100-year drought causes Denver municipals to close

By David R. Holland, Contributor

DENVER, Colo. -- Wars have been fought over it.

Golf courses can't survive without it.

It's water, of course, and with a snow pack at 25-percent below normal in the mountains and hardly any rain or snow in the front range of Colorado this winter, the summer of 2003 may just be a year of rock-hard brown fairways.

Colorado's Drought of the Century is showing no signs of ending. Denver just registered its driest year on record in 2002 -- only 7.48 inches of precipitation, the lowest total since records started being logged in 1872.

And many of the fairways of Denver's municipals have huge cracks forming in the dry earth.

On Jan. 27 it was 70 degrees in Denver. And warm, playable days have not been uncommon this winter on the front range. But Denver's avid golfers who frequent five of its eight layouts couldn't play -- the city has closed them for a 60-day period from Jan. 16 to March 15 to prevent more turf loss.

The five regulation-length courses closed are City Park, Overland, Evergreen, Willis Case and John F. Kennedy's 27 holes. Still open are 18-hole Wellshire, and two par-three layouts at Harvard Gulch and Kennedy.

John Stachowski, superintendent at Overland, said he saw the dust-bowl signs back in the fall when he watched carts wheel down fairways kicking up clouds of dust.

Several days in January Gregg A. Blew, superintendent at the historic Wellshire Golf Course, a Donald Ross design that opened in 1926, could stroll down his fairways in 65-degree shirt-sleeve temperatures. But he wasn't thinking about playing golf, he was thinking about the drought.

"I keep wondering if we are ever going to get any moisture this winter," said Blew, CGCS, and former president of the Rocky Mountain Golf Course Superintendent's Association. Blew's Wellshire, however, is open because it has well water and a 15-acre lake.

"We'll just have to play it by ear," said Tom Woodard, Denver's director of golf.. "Each of the golf courses that were closed have five or six fairways that are really deteriorating. If we had continued to allow play on these courses, they simply would not have been playable at all during the summer months, and it would be extremely expensive and difficult to replant the grass. Obviously what we need is water."

City parks officials will meet March 1 to reassess conditions and determine when the courses can be re-opened.

Turf loss was the significant reason the golf courses were closed. The city stopped watering fairways on its public courses September 1. Since then, only greens and tees have been watered. If the courses hadn't been closed the city could, and still might, face costly re-seeding projects in the future.

"In September we had one inch of rain in 40 minutes," said Blew. "That raised the lake level a foot and a half and gave us a little better chance heading into winter. But we have hardly had any rain or snow since. In a normal precipitation year the winter fairways have a little green tint to them. We don't have that this year. And we are just wondering how much turf loss there will be."

Blew said future management suggestions presented to the Parks Department include using what water is available in late May and early June to get the grass back in healthy shape and then again stop the irrigation, letting the grass go to summer dormancy.

"Then, I would suggest we water again in September and October to bring the grass out of summer dormancy into winter dormancy," Blew said. This is only a proposed plan, however, it has not been approved.

"The drought has given us a hopeless feeling. I'm disheartened and I know the other city superintendents feel that way, too. We are not controlling our own destiny -- this situation is in the hands of the water utility districts. They have to wait and see just like all of us."

With 310 days of sunshine per year it isn't uncommon for Denver residents to play golf in the winter. But in a normal snow winter the city doesn't expect to generate a lot of income. A warm, dry December, however, produced 2,400 rounds at Overland, where 1,200 is the norm.

Woodard said that during the 60-day period selected for closure (January 16-March 15), "golfers can normally play 30 of the 60 days. Two years ago we had only one play day in February. But we have avid golfers who come out when the temperature is in the upper 40s, and when it is in the 50s it feels quite warm at this altitude."

Denver municipals have the most affordable golf in the metro area and Woodard lamented the fact that the week of January 20, just after the closings, temperatures were forecasted in the mid-50s.

"The Broncos were out of the NFL playoffs and the weather was great. We would have been booked solid that week," he said.

The city's municipals take in about $7.5 million a year with 440,000 rounds played. This revenue includes greens fees, driving ranges, concessions, cart fees, pro-shop sales and lessons. Woodard said closing for 60 days would equal a loss of about $525,000 or seven percent of its annual revenue.

"I've asked all seven golf course complexes to cut their operational budgets by 10 percent to make up for the revenue shortfall," Woodard said.

Woodard said the 44 full-time, year-round employees, won't be affected by the closures, but eight of the 12 part-time employees will lose their jobs.

The City of Aurora, home to award-winners Saddle Rock Golf Club and Murphy Creek Golf Club, might be next to consider closing. The city has already implemented plans to limit use of recreational baseball, softball and soccer fields.

What's ahead for Colorado golf?

Last summer Grandote Peaks Golf Club in La Veta ran out of water in May. By the end of the summer every national golf magazine in the USA had written about its brown fairways and water woes. Some late summer and September rain storms helped the club do some watering of the fairways before winter arrived.

In 2003 look for firm, fast and brown to be the norm on the front range this summer and the most frequent phone calls to golf courses might be: "Why are you watering that golf course, there is a drought going on."

And even when a city does a great job of planning for the future, it doesn't mean political pressure won't be applied to those who have ample water.

One example is in Golden, a Denver suburb, home of Coors Beer. Thanks to city planning, Golden has plenty of water. Golden also has a brand-new municipal, Fossil Trace Golf Club, designed by Jim Engh, which has been in the planning phase for more than 10 years. Sufficient water rights were purchased years ago, looking toward the future.

But that doesn't mean surrounding cities who might not have planned as well dry times, won't covet Golden's success and cause a political fuss over the watering of Fossil Trace, which was seeded last June through September and is scheduled to open August 15.

Another Engh project, a complete makeover of Snowmass Golf Club near Aspen, also is newly seeded and looks to the spring for its growing-in phase.

Again, good planning -- Snowmass has senior water rights, the advantage of snow melt and a huge collection pond that also thrives from diversion and overflow of Brush Creek.

Colorado golf-course projects just going through the initial planning and permit stages could face stern opposition, though.

One project is just southwest of Castle Rock in Douglas County. It's called Headwaters and it plans to develop two 18-hole private golf courses near Jackson Creek Road. Home prices would range from $1.8 to $4.5 million.

Opponents have already voiced opposition to the development in a public meeting held by the county planning commission. Local citizens declare the project is irresponsible use of insufficient water in a time of drought. The county denied a plan submitted in 1997, calling for three golf courses and a hotel, on the same property.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Fossil Trace Golf club

    jfluhart wrote on: Oct 24, 2005

    I am lost reading the "press" on this course. It is nothing more than a tricked up layout missing only the windmill and the clowns mouth. In spite of a round of 78 with 2 birdies and an eagle, I could get away from this architectural mess fast enough. Tell everyone to save their money and play a real golf course like Bear Dance in Larkspur.