/public buses are wildly unpopular in most of this country; municipal amenities like swimming pools no doubt suffer the same ignomy. No solution (outside of legislation, i.e. command and control) is going to work in a nation of fence-builders.


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