Talking water in the desert

At the Colorado Basin Golf & Water Summit, panelists talked water conservation in the Southwest.


The Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam, where water intakes from Lake Mead and the Colorado River are exceptionally dry. Las Vegas has imposed a number of strict measures to conserve their dwindling water supply. Photo by Andrew Hartsock

Amid all the doom and gloom surrounding the present and immediate future of water scarcity — and the deleterious effects that could mean for golf in the already-parched U.S. Southwest — leave it to a golf course superintendent to find reason for optimism.

“If anything,” said Pat Christoffer, CGCS, director of agronomy at Red Ledges Golf Club in Heber City, Utah, “I’m even more excited about the future. There’s no way the people in this room aren’t going to figure it out. It won’t be easy. But we will figure it out.”

Christoffer was speaking to the more than 100 participants in the Colorado Basin Golf & Water Summit, held Oct. 12 on the tail end of the Golf Business TechCon 23 at the Vdarra Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas. The “it” Christoffer is confident the participants will figure out is either a water crisis or water challenge, depending on the speaker. The reason for his optimism is the amount of progress the region has already made to deal with ongoing and persistent droughts that have wracked the Southwest and are expected to get worse.

Christoffer, a 22-year GCSAA member, remained upbeat despite the projections shared earlier in the summit by national (Stacy Wade, deputy director of the lower Colorado Basin for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) and regional (Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority) authorities. They indicated the Colorado River, a crucial water source for seven states in the region, plus Mexico —The Colorado River is the longest river in the U.S. that doesn’t reach an ocean — continues to dwindle, and its existing production is already more than allotted for. Though the water’s usage will be reallocated in 2026, one thing is clear.

“We know,” Wade said, “that we’ll have to learn to live with less water from the Colorado River.”

For areas like the host city for the summit, which was sponsored by GCSAA, the National Golf Course Owners Association and the Southern California Golf Association, that’s no easy ask.

As Pellegrino noted, 90% of Las Vegas’s water comes from Lake Mead, the massive reservoir fed by the Colorado River, while only 10% comes from groundwater.

“We don’t have water coming from the sky to help us. Ever,” she said. “Las Vegas is the driest metro area in the United States.”

That has led to harsh restrictions in water use, some of which are felt in golf.

James Symons, GCSAA Class A director of agronomy at Anthem Country Club in Las Vegas, was one of the speakers at the Colorado Basin Golf & Water Summit. Photo by Bryan Hurlburt

CCIV fertilizer granules

“Southern Nevada recycles 99% of the water used indoors,” Pellegrino said. “We’re focusing our efforts on outdoor uses.”

Among the restrictions: “Nonfunctional” grass will be prohibited in Vegas starting in 2027; new buildings will be barred from using evaporative cooling; swimming pools are limited to 600 square feet in surface area; new grass installations are limited to parks, schools and cemeteries; new ornamental water features are prohibited (“There won’t be any more Bellagios,” Pellegrino said of the Strip’s signature water fountain display); no new courses will be permitted; and golf course water budgets are being reduced by one-third. Starting in 2024, courses will be limited to 4 acre-feet of water per acre, down from 6.3 acre-feet per acre previously.

That reduction prompted another summit participant, James Symons, GCSAA Class A director of agronomy at Anthem Country Club in Las Vegas, to fast-track a regrassing program last year. Anthem CC was already scheduled to get new greens, but when Symons, a 21-year association member, got word that the water restrictions were imminent, he scrambled to put together a plan, eventually supported by membership, to regrass fairways at the same time, from ryegrass, which requires overseeding and the water that goes along with it, to bermudagrass. The course was closed five months for the audacious progress, but it reopened on time on Dec. 2, 2022. Symons estimates the change — combined with overall turf reduction (from 110 acres to 100) and conversion of 47 acres to that nonoverseeded bermudagrass — will save roughly 25% of its previous water budget. Read more about the conversion in the GCM article 'Desert Dynamo.'

Anthem CC continues to overseed its ryegrass rough (members decided they “loved” the look), and general manager Shelley Caiazzo shared the initial plan was met with skepticism. Member buy-in was crucial, and she stressed the importance of communication and the involvement of members that included a task group that had a hand in turfgrass reductions off the course as well.

“When you drove into Anthem, it was lush green, wall to wall,” she said. “Our medians in the parking lot were green. Common areas were green. … It looks spectacular now. Transparency is key. Don’t hide anything. Communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Another Summit speaker, Parker Cohn, founder and CEO of Performance Resource Management, stressed water management from the ground up. Literally. PRM “uses both biology and remote sensing to restore soil.”

“Conservation is a tool,” Cohn said, “but it’s only one tool. Innovation is necessary.”

Cohn touted several success stories, including a one-year change at Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles that resulted in improved turf quality, a 35% water saving, 50% fertility saving and $140,000 water rebate. Coupled with reduction in water, that amounted to more than $600,000 savings overall.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The Golf Channel's Matt Ginella kicked off presentations at the Colorado Basin Golf & Water Summit. Photo by Rhett Evans

PRM also serviced Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, which, due to excessive black layer, was facing an expensive renovation. PRM’s services resulted in a 90% reduction in fungicides, an 88% reduction in pesticides and a 50% fertility savings. And at least postponed that renovation.

Pressed, Cohn said he’d encourage soil care before a regrassing.

“Soil is your biggest asset,” he said, “and, I’d argue, the most underutilized asset.”

Among the most popular suggestions from Summit speakers for golf courses to be better water managers — whether in the water-challenged Southwest or elsewhere — were turf reduction, appropriate grass selection and the importance of irrigation audits.

And a panel of turfgrass researchers — Bernd Leinauer, Ph.D., at New Mexico State University; Tony Koski, Ph.D., at Colorado State University; and Jim Baird, Ph.D., at University of California Riverside — spoke about technologies and research that could help in the immediate future.

Leinauer, a 35-year GCSAA Educator member, spoke of an eight-year study on the effectiveness of converting to subsurface drip irrigation. It resulted in a decrease of water use by 50% without any reduction in turf quality, he said.

Another study showed the use of soil moisture sensors instead of evapotranspiration to make irrigation decisions could lead to a 30% reduction in water use.

Koski, a 29-year GCSAA member, championed the replacement of native turfgrasses into out-of-play areas, though he also stressed the need for them to be maintained by turfgrass managers, even if they’re sometimes frowned upon by homeowners.

“People have a fears of tall grass,” Koski said. “The short stuff is friendly. People say, ‘A mountain lion is going to live in the natives and come out and get my kids.’”

Finally, Baird, a 22-year GCSAA member, presented a counterpoint to the turf-reduction argument.

“I cringe every time I hear ‘turf reduction,’” he said. “There are so many other steps you can take before reducing turf.”

He spelled out several: Dial in the irrigation system (for a potential 20% water savings); utilize products like fertilizer, plant growth regulators, wetting agents, biostimulants and pigments (for a potential 20%-30% savings; overseed tees and fairways only (saving 15% to 30%); and develop a plan to convert to drought-resistant bermudagrass on fairways, tees and roughs (for a potential 20%-40% savings).

And, yes, Baird is aware those numbers could add up to a potentially greater-than-100% savings. No, he’s not suggesting they would.

“Unfortunately,” he said with a laugh, “that’s not an additive effect.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.