Golf Courses: Friend or Foe?
What do golf courses have to do with Surfrider issues? Do they have any effect on ocean water quality, coastal access, beach and marine ecology, or beach erosion? As it turns out, golf courses can have significant environmental impacts. Let's look at the good, the bad and the ugly regarding golf courses.
Golf courses are nice to look at. They can provide habitat for various land and aquatic animals. Wetlands can be incorporated into golf courses, which may provide not only habitat, but also a filtering mechanism for runoff. Golf course areas are primarily non-paved, so they don't add directly to the urban proliferation of impervious surfaces. They may be a more desirable type of development than houses, shopping malls, industry, power plants, or sewage treatment plants.
The Bad and the Ugly
To develop a golf course, many acres of land may have to be cleared of natural vegetation and habitat, graded, and planted with what is often non-native grasses, trees, and shrubs. All that pretty green grass takes a lot of water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to maintain. The local water supply may or may not be adequate for the required irrigation needs. Chemical use, combined with over-irrigation may cause contamination of groundwater aquifers, surface water bodies, and the ocean. Native plants and animals may be destroyed/driven out. Natural coastal dunes or other coastal features may be covered over.
In addition, local streams may be diverted, which may impact freshwater aquatic life and may also interrupt sand supply to the beach. Although wetlands may be created, they may also be destroyed. The golf course may also directly or indirectly block coastal access or take away beach parking. Finally, golf course development often encourages other development, such as housing tracts, restaurants, shopping malls, etc.
Golf Course Reclamation
Several factors, including drought conditions in many areas and unfavorable economics (less demand for golf courses) have led to some golf courses being shut down and and the land converted back to wetlands in CA and WA or proposed for open space/recreation.
What Can You Do?
As with any other significant development project, an EIR or EIS (see NEPA, CEQA, and EISs) should be prepared to evaluate potential environmental impacts before the project is approved. Reviewing and commenting on these documents is an important way to stop or positively influence projects. As an example, members of the Washington and Oregon chapters of Surfrider Foundation reviewed an EIR for a proposed golf course development in Westport, Washington. Their review identified several serious deficiencies or areas of concern regarding the proposed project. The main areas of concern were:
- Pesticide Use and Its Effect on Ground and Surface Water
- Beach Access
- Beach Erosion
- Coastal Dune and Wetland Loss
Similar comments were submitted by Friends of Grays Harbor. Note: that golf course was never built and the developer is now looking at other uses of the site.
Are There Better Ways to Site, Design and Maintain Golf Courses?
Yes. Golf course designers, owners, and operators are becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues. Several websites have information regarding "green" ways of building and maintaining courses. Even the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the U.S. Air Force have set up programs aimed at establishing environmentally friendly golf courses. The USGA's Environmental Stewardship Program discusses environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation and water quality management. Among the principles discussed in this guide and in similar documents are the following:
- Protect and preserve natural features, with no net loss of woodlands or wetlands
- Connect areas that will form natural habitats
- Choose varieties of grass that require less water and are best adapted to the local climate
- Plant indigenous trees and shrubs
- Design for as little water runoff from the property as possible
- Consider the use of reclaimed water or collected stormwater for irrigation. In some locations the use of reclaimed water is required for any new golf courses and existing courses are increasingly being encouraged to look at switching their irrigation from potable water to reclaimed water.   
- Consider the use of soil amendments which reduce water consumption
- Provide walkways for non-players to educate them about wildlife protection and nature conservation, and for coastal access
- Protect sensitive habitats during construction
- Keep chemical use as low as possible, carefully controlled and confined to tees and greens. Adopt a cultural/biological approach to pest control. Explore organic options. Strive for a year-to-year reduction in pesticide and herbicide use.
- Use solar or battery powered golf carts and equipment
- Use composted waste for soil amendments and consider the use of sewage treatment biosolids as fertilizers.
A few words of caution about the "green" golf course movement:
- The USGA's guide was prepared by Audubon International, which is NOT affiliated with the National Audubon Society and has been sued by National Audubon Society. Audubon International's main financial supporter is - you guessed it - the U. S. Golf Association. Draw your own conclusions.
- Some golf courses that have been "certified" as complying with USGA's guidelines have been found to have significant environmental impacts.
- Many biologists and wildlife ecologists, such as Lawrence Woolbright of Siena College in Albany, New York contend that the best places to build golf courses are sites that are already degraded, such as landfills or old industrial sites, rather than on undeveloped land. Even a "green" golf course is likely to result in some environmental degradation or loss of habitat.
References and Additional Sources of Information
Letter to Westport, WA City Council, Comments on Links at Half Moon Bay Master Plan Development by Peter Leon, Markus Mead and Kevin Ranker of Surfrider Foundation, September 3, 2002.
Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States (US Golf Association)