Looking down from a satellite image of Google Earth, golf courses stand out from their surrounding natural landscapes, manicured greens and fairways carved out of the surrounding forests and grasslands.
There are over 800 golf courses across Ontario. With the average 18-hole golf course spanning 150 acres, the total area of land covered by golf courses in the province is approximately 120,000 acres, about twice the size of Brampton.
Golf Canada and Osprey Valley announced a major partnership in July that will see the headquarters of the national association move to TPC Toronto at Osprey Valley in Caledon.
Current construction at the TPC (Tournament Players Club) Toronto Osprey Valley, a 54-hole golf facility located just north of Highway 24 in Alton, will include a new clubhouse and conference amenities, improvements to the practice facility and onsite accommodations.
“Caledon is the perfect home for Canadian golf and I couldn’t be more pleased to welcome Golf Canada, Golf Ontario and the Club Management Association of Canada (CMAC) to our town,” former Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson said in a press release. “Our expansive rural beauty combined with vibrant urban centres and a thriving hospitality industry will help drive Golf Canada’s success, in turn, the new golf campus will create 475 jobs during construction and 185 relocating to Caledon, increase tourism, recreation and support local businesses.”
Thompson did not have the best track record on environmental protection. As one of the two municipalities – alongside Brampton – that have not opposed the construction of the 413 Highway, Thompson and his supporters on council were not concerned about opening up the Greenbelt for development.
Encroaching on sensitive natural spaces is only one issue environmentalists have with the golf industry. Golf courses are also notorious for their water and pesticide use, both of which can damage the surrounding ecosystem.
Carly Peister, a golf instructor in Merryhill, Ont. completed a study of water usage on golf courses in Ontario when undertaking a Masters of Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. Peister was the first to calculate an average water use for golf courses in Ontario. She took a close look at past water use, climatic conditions, and climate change projections to determine what might occur in the future for the industry with its current water usage.
Peister calculated that during a climatically normal season, 50.5 billion litres of water are used to irrigate Ontario golf courses, the same amount of water as every person in the world consuming the body’s requirement for two days.
She also calculated that during a season that was 1.2 degrees warmer and 29 per cent drier than normal, irrigation increased 58 percent to 79.9 billion litres. From this, she found that under current climate change predictions for 2050, water use on current golf courses in Ontario could increase as much as 151 percent, with the hotter, more arid summers predicted across the province.
Through an analysis of potential water savings in golf courses across Ontario, Peister found that a 35 per cent reduction in water use is possible if golf courses adopt similar maintenance and irrigation practices to the more efficient golf courses in the province.
“It is strongly believed that in order for the province-wide water savings to be achieved, collaboration between the government and the golf industry will be needed,” Peister wrote.
Audubon International, a worldwide agency dedicated to sustainability and stewardship of natural ecosystems, has set out environmental management practices for golf courses under the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses (ACSP) which was established in 1991.
The best practices include guidelines for environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, and education and outreach that serve as the basis for certification under the ACSP.
Under water conservation, Audubon International recommends training employees on conservation techniques including, but not limited to, testing the performance of irrigation systems, reducing water waste, eliminating non-target watering (watering sidewalks, pathways, etc.) and avoiding running irrigation systems at peak evapotranspiration times.
Another major component of ACSP certification has to do with pesticide use.
Best practices include eliminating potential chemical runoff by avoiding applications during high wind periods or immediately before heavy rains and applying pesticides scarcely only where and when scouting indicates that pest threshold levels have been exceeded.
The problem with pesticides is they can leach into the water system and contaminate streams and rivers affecting both the flora and fauna that should thrive in the surrounding area.
In 2008, amendments to the Pesticide Act were made to create the Cosmetic Pesticides Ban Act. This led to a ban on the sale of over 180 pesticide products and the prohibition of over 90 pesticide ingredients in spring of 2009. The ban, however, included an exemption for golf courses.
In 2011, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment completed a study entitled Pesticide Concentrations in Ontario’s Urban Streams one year after the Cosmetic Pesticides Ban. The study found that one year after the ban was put into effect, the average number of pesticides detected per sample was significantly lower than prior to the ban.
The study did not look at streams that were near golf courses, however. Water bodies that run through and around golf courses would contain higher concentrations of these pesticides.
According to the Government of Ontario website, “in order to use unlisted pesticides, golf courses must be registered by an approved Integrated Pest Management (IPM) body the first day unlisted pesticides are used on the golf course and must receive accreditation by a ministry-approved IPM body by the second anniversary of the first day unlisted pesticides are used on the golf course and prepare an annual report on unlisted pesticide use and post it on the IPM Council of Canada’s website."
Data for Osprey Valley from 2016 to 2021 show the total quantity of unlisted pesticides can range anywhere from 450 kilograms to 1,500 kilograms for the 54-hole facility. Golf courses are required to indicate why a particular chemical was used. Based on the reports from Osprey Valley, reasons for using chemicals included dollar spots (a fungal disease in grass), cutworm, winter protection and weed control. These are all variables that impact why pesticide usage can change from year to year.
Aside from the courses that are ACSP certified, some courses are trying their best to be more sustainable.
Tom Newton, superintendent of Legends on the Niagara Battlefield Course, constantly checks the site’s ponds for red flags which can include algae blooms, an occurrence that often happens from excess nitrogen which can be found in fertilizers. Newton also tests the water bodies for certain insects to determine water quality.
Another action golf courses can take is to plant native species surrounding water bodies. The ones Newton has planted have created a buffer, minimizing the amount of unwanted chemical runoff.
The addition of these native plants can also make the course more welcoming to wildlife.
Golf courses that want an Audubon Certification have to show compliance in six areas:
- Environmental Planning
- Wildlife and Habitat Management
- Chemical Use Reduction and Safety
- Water Conservation
- Water Quality Management
- Outreach and Education
The sport is still wildly popular with millions of Canadians, even though time and cost constraints have created more challenges for the game. But it is the commitment to be green that could allow golf to grow as the world continues to prioritize the protection of our natural spaces.
Rachel Morgan is a Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) reporter for The Pointer. The LJI program is funded by the Government of Canada.