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Green greens? Ahead of push for guarantees, Minnesota golf courses look to shed image as water wasters

A group wants the state to create a new category for prioritizing access to water — while touting the environmental positives of golf course, or as they bill them: “your communities’ largest rain garden.”

Jack MacKenzie and the Minnesota chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America are touting the environmental positives of golf courses, or as their fliers bill them: “your communities’ largest rain garden.”
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

In times of drought, should we make sure golf courses stay green?

That may be a jarring suggestion for those who view golf courses as a massive drain on water and space. After all, golf courses use nearly 8 billion gallons of water each year in Minnesota and have long been placed in the state’s lowest priority bracket for access to water in times of trouble.

But Jack MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America says they should move up the list for access to water in exchange for environmentally friendly practices. MacKenzie and his organization are rallying support from lawmakers for such a change ahead of the 2019 Legislative session while touting the environmental positives of golf courses, or as their fliers bill them: “your communities’ largest rain garden.”

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MacKenzie said courses have reduced their water use in recent years and increasingly offer positives, such as recycling water for irrigation and undeveloped spaces for wildlife and pollinators. Those efforts can be improved further with the right incentives, MacKenzie said, namely assurances that when times get tough, golf courses can reduce their water without turning taps off altogether.

The golf superintendents’ organization represents about 68 percent of golf courses in Minnesota, including public and private courses, MacKenzie said. “There aren’t a lot of business models that allow for a huge capital injection into a property if that property has a threat of closure due to the lack of irrigation water,” MacKenzie told MinnPost last week. “That’s where the golf courses sit right now.”

Establishing a new category

The state has six categories for prioritizing access to water, starting with drinking water and water used by power producers, followed by agricultural irrigation, food processing and more. Golf courses are currently in the lowest bracket: nonessential users.

That means if a local water system faces a lack of water, permits of certain water users can be suspended — starting with those in the nonessential category. That’s a rare event, Mackenzie admits, but the dust-up over water levels at White Bear Lake has left some in the golf industry worried for what the future holds.

Last year, a judge ordered new regulations on groundwater users within five miles of the lake, including banning residential lawn sprinkling when lake levels fall below a certain threshold. Golf courses were exempt from that watering ban, and lake water levels have been more normal as of late.

And though lawmakers delayed the ruling from taking effect until July 2019, MacKenzie noted there are eight golf courses near the lake, and at least some could be affected by future restrictions based on the court ruling. (The DNR also released an analysis Wednesday saying groundwater use has contributed to those lower water levels, but that such irrigation bans would have “minimal effect on lake levels.”)

MacKenzie said his organization is suggesting the state establish a seventh category of water users he described as “environmental steward.” He said golf courses wishing to be in that bracket could be required to meet set of tough environmental and water-use rules designated by the state and agree to have their water ratcheted down significantly in times of drought, as long as there’s enough for a bare minimum of upkeep, or, as he put it, “greens and tees.”

Besides incentivizing greener management of golf courses, MacKenzie said it would avoid “recovery” of drought-stricken courses, which can use more water than “just sustaining your current property.”

MacKenzie predicted any bill in the Legislature would face some skepticism, and he is indeed correct. State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, for one, is opposed to the concept. Wagenius, a member of the House environmental committee, told MinnPost some in agriculture have made similar pitches in the past to get stronger water rights, but she said those who wrote the state’s current laws on water “had a good grasp on what our priorities should be.”

She warned of a scenario in which special-interest groups try to move Minnesota’s water system to more closely resemble California’s. In that state, certain groups with senior water rights have few limitations on access to water, even during drought. Minnesota’s system has not historically operated on such a first-come-first-served basis as Western states.

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Since the White Bear Lake saga, Wagenius said Minnesota has become more conscious of its groundwater and protecting water availability in general.

“The issue is we have priorities, and in a severe drought who gets the water?” she said. “Then you have to say, well is the recreational use of a golf course more important than irrigating a crop? Is it more important than people’s drinking water? That’s the basic issue here.”

State Rep. Paul Torkelson, chairman of the Legislative Water Commission and a member of the House’s environmental committee, was not so quick to dismiss the concept. Torkelson, R-Hanska, told MinnPost smart water and other conservation practices on golf courses and elsewhere is “something we should encourage.” The House is currently controlled by a Republican majority.

MacKenzie is “not asking that golf courses rise to the top — that they be more important than drinking water, for instance,” Torkelson said. “If they’re willing to do other things to conserve water maybe they should be rewarded with not being in the bottom of the barrel, so to speak.”

Not opposed by environmental groups

The golf course group’s proposal was also not immediately opposed by some from environmental groups. Greg McNeely, chairman of the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, said he wouldn’t predict an easy road for such a policy, but said he believes golf courses near the lake weren’t among the heaviest water users, and that operators there have been making “leaps and bounds as far as trying to preserve.”

Don Arnosti, conservation program director at the Izaak Walton League’s Minnesota Division, said the proposal could be good policy — as long as the environmental standards are truly strong. He said they should include water conservation and also practices to reduce fertilizers, pesticides and other nutrients that pollute water.

MacKenzie acknowledged that in times of severe crisis he would expect state officials to prioritize drinking water ahead of golf courses. But he said golf courses that put in the effort to be rigorously environmentally conscious shouldn’t be treated the same as courses that don’t meet those standards.

“Golf is fully cognizant that we use water, we get that,” he said. “But we’re also a group of trained professionals who can reduce our water consumptions and still maintain our business viability.”