Golf on the Moraine

Over the past few decades, a number of golf courses have sprouted up across Southern Ontario. These courses are now speckled across Ontario’s Greenbelt and sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine, areas the province has finally agreed to protect.  While golf courses may have a façade of ‘greenness’ due to their appearance, the reality is that maintaining unnaturally short perfect green grass on such large areas requires staggering amounts of groundwater, alongside a slough of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

As part of a coalition of conservation groups, concerned citizens, and municipal leaders that pushed for the creation of Ontario’s Greenbelt and protection for the Oak Ridges Moraine, Earthroots is extremely concerned about the environmental impacts that golf courses are having on these allegedly ‘protected’ areas. New golf courses are allowed on the vast majority of the Greenbelt, including a large proportion of the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Due to our concerns, Earthroots has formed a partnership with Ecojustice, formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, to research and report on the actual impacts golf courses are having on these sensitive areas.  Unfortunately, because Ontario golf courses are mainly monitored through self-reporting and evaluation, it is extremely difficult to find any information regarding actual water takings, pesticide and other chemical use, or the environmental impacts associated with these activities.

Through a series of costly freedom of information requests regarding ‘permits to take water’ issued to golf courses by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), Earthroots and Ecojustice have completed a case study on 9 golf courses on the Oak Ridges Moraine in the Aurora/Newmarket area.  Our alarming findings were released in a report entitled   Ontario's Water Hazard - The Cumulative Impact of Golf Courses On Our Water Resources (1.69 MB).

While the province has recently reaffirmed its commitment to protecting our freshwater resources by reforming its water laws and policies in 2005, our findings revealed shocking realities about common practice at the MOE indicating a huge degree of neglect, incompetence, and fatal flaws in the province’s current permitting system.

The permit to take water system is the MOE’s method for monitoring and sustainably allocation groundwater users. It appears that the MOE is lacking integral information regarding the different groundwater resources respective golf courses are taking water from, information that would be necessary to accurately monitor if groundwater takings are sustainable.  Another issue is that the MOE has not been ensuring that permits to take water held by golf courses are current: one course operated for 17 years without a valid permit, another for 9 years, without any known legal recourse.  

Equally disturbing, while courses are required to submit annual monitoring reports to the MOE, the vast majority of courses we examined did not seem to be submitting information regarding their groundwater takings. Despite this fact the MOE has still continued to renew permits to take groundwater to golf courses at, or above their initial levels.  Similarly, the MOE is not screening for important pre-requisites before awarding permits: the new proposed Westhill golf course in Aurora was granted a permit to take water which then had to be revoked, as the MOE had issued the permit without ensuring that a required Environmental Assessment had been completed.  It seems that all one has to do to get permit to take water is apply.  

Even more alarming are the actual amounts of water being used: the 9 courses we examined are collectively allocated over 3 billion litres of water per year.  This would be enough water to supply all annual water needs for almost 25,000 Canadians based on Canada’s hugely wasteful personal water use rate of 343 litres per day.  To put this into perspective, a human being requires 20 to 50 litres of water per day to meet basic needs, meaning that the water supplied to these 9 golf courses could meet the needs of 170,000 to 427,000 people dealing with issues of water scarcity in other parts of the world.

This excessive consumption of groundwater becomes even more alarming when we examine the Oak Ridges Moraine as a whole.  In our research for the Ontario’s Water Hazard Earthroots located 41 courses on the Moraine, and an additional 28 courses within 5 km of the Moraine. In follow up meetings with the MOE, we were informed that we actually missed a couple of courses on the Moraine, bringing the total on the Moraine up to 47 courses! Many of these courses – 17 in fact - are situated within an 8 km radius of a proposed new golf course in Aurora called the Westhill Development. Earthroots and Ecojustice are still campaigning to stop this new golf course, which is being proposed on sensitive, allegedly protected areas on the Moraine.

With this in mind, it should not be surprising that despite the bountiful supply of groundwater we have in Southern Ontario, the Aurora/Newmarket area has been experiencing ongoing issues with declining groundwater levels.  Both municipalities have been forced to supplement groundwater supplies with water from Lake Ontario over the past few years. Our research to date has been limited to the Aurora/Newmarket area, but we are currently beginning a larger research project examining large groundwater users across the Moraine and Greenbelt, including golf courses, to identify other ‘hot spots’ where there are a high concentration of ‘thirsty’ land uses and associated issues of water scarcity.  For more information, click here.

Normally, under groundwater regulations, the MOE will engage in a cumulative impacts assessment of a watershed when there is a high density of heavy groundwater users in that watershed, when the area exhibits declining groundwater levels over a period of 5 years, or when water shortages regularly occur in the drier summer months. Our research indicates that all three of these conditions are present on the watershed shared by Aurora and Newmarket; however, after speaking with representation from the MOE, it would appear that no such study is being pursued.  

It is important to note that the environmental issues surrounding golf do not end with their enormous consumption of groundwater.  Because of the massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used, courses also pose a serious risk for groundwater contamination.  We are now beginning to recognize the serious threats posed by the use of these chemicals, a fact that is underlined by the new provincial pesticide ban.  Unfortunately this ban exempts golf courses, allowing massive areas inside and outside of Ontario’s Greenbelt to be regularly sprayed with these toxic chemicals!

Take Action!
Ontario’s Water Hazard brings into question the extreme degree of neglect by the MOE in properly managing and allocating groundwater resources.  There is a need for immediate action to ensure the health and well being of our public groundwater resources! Contact Premier Dalton McGuinty, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Jim Bradley, and Minister of Environment John Gerretsen and ask for:
•    A moratorium on new golf courses in any Greenbelt areas.
•    Existing courses to be subjected to conservation measures, including guidelines limiting the use of groundwater in favour of progressive measures like grey water recycling.
•    Regulations that require golf courses to comply with the same guidelines as the general public in regards to pesticide use.
It’s time for Ontario to avoid this water hazard and bring our practices up to par!  

The Honourable Dalton McGuinty       
Premier of Ontario
Legislative Building, Room 281
Queen's Park
Toronto, ON  M7A 1A1
Phone: 416-325-1941
Fax: 416-325-9895

The Honourable Jim Bradley
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing
17th Floor, 777 Bay St
Toronto, ON  M5G 2E5
Phone: 416-585-7000
Fax: 416-585-6470

The Honourable John Gerretsen
Minister of the Environment
12th Floor, 135 St. Clair Ave. W.
Toronto, ON
M4V 1P5
Phone: 416-314-6790
Fax: 416-314-7337

For more information please contact Josh Garfinkel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. / 416-599-0152 x15.