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‘Down with the brown’: Northern Utah golf courses navigate record-setting drought, heat

By Patrick Carr standard-Examiner - | Jul 14, 2021
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El Monte Golf Course is seen June 23, 2021, in Ogden.

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Mount Ogden Golf Course is seen June 23, 2021, in Ogden.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the golf industry experienced a surge in business it had desperately needed for years.

Things were looking up as people turned out to golf courses in the hundreds to do something outdoors where physical distancing could be easily accomplished 99% of the time.

A year later, the golf industry is caught in Utah’s severe drought web: Utah’s hottest summer in generations has come on top of record-low metrics in things such as rainfall, snowpack and snowmelt runoff that have persisted for more than a year.

“It’s starting to burn up. If you look down the No. 9 fairway, it’s very brown,” Wolf Creek Resort head pro Colten Ferrell said.

This year, amid cutbacks necessitated by the drought, courses are trying to manage the situation as best they can. They’re also confronting a status they’ve had as large water users, which has attracted scrutiny even in non-drought times.

Ernie Schneiter — he and his family own Schneiter’s Riverside in Riverdale and Schneiter’s Bluff in West Point — said water use has been cut by about 20% this year at both golf courses; they’ve also raised the lawnmower blades slightly.

At The Barn Golf Course in Pleasant View, superintendent Justin Woodland said the course has cut water use by about 30-35%, particularly cutting back on watering the rough and the driving range — the latter because it’s four acres that no one’s going to hit a ball from.

Cutbacks have made the grass brown and drier in some areas, but Woodland said there should be a mentality change in how courses are viewed.

“TV and tournament golf has really ruined things in the state where everything has to look like a park. A little brown is not bad and it plays a lot better,” Woodland said.

He wants golfers to be “down with the brown.”

“Nobody wants to clean mud off their balls on every fairway. We need to condition golfers that a little brown is not the end of the world. You go across the pond and half these places don’t have irrigation and they don’t care,” Woodland said.

The staff at The Barn anticipated it would have to cut some water use, Woodland said, and tried to get ahead of it by treating the course with wetting agents — they help grass retain moisture better — earlier this year.

The grass is also more drought-tolerant than it was 20-30 years ago, he said. Those types of things aren’t unique to The Barn.


The wetting agents, plus ground-moisture technology, have helped Woodland and other superintendents in the state use water more efficiently on golf courses.

In a Fox 13 report, South Mountain (Draper) superintendent Lou Smith explained the course’s watering technology.

It includes soil probes that feed moisture data to a computer-operated pumping station that uses the appropriate amount of water, and a weather station on the course itself to give greenskeepers even more data on how to adjust watering.

“We don’t guess, we don’t flood irrigate, we want to know exactly where we are at on a nightly basis,” Smith said in the report.

Photo supplied, Justin Woodland

This screenshot of a mobile phone app displays soil temperature on one of the greens at The Barn Golf Course.

Woodland said The Barn has something similar, a system that tracks moisture content and soil temperature, among many factors. It helps the groundskeeping staff know exactly where spot-watering is required.

Many courses are cutting water use, but the amount of water used by golf courses has always been a sticking point and will be more so in a drought.

Darren Hess, assistant general manager for the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said the average golf course uses about 300-500 acre-feet of water per year.

That’s roughly between 9.7 million and 16.3 million gallons per year, keeping in mind that courses don’t water 365 days per year and that just one golf course in the much hotter city of St. George uses 130 million gallons of water per year, according to The St. George Spectrum.

According to estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American family of four uses about 144,000 gallons of water per year.

Woodland said The Barn uses roughly 600,000 to 650,000 gallons of water each night to water the course, which is a substantial decrease from previous years that’s helped, again, by better watering efficiency, more drought-tolerant grass and the wetting agents applied earlier this year.

“We have to set the example,” Woodland said.

Weber Basin provides some water to several golf courses in Davis County, from the Layton courses all the way down to Eaglewood in North Salt Lake, and the courses use a decent chunk of the approximately 230,000 acre-feet in water contracts the district distributes.

Hess said he golfs frequently at Hubbard on Hill AFB and noticed the sides along the fairways have been brown.

“It’s a nice amenity to the public, but we want to (golf courses) to water responsibly and accurately,” Hess said, adding that most courses in the district do so.


To many people, it would seem that a full water shutoff is an unlikely event. But earlier in June, Pineview Water officials warned of an early August shutoff to secondary water if people didn’t cut water use.

Gov. Spencer Cox ordered water conservation measures at state facilities and in that same order, encouraged water providers to end irrigation season early.

Schneiter said the Riverside course has an original water right to the Weber River, but still stressed a need to be prepared for a possible shutoff.

The course could get by with limited water, Schneiter said, enough to keep the greens, tees and landing areas in the fairway green.

“If that came to pass and we did have to do that, they could still play golf, it would be a different game,” Schneiter said.

Greens and tees are the priority for courses should water cutbacks go full tilt.

A potential shutoff, a worst-case scenario, is something Woodland said he’s trying to be prepared for as well, and courses may need to be proactive instead of reactive.

“This could hang on for multiple years, we don’t know,” Woodland said.


Golf courses get some of their highest use in the summer and fall and, unless the southwestern monsoon makes its way to Northern Utah this summer and throws water managers a bone, the brown will persist until long after tournament season is done.

Speaking of tournament golf, that’s where Oakridge Country Club in Farmington finds itself in August. It’s hosting the Utah Championship, a Korn Ferry Tour event (the PGA Tour’s undercard series).

It’s a televised event and the course needs to hold up for four-plus days of professional golfers chewing up the course.

Oakridge was one of six courses — Ogden Golf and Country Club, Remuda, Eagle Lake, Davis Park and Valley View — where officials didn’t return phone or email messages seeking comment for this article.

During the Utah Women’s State Amateur tournament in June, there were plenty of brown and yellow areas around Oakridge. For the most part, the Oakridge course was lush and green, and golfers in the tournament noted such.

Late in 2020, Oakridge found out it would once again host the tournament, only in August this year instead of its normal slot in late June.

“It’s certainly a more difficult time of the year to manage a golf course during the heat, but our superintendent West York is already consulting with courses that have (their) event around us around the same time,” Oakridge general manager Mark Jensen told the Standard-Examiner in January.


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