How Green Is Too Green?

Bulldozers. Pesticides. Fertilizers. If you live in South Florida, golf's threat to the ecosystem might get you teed off.

Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman has heard this cry for a return to nature but says it would require an unthinkable shift in the culture of the game. "The idea is to go back to the Scottish model and basically let nature take its course. If you've had a rainy summer, you basically have green fairways. If you don't have rain, then everything turns brown," he explains. "The problem is, we're used to the 'Augusta National Syndrome': The water's blue, the fairways are green. The course is primed so that it peaks during the week it's on television. And everyone wants their course to look like Augusta during the Masters tournament. What you don't know is that they have a huge, huge budget and the course is artificially maintained -- they dye the water blue!"

"You can talk environment and golf going hand-in-hand, but I think it's a bunch of bullshit."

In isolated sound bites, James Mahannah makes those West Coast anti-golf activists sound positively spineless. The difference: He's arguing from the other side.

Slim as a two-iron and dressed neatly in a white polo shirt, jeans, and tasseled loafers, the 31-year-old golf course engineer and designer sits at the conference table of his father's small Boca Raton firm, blueprints spooled out before him. (The Mahannah golf pedigree runs deep: James's grandfather -- whose name the company bears -- was a golf-course designer; his father Charles is the chief architect for all of golf pro Lee Trevino's courses. The Mahannahs are partners with Jeffrey Schnars in the business.)

"A lot of these golf course designers are just patting themselves on the back," Mahannah rails, jabbing the air with an eight-penny nail, which he alternately uses as a pointer and a toothpick. "I think you can incorporate some environmental concerns into golf, but what do you do when you blow a side of a mountain down to build a course? As far as incorporating nature trails and habitats -- when you step foot in it, you've hurt it! Pesticides and blowing down mountains aren't really good for the environment. That's my opinion."

To Mahannah's way of thinking, you build the golf course and corrupt the environment, or you don't build the golf course and protect the environment. You can't do both. "Wetlands are pretty, but you're not going to improve the wetlands already there," he declares. "You got these guys saying they're going to incorporate the environment and they show all these footbridges cutting through the wetlands -- what the hell is that?" Of course, he knows part of the answer to that question: politics. It helps to placate activists and regulators by at least demonstrating the pretense of environmental sensitivity, he says. "When I'm talking to regulators, I'll tell them my designer is the greatest environmentalist alive!" admits Mahannah, whose company actually created a small cypress wetland in the crook of the dogleg sixth hole at Melreese.

Mahannah is a little irritable these days when it comes to matters of the environment. He's fed up with the regulatory hoops he's had to jump through to complete the Melreese redesign: The environmental regulations in Dade County are the strictest he's ever had to contend with, he says. (The firm has also built courses around the U.S., as well as in Canada, the Bahamas, Mexico, Taiwan, and is currently building facilities in Costa Rica, Vietnam, and Bogota.) The specific measure that rankles him is a rule that dictates how the course can dispose of its stormwater. DERM requires that the first inch of rainwater runoff -- which contains most of the pollutants -- be collected before the remainder is allowed to drain into on-site lakes. It's a standard requirement for all local developments but is particularly important on golf courses.

All courses designed or redesigned in Dade since 1980 have been bound by the regulation. In fact, environmental regulations in general make it much more difficult to build or alter golf courses these days. For example, the county-owned Crandon Park Golf Course was carved out of a mangrove swamp in 1972. Construction of that course would never be permitted today, if only because mangroves are now legislatively protected.

But while the regulation may infuriate designers, it has a limited effect on the county's existing courses: Environmental regulators can't arbitrarily force old courses to modernize. According to DERM engineer Elie Mehu, regulators can force a golf course to revamp its drainage system and design only if they can prove conclusively that the current system is contaminating the environment. To date, no one has conducted a comprehensive biological or engineering survey of Dade's antiquated courses to determine whether they are in violation of environmental laws.

To comply with the stormwater management rules for the Melreese redesign, the Mahannahs designed for Melreese a system of so-called exfiltration trenches that hold the first inch of water and allow it to drain through the soil, theoretically filtering out the impurities. In addition, they created berms around the lakes and along the bank of the Tamiami Canal, which borders the north edge of the course, to divert runoff away from the water bodies and toward the drains.

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