Mandatory water restrictions in a drought have placed blame on the golf industry, but is it a fair criticism?

In April, when Gov. Jerry Brown stood on a dry patch of ground, bereft of snow, in the Sierra Nevada and announced sweeping water cuts, he painted a big red bull’s-eye on California’s 860 golf courses. In explaining mandatory water-use restrictions amid a four-year drought, these were some of the initial words out of Brown’s mouth: “It’s going to affect golf courses, people’s lawns, universities, campuses, all sorts of institutions …” Golf courses: top of the list. If not in fact, then certainly in perception. Brown’s speech wasn’t even over and texts and emails were flying among those in the golf industry. In the past several years many golf course operators and owners believe they have taken big strides in reducing their water use. They were forced into their efforts not because of a governmental mandate, but some for their very survival. But most couldn’t say they were surprised by such a high-profile call-out by the governor. In political waters, golf courses are among the largest plots of grass seen by the public, and it makes them the Green Giant of water targets.

“People are upset,” said Clayton Crockett, the general manager of the Bonita Golf Course. “They come into our pro shop pretty aggressively. They see all of that grass and it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re out of water in California. What are you doing?’ It’s really a lack of education on their part.”

Craig Kessler serves as one of the golf industry’s teachers. As the Southern California Golf Association’s director of public affairs, Kessler has been on the front lines of the golf and water battle for years, spending much of his time speaking to policymakers and government agencies to educate and update them on golf’s effort to save water.

One of the first things Kessler points out is that golf uses less than 1 percent (.7) of all drinking water in the state, while it contributes $13 billion to California’s economy and supports 130,000 jobs.

“If the entire golf industry were to disappear tomorrow, we would notice no difference in the water situation or the water supply,” Kessler said. “What we would notice is that loss of $13 billion and 130,000 jobs.”

There is no question golf courses require a significant amount of water. The average 18-hole championship course covers from 100 to 120 acres and conservatively uses 90 million gallons of water per year. If the average household uses about 131,000 gallons per year, a figure offered in a 2011 study by the California Department of Water Resources, 90 million gallons translates into a supply for 685 families.

What goes unrealized by much of the public, Kessler said, is that many courses are using either reclaimed or well water that doesn’t affect the supply of drinking water. He said 30 percent of the courses in the state use “purple pipe” recycled water.

In a San Diego Union-Tribune survey of courses in the county, only seven of 36 facilities used public-access potable water as their primary source. Water acquired from wells on property was the most common source, followed by recycled. Most courses do mix in some potable water on the greens, which are most sensitive to high mineral and salt content.

“If we didn’t have well water we wouldn’t be in business,” Crockett, the Bonita GM, said. “We would have to shrink our manageable turf area to a point where it wouldn’t be any fun to golf. We’ve run the numbers, and it just wouldn’t work (buying potable water). I can’t imagine courses lasting long if that’s all they have.”

Water prices have doubled since 2006 and much steeper increases are expected over the next couple of years if the drought continues. The operators of Carmel Highland in Rancho Peñasquitos cited a $500,000 annual water bill as a key reason for closing the course in March. Stevinson Ranch in Madera County said recently it is closing because of water issues. The owners are a farming entity and said they want to focus their water use on the lucrative almond industry.

In Southern California, the economic pressures pushed golf course operators into conservation years ago, and the industry here considers itself among the forerunners of drought planning.

To save on water use and its costs, many courses have installed sophisticated irrigation systems in which each sprinkler head is controlled by computer. They also have weather stations that monitor ET — evapotranspiration, which measures the transfer of water from the ground to the air.

If it rains, the ET is zero, said Dave Waymire, a regional agronomist for American Golf who oversees 31 properties. If it’s cloudy and cool, the grass might need one-tenth of an inch in a single watering. If it’s windy and warm, it will need more.

“It’s easier to overwater than underwater,” Waymire said, “but the playability isn’t improved. I think most people would much rather have a drier course.”

Courses have moved to changing their turf. At Steele Canyon in Jamul, GM Colin Radchenko said his 27-hole facility installed all Bermuda grass except on the greens, and because Bermuda is heartier it has made a significant impact on the water bill. Many facilities previously overseeded in the winter to keep the grass green, but now have adopted a phrase promoted by the U.S. Golf Association: “Brown is the new green.”

The new green is actually a mosaic of native grasses, shaved bark and decomposed granite — anything that will still be attractive but use less water.

In the evolution of area golf courses, 2014-15 likely will be remembered for the days of the Great Turf Rush.

Eliminating turf to reduce water use is nothing new. Barona Creek Golf Club in Lakeside did so in 2008, and the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad took out 40 acres of grass in a 2011 renovation of its Champions Course.

But when the Metropolitan Water District announced that it was offering $100 million in rebates for homeowners and businesses who eliminated turf — $2 for every square foot — a slow-moving parade of courses turned into a stampede.

Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club, one of the most revered private facilities in Southern California, was among the first to dive in, receiving $1.6 million to remove 18 acres of turf. Among those that followed were Del Mar Country Club, Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club, San Vicente Golf Resort and Steele Canyon Golf Club.

“Gosh, when they’re going to foot the bill I wouldn’t know why you wouldn’t take advantage of it,” said John Rathbun, the head pro at San Vicente, which is receiving $1.6 million to remove 18 acres.

Rathbun said the renovation is ongoing and most of the turf that was removed came from between the fairways. It was replaced with wood shavings from trees that were cut down or with hydroseeding of native plants.

“The board and the membership are really behind it,” Rathbun said. “They see how it’s been transforming the course. It’s going to be so cool when it’s done.”

Bob Muir, a spokesman for MWD, said 54 requests for turf rebate, totaling 93 million square feet, have been received. Of those, he said 27 have been preapproved and another three, including Rancho Santa Fe, have received their full payment. For the 27 courses not preapproved and those pondering a big project, the money well may run dry. At a meeting on May 26, MWD approved an additional $350 million toward turf-removal rebates in the next fiscal year. However, it capped commercial rebates at $25,000 per user, eliminating the incentive for golf courses because that figure doesn’t make renovation feasible.

Kessler, of the SCGA, said he believes MWD likely was influenced by political pressure from those who perceived golf as a well-off industry that didn’t need the financial help.

“MWD accomplished what it wanted to,” Kessler said. “The golf industry has responded and has massively reduced its turf. It’s been very effective.

“But it offended the populist sensibility. Some of those people who prefer to talk about whether we should have grass in parks and golf courses saw this as a moment to create a division. They just focused on the size of the check.”

Kessler said he believes most golf courses in Southern California are in a good position to withstand further water restrictions this year. Beyond 2015, if the drought continues, there remains a lot of uncertainty.

“I think El Niño is going to happen this year,” Waymire said. “If it doesn’t, we’re going to have another dry year. The numbers (on water restriction) could go to 40 percent. Now you’re going to see those dry areas coming into fairways. You’re going to risk losing people. There are going to be other golf courses that probably close.

“As a golf industry, we’re ready for this and we’ll do what we need to do. But it’s going to get more difficult.”

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