Spokane offers a discount for golf courses that conserve water. They often don't qualify.

Feb. 2—Golf courses use a lot of water, and since 2009, the city of Spokane has offered a discount to any golf course that can use less than a certain amount.

In the past three years, despite major irrigation improvements at some of the courses, few have qualified.

Spokane provides water to six golf courses, including the city-run Downriver, Esmeralda, Indian Canyon and Qualchan courses, and the privately operated Manito Golf and Country Club on the South Hill and the Plains Golf Course south of Airway Heights.

An 18-hole course can qualify for a discount on its water bill if it uses less than 40 million gallons in a given year. That's more water than 1,300 Americans use in an average year, according to an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Monday, the Spokane City Council cleaned up city code around the incentive program, clarifying that a 9-hole golf course — the Plains being the only one in the city — qualifies if it uses less than 20 million gallons per year.

Between 2021 and 2023, city-run golf courses operating during the entire season qualified only three times, two of which were in 2022, a year with lower water usage across the board for all courses. Public Works communications director Kirstin Davis noted that water use fluctuates significantly depending on weather .

Downriver used less than 20 million gallons of water in 2022, though the course was under construction and had its irrigation system replaced during that time, artificially lowering the water usage, Davis wrote in an email.

Neither private course qualified once in that same three-year period. The Plains and Manito Country Club did not respond to a request for comment.

This is still a marked improvement over prior years.

Three of the city-run courses have had full renovations of their irrigation systems in recent years, an $8 million investment that has cut down on staff costs and saves roughly 40 million gallons of water per year. Indian Canyon's improvements were the first to come online in 2019 and only used more than 40 million gallons once in the past five years, in 2021 when the city experienced "exceptional drought" conditions for the first time in history.

Only Qualchan, which used between 52-62 million gallons annually in the past three years, has not seen the same kind of investment. The course came online in 1995 and therefore isn't as outdated as Indian Canyon, built in the 1930s, said Fianna Dickson, communication manager for Spokane Parks and Recreation, which manages the city-run courses.

Dickson noted that while the city was broadly focused on increasing efficiency when it underwent its irrigation investments, it did not necessarily aim to hit the conservation goal of less than 40 million gallons annually.

Before the improvements, two of the courses had sprinkler systems that needed to be manually turned on and shut off at night, leading to wasted water and staff time.

Taxpayers don't foot the bill to water city golf courses or for the irrigation improvements, which are funded through an independent budget paid for by golfers, Dickson noted.