Enrvinomental price of golf

Look to the hills in summer, and you’ll see an oasis, a
rectangle of shimmering green called the Math Institute Golf
Look to the hills in summer, and you’ll see an oasis, a rectangle of shimmering green called the Math Institute Golf Course. Built by electronics retailer John Fry, the embattled course covers nearly 180 acres, but the lush turf comes at a price – 397,000 gallons of water a day in the dry season (equivalent to the usage of 600 homes), according to Morgan Hill City Planner Jim Rowe.

The numbers may seem shocking to the average American consumer, especially considering the fact that the Math Institute Golf Course operates just six months of the year, limited to 36 rounds of golf per day between April 1 and Sept. 31 under its temporary permit from the city of Morgan Hill, and is not open to the public.

Golf courses, which now number more than 16,000 in the United States alone, are the backdrop of one of America’s fastest-growing and popular sports, but they come with a price tag that greens fees have nothing to do with.

Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that seep into waterways and ground water sources, habitat destruction and overconsumption of resources are just a few of the environmental hazards courses have posed over the years.

Many are cleaning up their acts, as the Fry course agreed to in a 36-page mandate signed in 2004.

But national progress has been slow, despite calls from environmental, neighborhood and professional groups.

Courses in the land of the free add up to more acreage than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and around 225 new or expanded courses open each year.

Each will use roughly 12 pounds of pesticides per acre and drink up water that could quench a town of 8,000, according to a 2004 National Geographic report.

“Turf needs intensive maintenance,” said Brian Schmidt, legislative advocate for the Commission for Green Foothills, a Palo Alto-based environmental advocacy group. “And they’re often built right on or right near a riparian zone, meaning riverside or streamside, where those things have the potential to drain right into the water source.”

Some courses have taken steps to mitigate their environmental impacts. Coyote Creek Golf Course actually garnered the support of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society when corporate owners and designer Jack Nicklaus redeveloped on top of the land that used to be Riverside Golf Course, said Craig Breon, executive director of the SCVAS.

The course is owned by Castle & Cooke Golf Property.

While the 36-hole estate does require nearly 650,000 gallons of well water per day in the dry season, the course benefits from drought-resistant turf and a nearly pesticide-free approach.

Groundskeepers apply fungus killer only to areas suffering from disease, said course superintendent Michael Higuera, Sr., drastically reducing the amount of pesticide and fertilizer that would be filtered into the soil each year otherwise.

Coyote Creek’s links are also home to wetlands and a wood duck program, both of which benefit local ecosystems while allowing sport enthusiasts to pursue their game without too much guilt.

It seems a fair balance to strike, but not all courses with the word Audubon in their “certifications” are actually blessed by the well-known environmental group.

Audubon International, officially known as The Audubon Society of New York, is a nonprofit group based in New York that has doled out “certificates of accomplishment” to more than 4,100 golf courses nationally, according to Paul Parker, a representative of the Center for Resource Management.

The group is not affiliated with the National Audubon Society, according to a company representative who said there were no staff members available for comment, and no specific information on the group’s certificate program was available through the Web site.

“It’s a greenwash (a whitewash of environmental concern),” said Breon. “They’re not affiliated with us at all.”

Even without official seals, local courses are still striving to clean up their acts.

The San Juan Oaks Golf Club in Hollister has also taken steps to improve its course since it was built in 1996, said Scott Fuller, the club’s vice president.

“We have a weather station that is linked to the irrigation system,” said Fuller. “We water just enough to grow the grass, but not so much that we have runoff or that it’s seeping down into the ground water.”

The last decade has brought myriad changes to the golf industry in response to the outcry of environmental groups.

The San Juan facility uses integrated pest management (bugs killing bugs is an oversimplified, but appropriate, translation) and has thus far removed 15 acres of turf, said Fuller.

In Gilroy, Eagle Ridge’s 145 acres of turf are irrigated with reclaimed water, to the tune of 500,000 gallons per day in the dry season, making them one of the single largest users of reclaimed water in the South Valley, according to golf course superintendent Brian McCrae.

The course’s sprinkler system is computer-monitored, allowing employees to adjust the water levels of individual sprinklers to better avoid waste.

“We have ground water monitoring wells around the property, and we submit samples of them to an independent lab on a monthly basis,” said McCrae. “Most chemicals are undetectable, but those that showed up have actually declined in the last couple of years.”

Added Mark Gurnow, Eagle Ridge’s general manager, “It behooves us to make sure that our golf course is as healthy as possible. We are probably as strongly self-regulated as anyone in the agricultural industry. Like the farmers, we have to protect our soil and from a health perspective we may be even more careful. We have not just our own staff out there, we have the general public by the thousands.”

Environmental groups still cast a wary eye on courses for their development practices, noting that most are built on land that was completely natural or had previously been used for agricultural development. Eagle Ridge was, at one point, a combination of cherry orchards and range land.

“It’s not just the golf course,” said Michele Beasley, South Bay field representative for the Greenbelt Alliance. “When a golf course is developed there are homes that go with it a lot of times, and that encourages leap-frogging into new development.”

Construction continues on new homes at Eagle Ridge.

Also in golf news, the much-debated Institute Golf Course in Morgan Hill is waiting for permits required under the plan established for it by the city of Morgan Hill to mitigate environmental impacts on the land, and report findings on 39 criteria in compliance with a series of deadlines extending through July 15.

The Central Coast Regional Water Control Authority is still reviewing a petition for golf course spillover to be dumped in a nearby drainage ditch during periods of excessively wet weather, and debating whether to classify it as a single-point discharge or a stormwater spill-off point, according to Water Resources Control Engineer Matthew Keeling, an employee of the CCRWCA.

The difference could result in substantial permit cost differences.

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