Water-Saving Efforts in the West Might Tee Off Golfers

Times Staff Writer

Don Barsky has nurtured some of this desert valley's greenest landscape -- the three golf courses spread over 450 acres in a Sun City development on the west side of town.

Now he faces the unpopular task of removing 20% of the turf that makes up his fairways, greens and tees.

Sun City's golf courses are among the top five water users in southern Nevada, officials say, and are among about a dozen local courses being ordered by water officials to significantly cut back usage in the ongoing drought.

To avoid paying huge penalties, Barsky plans to tear up about 90 acres of grass, at a cost to the homeowners association of as much as $500,000.

"And if we take out fairway turf, the fairways will become narrower and be more difficult to play," Barsky said. "Our players are seniors and aren't the best golfers. They're not going to like that."

Barsky's dilemma reflects the effect the drought has had on golf courses in Nevada and throughout the Southwest, where golfers are traversing brown fairways and chasing balls into the rough that, once consisting of tall grass, now is landscaped with decorative rock.

Although course owners around Las Vegas acknowledge their responsibility to save water, they are lobbying for compromises. They argue that narrower or brown fairways will turn away golfers from out of town who help drive the local tourism economy.

"We're aware as much as anyone is of the drought, but when people come here from other parts of the country, they expect to see green," said Michael Luce, president of Walters Golf, which owns six golf courses around Las Vegas.

"Las Vegas is promoted as a golfing destination," Luce said. "To allow our courses to brown out will have an economic effect not just on us, but the entire tourism industry."

Golf course operators elsewhere are buckling under to conservation demands.

In Denver, four of the city's six municipal golf courses have closed because there's not enough water to keep them green; a few private courses also have closed in Colorado for the same reason.

Some water agencies have ordered golf courses to suspend watering fairways, leaving green tee areas and putting greens connected by swaths of dried grass. In Phoenix, operators of some courses have decided to conserve water by not spritzing up fairways with winter seedings.

Most golfers seem to be taking the drought's effect in stride.

"With the drought, people are brushing their teeth, showering and doing their dishes differently," said Ed Mate, executive director of the Colorado Golf Assn. "We understand that golf is a luxury. Nobody's complaining."

But people are complaining here, now that Nevada's water bosses are aggressively addressing the drought. With nearby Lake Mead, the region's primary source of water, at its lowest level since 1971, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has adopted a drought plan that calls for severe curtailment of water use by residents, businesses -- and golf courses.

"We're rattling people's reality, that we're in a drought," said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the water authority. "We get 80% of our water from Lake Mead, and it's dropping like a rock. You got to do what you got to do."

The region's water problems are exacerbated because it is saddled with a 1929 agreement allowing it to take just 300,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead. Over the years, the water authority has been allowed to draw surplus water and store it underground, both in Nevada and Arizona, to serve the burgeoning population. But now it is losing access to that surplus, caught in the middle of a dispute between the Department of Interior and California over the state's access to surplus Colorado River water.

On Feb. 20, the Southern Nevada Water Authority declared a "drought watch," which, when adopted by its member agencies, will trigger restrictions on landscape watering, car washing and the like -- and require golf courses to use no more than 7 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot represents 326,000 gallons, or about enough for a family of five for a year.

Water authorities say that about 80% of the region's golf courses already are meeting that goal, but that about a dozen -- such as Sun City Summerlin -- are not.

By next January, officials expect to declare a "drought alert" further restricting water use, such as no front-lawn grass for new homes and requiring golf courses to reduce water consumption by another 20%. As an alternative, courses can reduce the amount of turf by that amount.

Mulroy applauds the golf courses that already use minimal water by adopting no-frills desert landscaping, but shows little patience for courses that seem better suited for the climate of the South or Northwest.

"We have some courses that use just 4 or 5 acre-feet of water a year -- and some that use more than 10 acre-feet," she said. "We live in the desert, and these courses should look like desert courses. If they can't make adjustments to survive a drought like the rest of the community, they'll be public enemy No. 1."

With the use of equipment that monitors humidity, wind and air temperature, the amount of water applied to Luce's courses already is computer-controlled, he said. Aside from conservation, his company is motivated to save water because of its cost, he said.

His courses are meeting the 7-acre-feet standard, partly because roughs are no longer watered, or have been replaced with decorative rock. Reducing water consumption by another 20% "will cause grief," Luce said, and he's not quite sure how it can be accomplished.

Barsky, at Sun City, said his courses should be weaned to about 7 acre-feet of water by midsummer, because of an investment of $400,000 in more efficient sprinklers, water-scheduling software and other improvements.

But like Luce, Barsky is at a loss on how to cut water use further, and he is braced for anger by homeowners if the fairways are allowed to turn brown.

"Our courses are surrounded by 7,779 homes, and the people who live on the fairways paid $250,000 premiums," said Barsky, who is executive director of the Sun City Summerlin Community Assn. and president of the Nevada Golf Course Owners Assn. "The homeowners already complain if they see brown out there. If we started the wholesale removal of turf on the fairways, I'd expect lawsuits."

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