Portugal’s Algarve region is a major golf tourist attraction, but its 40 courses consume a huge amount of water. Scientists, using satellite and weather station data, have calculated that the greens and fairways of southern Portugal’s courses are consuming some 18 million cubic metres of water a year; the equivalent of more than 700 mm of rain. With this region of southern Europe being described as suffering from a water crisis, is this level of irrigation for golf courses sustainable?
Golf has boomed in the region since the 1980s when there were just a handful of courses, but the Algarve’s excellent weather means the region needs also to conserve its water. Faro, the regional capital, receives about only 500 mm of rainfall per year. Most of this rain falls in the winter months, meaning that in summer, when temperatures can reach nearly 30o Centigrade, the courses must irrigate in order keep the greens and fairways from becoming parched.
With the combination of dry, hot weather and a notable increase in demand for water from the greater number of golf courses needing to irrigate their turf, is there a conflict between the demands of golf and those of supplying drinking water for public consumption? In 2006, the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Porto reported that the main water uses in the Algarve River Basin are associated with irrigation (67%, 5% of which was applied to golf courses), domestic supply (32%) and industry (1%).
Water supply in the Algarve region has been well served since the Algarve Multi-Municipal Water Supply System came into operation in 2000. Prior to this, groundwater supply had a very important role in the Algarve River Basin, when the aquifers were the only water source of adequate quality and quantity. Growing demand from agriculture and golf led to problems with public water supply as after consecutive dry years the quality of the water in many aquifers dropped as a result of over-exploitation. Consequently, enhancing the quality of life and the opportunity for economic activities, notably tourism, were limited.“
Technology has improved irrigation efficiency, but a reduction in water use does not mean poorer playing quality
Under the Multi-Municipal Water Supply System, the water for irrigation and domestic consumption is now provided by a series of reservoirs, created by dams. The Arade and Funcho dams, on the Arade River, were constructed for irrigation purposes, though Funcho is currently being mostly used for domestic water supply. The Bravura dam, encompassing part of the watershed of the river Odiáxere, was constructed for irrigation purposes and has also been used for domestic water supply purposes.
The Odelouca dam, which manages the flow of a river of the same name, was inaugurated in June 2012, with the aimed to relieve the pressure on the availability of water in a region which is extremely vulnerable to water scarcity. It was constructed to sustain the public water supply and to service the regional development of the Algarve. This dam is the largest in the region, guaranteeing its water supply for 3 years in case of extreme drought, i.e. zero precipitation. Bringing the Odelouca dam on-stream means that supply from the Funcho dam can be reallocated to irrigation.
93% of the drinking water for the Algarve is now provided from reservoir sources, with borehole water accounting for 7.3%. Almost 124 million cubic meters of the total water consumption for the Algarve River Basin is for irrigation, of which 27 million cubic meters are supplied from the reservoirs with the remainder coming from boreholes.
The research into water use by golf courses has been led by Professor Celestina Pedras from the University of the Algarve. She and her colleagues looked back through three decades of data from which they could see that although the consumption of water had increased five-fold since 1980, the practices of golf courses had become less wasteful. Professor Pedras states that “The greenkeepers understand the challenges of using so much water and they are introducing efficiency strategies”. Greenkeepers are implementing a policy of “deficit irrigation”, as they and players recognise that overly lush greens and fairways would be inappropriate. “I think players who understand the issues and the need to conserve water will accept playing on courses that are a little yellow” said Professor Pedras.
Alexandra Betâmio de Almeida, Head of the Sustainability and Planning Department at the Portuguese Golf Federation, is confident that golf can be accommodated in the Algarve without impacting on agricultural or public supply requirements. She commented “The water scarcity issue in the Algarve Region is being addressed positively, with reservoir development ensuring adequate supplies for all users. Golf is at the forefront of water efficiency measures; using the latest technology to reduce its need for this precious resource, using grasses that require less water, managing soils in a way so they hold more water, frequently monitoring the agro-climatic parameters to avoid waste. In addition water is being taken from a wider variety of sources. All of these practices contribute towards more efficient usage, but a reduction in water use does not mean poorer playing quality. Golfers appreciate the firmer, running conditions that less lush turf provides.”