Donald Trump and the Environmental Cost of Luxury Golf

“Brown Is the New Green”—unless you’ve got deep pockets.
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An aerial view of Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Cardinalngold/Wikimedia Commons)

An aerial view of Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Cardinalngold/Wikimedia Commons)

In Henderson, Nevada, at Lake Las Vegas Resort, there is a 320-acre lake brimming with three billion gallons of drinking water. The water is emptied and re-filled as necessary to keep the man-made lake from stagnating, allowing for residents and golfers alike to enjoy a mostly stink-free water feature—given they can push past the foulness of its existence.

Not included in that three billion gallon figure is the additional water, pumped in from dwindling Lake Mead, that’s used to maintain two 18-hole golf courses that wrap around the lake. The lush fairways rise up out of barren dessert, made possible only through enormously egregious water use, but Lake Las Vegas is not alone in this sin.

More than two billion gallons of water are used every day to irrigate golf courses across the country, according to a 2009 report by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Just 12 percent of courses use recycled water as an irrigation source and less than half are required to report their water usage to a state or local governing body; those that do often reveal that they’re paying discounted water rates. In 2013, Lake Las Vegas paid $1.41 per 1,000 gallons, while residents of Henderson paid up to $4.00 for the same amount.

On the other side of the country, at Donald Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey, it’s a similar story. An average family of four in America uses 400 gallons of water a day. Bedminster uses 312,000 gallons per day—and pays a heavily discounted rate for that privilege.

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Golf, by most every measure, is dying. In Karl Taro Greenfeld’s excellent Men's Journal piece, “The Death of Golf,” he offers a few reasons: it’s prohibitively expensive, resource-intensive, at times socially unwelcoming, and currently devoid of any superstar power. A round of golf also demands a significant time investment.

According to Anthony Baxter, an investigative journalist and filmmaker, more than 600 golf courses across the country have been shut down in the last decade, the majority being public courses, which tend to be more affordable. Private courses, on the other hand, are doing fine, at least comparatively.

“With the rich becoming richer, they are looking for these gated community playgrounds where they can fly in their buddies and they will put up with nothing less than these ultra lush fairways,” Baxter says. To join the Bedminster club, for example, golfers must pony up a $150,000 membership fee.

The governing body of golf, The Royal & Ancient, positions itself as a global sports leader in promoting sustainability, which is necessary if it wants the sport to continue in an era of extreme drought and climate change. But Peter Dawson, the chief executive of The Royal & Ancient, was also an advisor for Trump on his controversial Aberdeenshire course that was built on 4,000 year-old coastal sand dunes in Scotland.

Despite heavy protest from science and environmental groups, “Scottish ministers deemed the economic benefits to outweigh the environmental costs,” according to the Guardian, and the course opened in 2012. When Trump took the first shot, the Guardian notes, the ball, seemingly acting as an omen, headed straight for the rough.

When Trump first announced plans to build the course in Aberdeenshire he promised 6,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in investment. In reality, fewer than 200 jobs were created and around $25 million spent. The course’s construction also crushed water manes and left nearby residents without water for several years.

“When Trump came to Scotland, the red carpet was rolled out, the bagpipes came out, he said he was going to spend all this money and bring all these jobs, and I think the politicians believed the bluster,” Baxter says. “They turned out to be completely false claims. The Scottish government completely let down the community. The treatment of local residents has been dreadful.”

In Baxter’s latest film, A Dangerous Game, a follow-up to 2011’s You’ve Been Trumped, he follows the aftermath of the Aberdeenshire course while also focusing on other elite courses built in environmentally sensitive areas, including Dubrovnik, Croatia, a world heritage site. There, in an effort to keep a golf resort from being built, local residents passed a referendum with an 84 percent majority only to see the project go ahead anyway.

The mayor has since been charged with corruption.

“There’s a sense of powerlessness in these communities, when big money comes in promising the world and delivers very little,” Baxter says. “In the film, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. says, ‘Whenever you see environmental injury and destruction you see the subversion of democracy.’ The two things go hand in hand, that was certainly my experience. There is a real taste of corruption in the game of golf. It’s a global problem unfortunately.”

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Between his presidential bid and the demands of his corporate life, Trump now has plans to build an 18-hole championship course in Dubai, designed by Tiger Woods, a project Baxter describes as “another luscious golf course on desert sand.”

“I don’t think people understand how completely out of control this stuff is,” he says. “The way these golf courses are just continuously irrigated in the desert is a really mind-blowing thing.”

Baxter was arrested by local Scottish police during the filming of You’ve Been Trumped and charged with breach of the peace. Those charges were later dropped, and a partial apology issued, but Baxter was unable to get any face time with Trump. In A Dangerous Game, Trump grants him an interview. It’s a short and heated exchange, and an accomplishment in its own way, but Baxter says his work is far from finished.

“The water issue surrounding golf is massive thing,” he says. “We've got to safeguard these resources because they're dwindling.”

Trump World Golf Club Dubai is expected to open in 2017.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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