Greening the Greens
Environmentally friendlier golf courses are gaining recognition.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Golfers competing at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am may be inspired (or distracted) by abounding natural splendor: Birds soaring over the bluffs, waves crashing off the shore, ocean breeze scented with hints of salt and pine.
But competitors might not consider how the sport they love can poison those birds, pollute that sea and destroy those odiferous pines. The same landscape that makes for a quality game – a low-mown turf of even grass, irrigated and fertilized to a bright green – also takes a steep environmental toll.
Activist David Dilworth of Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment takes issue with the volume of water used for golf course irrigation in a region already struggling with water scarcity. He also worries that heavy pesticide and fertilizer applications could contaminate drinking water pumped from the Carmel River system downstream. On a landscape scale, he says, golf course developments have replaced local forests and plant communities with exotic soils and grasses.
“Golf courses are green graveyards,” he says. “They’re probably closer to a fish bowl than to anything remotely resembling a natural habitat.”Monterey Peninsula golf courses may be big suckers of limited local drinking water, but they use much less today than they once did. In the early 1990s, California American Water supplied local courses with more than 800 acre-feet, according to Darby Fuerst, water resources manager for Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.
That changed in 1994, when the Wastewater Reclamation Project began supplying recycled effluent to seven golf courses in Del Monte Forest. The project – a partnership of Pebble Beach Community Services District, Carmel Area Wastewater District, the peninsula water district and Pebble Beach Company – cut the Del Monte Forest courses’ use of Cal Am water to 167 acre-feet in 2005, Fuerst says. (Another 201 acre-feet of Cal Am water supplied courses in Pacific Grove and Monterey County.)
Because the recycled water deposits grass-damaging sodium in the soil, the courses still need periodic flushes with potable water, Fuerst says. They also need potable water for irrigation on hot summer days when the reclamation project doesn’t produce enough.
Two new projects will likely cut that potable water use further. The Forest Lake Reservoir, which went online in spring 2006, stores up wastewater in the off-season to keep the greens lush when recycled water runs low. And new reverse osmosis technology at the reclamation plant will remove sodium from the treated wastewater, reducing or eliminating the need to flush the courses.
Outside of Del Monte Forest, local courses are still thirsty for drinking water. Seaside’s Bayonet and Black Horse golf courses, which draw from the Seaside Aquifer, used 465 acre-feet in 2006, Fuerst says.
That will change. Seaside Resort Development, LLC, which leases the courses from the city of Seaside, is halfway done installing a new irrigation system that will allow staff to monitor and control moisture levels, says course manager Joe Priddy. Eventually, wastewater re-routed from the treatment plant in Marina will irrigate the courses. In the meantime, staff members are planting native vegetation in the areas adjacent to the greens and fairways – both providing wildlife habitat and reducing the irrigated acreage.
“We do have on our minds being water conscious as we move into the future,” Priddy says. “I think that’s increasingly one of the important issues across the country for all golf courses because of the water that we are using.”As environmental awareness seeps deeper into public consciousness, golf organizations are confronting their own impacts on the earth. The U.S. Golf Association has drafted a detailed set of environmental principles for golf courses, from planning and siting to water use and wildlife management. Golf Course Superintendents Association of America founded the Environmental Institute for Golf to encourage stronger ecological principles within the industry.
Most prominent is the Golf and the Environment Initiative, a partnership of Audubon International (no relation to the bird-watchers), the USGA and the Professional Golfers’ Association. The initiative identifies golf courses’ eco-impacts and also their potential eco-benefits as wildlife sanctuaries, stress-relievers and filters of stormwater runoff. Audubon certifies courses that meet environmental management standards in six categories: planning, wildlife management, chemical use reduction, water conservation, water quality management and outreach.
Of the 14 local courses in the Monterey County Golf Association, four are Audubon certified “cooperative sanctuaries.” All are run by Pebble Beach: Del Monte Golf Course, Spyglass Hill, Pebble Beach Golf Links and Links at Spanish Bay.
In addition to sponsoring the Water Reclamation Project, Pebble Beach Company uses a high-tech irrigation system to monitor course soil conditions, watering only as needed. Maintenance workers use recycled water to wash down the courses’ equipment using enzymes rather than harsh chemicals, says Thomas Quattlebaum, the company’s environmental stewardship manager.
“I’m confident that green initiatives and the environment are gaining recognition,” he says, “and the public will really take advantage of that.”
The company is working to re-introduce sand dune species, maintain riparian corridors, plant native trees and remove invasive species, Quattlebaum says. Staff members encourage recycling throughout the resort, compost grass clippings, and chip wood from fallen or cut trees.
In order to reduce pesticide use, course employees implement Integrated Pest Management practices, hand-pulling weeds and using natural insect pest control methods when feasible. Owl boxes attract predators that eat gophers and other turf-disturbers. When staff do use pesticides, they spot-spray rather than blanketing the courses.
Nevertheless, the chemical use adds up. According to the Monterey County Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Bob Roach, the three courses hosting the Pro-Am – Pebble Beach Golf Links (including the polo field and nine-hole Peter Hay Course), Spyglass Hill Golf Course and Poppy Hills Golf Course – were treated with more than 1,600 gallons of pesticides in 2006, or more than 3 gallons per acre.
The numbers shouldn’t be viewed in black and white, Roach adds, because the chemicals vary in toxicity and persistence. The reported insecticides include both carbaryl, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a likely carcinogen, and neem, a natural product derived from the seeds of a tropical tree.Golfers at the Pro-Am may or may not know that the courses they’re competing on are irrigated with wastewater and managed to reduce pesticide use. Nor may they realize wildlife lost native habitat in order to make their game possible. But they probably know that tournament’s proceeds benefit the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, whose long list of supported charities includes several green groups.