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.

While he has gone along with the county, Mahannah isn't convinced any of the extra engineering efforts were worth it. "I don't have a biology background, but the science is a little tenuous," he insists. "I haven't seen any studies." By his reckoning, the city and county should have been happy with whatever his firm gave them. The previous incarnation of Melreese was "a dump," he grumbles: The ponds were practically dead, trash was buried in the ground. "When we dug down we found baby dolls, metal, people's shoes," he snaps. "Anything I do is a plus!"

What Mahannah is most upset about is that DERM's stringent regulations restricted his father's creative expression, robbing him of the option to "blend" fairways into the water hazards and create a smoother look. Furthermore, the money he shelled out for the drainage system -- $100,000 -- could have been used for aesthetic touches such as landscaping and bulkheading around the lakes. "I don't want any tree controlling our design," he says. "Golf before the environment, that's what my dad would say. We'll be sitting on our principles starving."

The three other Dade courses that have been redesigned under the county's stormwater restrictions are the La Gorce Country Club, the Golf Club of Miami, and Deering Bay. One is a success, the other two failures.

Instead of employing a system of exfiltration trenches for the La Gorce redesign, Jack Nicklaus and his Golden Bear designers created retention areas on the perimeter of the course. The theory holds that the shallow marshy depressions would fill with water during big rainfalls; the first inch of water would drain into the turf and soil, which would filter out the pollutants as the water percolated into the aquifer; water beyond that first polluted inch would flow through pipes into the course's lakes.

Good theory, bad execution. After Nicklaus reworked the course, neighbors peppered the country club with phone calls and letters complaining that the retention ponds stank, water was overflowing into the back yards that bordered the course, and mosquitoes and reptiles were multiplying (including, according to a representative from a neighborhood homeowners' association, one particularly venomous breed of toad that is "causing small household animals to die").

According to a DERM engineer, the problem results from a combination of ills, including undersize drainage pipes and deviations from the original design. (Says David Heatwole, Golden Bear's lead designer on the La Gorce project: "There were [flooding] problems before and we tried to help alleviate that with the new design. There are still some problems. They had a good course, and now we think they have a better course. Hopefully the thing will be settled and we can all move on.")

A similar situation has plagued the Golf Club of Miami, which underwent a redesign in 1989. According to the course's agronomy consultant Earl Grey, who is also a member of the team that took over management of the course in 1994, the links were built two feet too low and will require the addition of a couple of pumps to handle the water that floods the course after heavy rainfalls.

Those are the flops. At the other end of the county, in the plush condominium hideaway of the Deering Bay Yacht & Country Club on the edge of Biscayne Bay, legendary golfer Arnold Palmer's redesign of the old King's Bay course has been praised by golfers and environmentalists alike. To be fair to Nicklaus, Palmer had it a little easier: While prohibited from draining into the bay, he was permitted to divert stormwater directly into the course's ponds rather than into a retention area like La Gorce or through an exfiltration system a la Melreese. This is because, according to Elie Mehu, the groundwater beneath the course is so brackish it would never be used as a source of drinking water; therefore, it requires a lower level of protection.

But Palmer went well beyond what was required: He created several wetlands on the course; he dug a mangrove-lined channel connecting an inland lagoon to the bay, providing a migratory route for fish and other aquatic life; and he implemented a water-recycling system whereby rainwater that drains into the course's ponds is used for irrigation. In addition, stormwater runoff from the townhouses and condos in the development is channeled into the course's drainage and irrigation system. Ringed by mangrove trees, the course teems with wildlife. The Tropical Audubon Society conducts bird-spotting tours of the area; crocodiles patrol its ponds.

Says Rick Alleman, senior environmental scientist for the South Florida Water Management District: "I could justify playing golf there!"

But Deering Bay is only one course. And aside from DERM's regulators, who are primarily focused on new construction and potential redesigns, no one seems to be questioning golf's impact on South Florida's environment. While the environmental debate rages in other parts of the country and around the world -- a Tokyo-based international group called the Global Anti-Golf Movement, or GAG'M, claims to have stopped the construction of hundreds of golf courses in the Far East -- South Florida has remained a rancor-free bastion for the golf industry.

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