California panted through an unseasonably dry winter before a flurry of recent storms boosted the Sierra snowpack to 68 percent of normal and topped up the reservoirs, but the golf industry in Southern California has no intention of easing up on its comprehensive water-conservation campaign, which has been in place for several years now.
“Throughout the country, golf has to be cognizant of both quantity and quality issues with respect to water, and in the Southwest it becomes acute, because we’re a semi-arid desert,” SCGA Executive Director Kevin Heaney said as the nation marked Earth Day on Sunday. “We’ll always have these cycles of big rain years and drought years, and as population grows and the demand for water increases, golf is going to have to be a good steward of that product and recognize that things like recycled water, best water usage and taking turf out of play are all factors that are critical for golf’s long-term health and survival.”
Southern California’s golf facilities have been leaders in prudent use of water. Measures employed have ranged from the removal of turf in out-of-play areas to the installation of more efficient irrigation systems. The efforts have been driven, in part, by simple economics. The Orange County Register recently reported that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has hiked water rates by 96 percent since 2006, a condition that can have a dramatic impact on a golf facility’s maintenance budget.
Meanwhile, an important source of water for the San Diego area and the Coachella Valley, the Colorado River System, is running at only 63% of average levels, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The squeeze on the water pipe is only expected to get tighter. Craig Kessler, the SCGA’s Director of Governmental Affairs, noted that there is a statewide mandate to reduce water use 20 percent by 2020 (subject to review in 2015). “We’re way ahead of the curve in Los Angeles,” he said, “because the golf industry is already meeting those 20-percent goals.”
The frustrating part for the industry is that a sharp reduction in water use doesn’t result in a corresponding drop in the water bill. When consumers conserve, the revenues for entities like the MWD go down, yet its costs for getting water to customers remain the same. So rates logically go up.
“The business model for water delivery remains – and probably will remain for some time to come – cost recovery,” Kessler said. “So, if a golf facility reduces consumption 20-30 percent, it will not reduce its water bill 20-30 percent. You tread water, as it were. The only real incentive the industry has is, ‘Well, you’re really going to be in trouble if you don’t do these [conservation] things.’ ”
So, even in the face of those deluges in early spring, recreational golfers will have to adjust their expectations when stepping onto a golf course. The USGA champions a “Firm and Fast” initiative, hoping to undermine the thinking that verdant parklands represent an ideal for the sport.
Mike Huck, a former USGA agronomist who is a private consultant on turfgrass management in Southern California, said, “From the standpoint of the health of the turf, it’s better to be a little on the drier side, and not so lush and green.”
Besides, austere conservation measures might have an ancillary benefit for the golfer. Heaney said, “People spend a lot of money trying to get 10 extra yards on a piece of equipment, whereas their superintendent can get them 10 extra yards within a month just by reducing the amount of water he uses on a course that may be over-watered.”
For an update on State Water Project allocation, click here.
For a report on the rising cost of water in Southern California, click here.