America's 18,000 Golf Courses Are Devastating the Environment
Thirsty golf courses drive environmental protests
By JOAN LOWY
Scripps Howard News Service
After a seven-year battle, residents in the upscale suburb of Mount Kisco,
N.Y., recently forced billionaire Donald Trump to back off a proposed golf
course development that they said would pollute the town's only water supply
with pesticides and fertilizers.
In drought-plagued Nevada, just south of Reno, a new range war is
threatening to begin between local property owners and a pricey golf club
that has purchased senior water rights and is sucking up the available
supply to keep its course in tournament condition.
And in Wyoming, environmentalists lost a fight last year to halt a golf
course development on the banks of the Snake River 17 miles south of Jackson
Hole that they said would drives bald eagles from three nearby nests.
This spring, as some wildlife biologists had predicted, all three nests are
empty, including a nest that produced more eaglets during the past 26 years
than any other nest in the greater Yellowstone region, an area roughly the
size of West Virginia.
"I don't like being right in this case," said Tim Preso, an attorney with
Earthjustice, which represented environmental groups in the case. "Just
because eagles have rebounded doesn't mean we ought to be wiping out their
most productive habitat in our nation's premier ecological region for the
sake of yet another golf course in Jackson Hole."
Despite nearly a decade of effort by the golf industry to mitigate the
sport's environmental impacts, golf courses remain as controversial as ever
and the sport's soaring popularity has enlarged, not shrunk, its ecological
Golf is big business, contributing more than $49 billion a year to the
economy, according to the National Golf Foundation.
During the past decade, there has been an explosion in new golf courses. The
United States is now home to nearly 18,000 golf courses, more than half the
world's 35,000 golf courses, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a think
tank that monitors global environmental trends.
In the United States, golf courses cover more than 1.7 million acres and
soak up nearly 4 billion gallons of water daily, the institute estimates.
They also use pesticides and fertilizers that contribute to water pollution.
A 1994 review of death certificates for 618 golf course superintendents by
researchers at the University of Iowa's College of Medicine found an
unusually high numbers of deaths from certain cancers, including brain
cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The results were similar to other studies that have found an elevated risk
for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among farm workers and pesticide applicators.
"Many environmentalists feel that Tiger Woods was one of the worst things to
happen to the environment because of the enthusiasm he created for the game
of golf and the growth that has ensued," said Neil Lewis, executive director
of the Long Island Neighborhood Network in New York, an environmental group
trying to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
The network won two recent lawsuits forcing towns that want to build golf
courses to consider alternative designs that reduce chemical usage. The
group also is working with a sympathetic developer in South Hampton to build
what Lewis said he believes will be the nation's first "100 percent organic"
As an industry, golf has come a long way in trying to mitigate its
environmental impact, said Jim Snow, director of the green section of U.S.
Golf Association. New courses are often built with more advanced irrigation
systems that prevent overwatering, he said.
In the South, most courses use varieties of grass that require half the
water than cool climate grasses need, Snow said. And in the arid West, golf
courses are increasingly using treated liquid waste to water grass rather
than drinking water.
Many of the older pesticides that linger in the environment have been
replaced with a new generation of pesticides that breakdown more quickly and
thus are safer, Snow said.
Nevertheless, the gains by individual courses have been more than offset by
sport's rapid growth, Snow acknowledged.
"Any big industry uses a lot of resources if it generates a lot of income
and recreation for people," Snow said.
Current practices also remain controversial. It's not clear that newer
pesticides are safer since it often takes years of use before a chemical's
health effects become apparent, Lewis said.
In the West, where many communities are coping with a drought of historic
proportions, golf courses have been scrambling to secure senior water
rights. In dry conditions, that means junior downstream water users make do
with less water.
After a new golf club acquired senior water rights, the water levels in the
stream that runs by Steve Gildesgard's home near Reno dropped so low that
fish disappeared. Groundwater tables also have declined; filters Gildesgard
has installed on his well and water heater no longer keep out sediment, rust
"I turned off the ice maker because I don't like orange ice cubes," said
Gildesgard, a construction engineer. "We're all going to go thirsty while
the rich people up there are playing golf."