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Golf courses to face scrutiny

A round of golf on a lush, green course may cost more than the greens fee. Environmentalists long have claimed that the real cost lies in environmental damage from the pesticides and chemicals used to keep golf courses looking perfect.

Golf course operators say it's just not true.

During the next few years, state officials plan to find out who is right.

"Do we have problems with pesticides and fertilizers used on golf courses? We don't know," said Dave Vogel, an environmental administrator with the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER).

"We've been looking intensively at agriculture since 1983 and '84, and with our limited resources, we just haven't been able to get to golf courses," he said.

The study will take three years and will concentrate on six golf courses in several counties, including Hillsborough and possibly Pinellas. But Vogel said officials should know within a year whether new regulations are needed to control the use of chemicals on the 1,000 golf courses in Florida.

Although golf courses long have been a concern among ardent environmentalists, interest among state scientists has flared recently because of the increased use of reclaimed water. Reclaimed water contains acids and other agents that could cause pesticides to behave differently, Vogel said.

"The interactions between the pesticides and the effluents (reclaimed water) in the soil could cause it to move more quickly or further or may do just the opposite. We don't know," Vogel said. "The department and a lot of local governments are encouraging the use of reclaimed water, so we want to make sure we answer that question."

DER officials decided to undertake the study after arsenic was discovered a couple of years ago in a monitoring well at a golf course in southern Hillsborough County. Although the arsenic poses no threat to drinking-water supplies now, DER officials discovered they know less than they would like to about pesticide use on golf courses.

"What it does is throw a flag up and say this is something you need to look at," Vogel said.

Vogel said the statistics gathered from years of research on pesticides used in agriculture don't necessarily apply to golf courses.

"Turf is different than a lot of other scenarios," he said.

Turf has a tightly woven thatch layer, which helps filter and degrade pesticides before they reach ground water, Vogel said. He added that a number of studies support that, which golf course operators have been claiming for years.

Still, state scientists want to be sure. "We just really haven't got the hard data to tell one way or the other what to expect with turf," Vogel said.

Vogel said the DER has worked closely with the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association in designing the study.

"They're real concerned about the questions the media and the public are raising about the safety of their operations. They're real eager to get (the study) going so they can get some data," Vogel said.

Past president of the association, Joel Jackson, could not be reached for comment. New president Ray Hansen said he is not familiar with the state study, but said poor operations by a few golf course managers sometimes give the whole business a bad name.

"It only takes one bad apple to make everyone else look bad," he said. "We're very visible. We're high-profile."