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Golf courses in the arid regions of Southern California are emerald jewels in an otherwise parched landscape, drawing criticism from environmentalists and concerned citizens alike. In places like Laguna Beach, however, there’s an awakening recognition that the sport needs to be sustainable if it’s to survive.
At The Ranch at Laguna Beach, for example, golfers enjoy a pristine experience, but behind the scenes, the course has transformed. Recognizing the state’s struggle with recurring drought, the course uses reclaimed water and has planted drought-resistant grass, illustrating the potential for golf to be both a recreational activity and an environmental steward.
However, despite some courses making strides in water conservation, there is an undeniable water problem in the world of golf. Out of the water consumed by golf courses in 2020, only 21% was recycled. While this might be manageable in places where water is abundant, in drought-prone areas like Southern California and Arizona, it’s a glaring issue. It’s also causing younger generations to reconsider taking up the sport, as they become increasingly environmentally conscious.
Historically, golf was played on natural landscapes in Scotland, which required minimal intervention and water. Today, some in the golfing community are advocating for a return to such roots. By designing courses that are more in tune with the local environment, from planting native vegetation to creating wildlife corridors, golf can find a more sustainable path.
One such innovation is the use of reclaimed water. The Ranch, for instance, sources all its water from a nearby treatment facility, eschewing the use of millions of gallons of freshwater that could be put to more essential uses. Likewise, the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club saves on its water bills by drawing largely from a reclamation plant.
These pioneering efforts, though commendable, are not the industry norm. Many golf courses, especially in wealthier desert areas, choose appearance over sustainability, opting for water-hungry grass varieties. Some even resort to harmful sprays to enhance the green hue of their courses.
The golfing world lacks robust industry-wide sustainability standards. And while organizations like the GEO Foundation and Audubon International offer certifications based on environmental factors, their credentials are not universally recognized.
But whether driven by a genuine desire for sustainability or merely the constraints of drought regulations, golf courses are going to have to adapt. Industry insiders, like Craig Kessler from the Southern California Golf Association, suggest that courses should be given a total water budget, allowing them to decide how best to allocate their water resources.
Ultimately, the golf industry has a chance to be a beacon of change, embracing sustainable practices that could make it a model for other industries. However, it would require stakeholders, from course owners to players, to redefine what a golf course should look like and prioritize long-term sustainability over short-term aesthetics. Only then can golf truly shed its water addiction and become a sport in harmony with the environment.
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