California’s Golf Courses Are Getting ‘Greener’

The golf industry appears reasonably well-positioned to deal with the state’s stringent new water restrictions


Despite an unexpected regulatory wrinkle last week that could have a transformative impact on the lush desert golf courses in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, the California golf industry appears reasonably well-positioned to deal with the state’s stringent new water restrictions. To combat California’s extreme four-year drought, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order earlier this month requiring 25% cutbacks in potable urban water usage—the first mandatory restrictions in state history. They are slated to go into effect by early June.

“Golf isn’t seeing the same blunderbuss panic that we saw in response to previous droughts,” said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA). “There will be hardships, but in general it’s manageable.”

Most of California’s 900-plus golf courses, particularly those in the dryer southern half of the state, have been working on conservation for years with their local water districts. More than a third are hooked up to recycled water, which does not fall under the new restrictions. Many have replaced unnecessary acres of maintained turf with drought-tolerant native plants and installed high-efficiency irrigation systems, which by themselves can reduce water usage by up to 20%.The spiraling cost of water is the primary motivation. In the Los Angeles area, for example, water supplied by the umbrella Metropolitan Water District has more than doubled in cost since 2005. Water is often the biggest single budget item for a golf course, costing as much as $700,000 a year.

Even with drought-management plans at the ready, however, California golf operators have concerns. Chief among them is fairness to courses that have already taken significant conservation steps. A 25% cutback for a course that has cut its water usage to the bone could mean taking holes out of play. That would put it at a huge competitive disadvantage to a heretofore profligate course down the street that might satisfy the new requirements simply by throwing less water on its rough and fixing some leaky pipes.

Most of the responsibility for implementing the cutbacks falls on the more than 400 individual water districts in California. The State Water Resources Control Board has given each district specific water conservation goals. They range from 36% cutbacks for districts that serve communities like Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, where per capita water usage is high, to 8% for San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Compton in east Los Angeles, where per capita usage is low. Within each district, however, golf courses and other commercial users must lobby to make a case for special treatment based on past performance.

In a revised draft of the regulations issued last Saturday, the biggest surprise for golf was the Board’s determination that “independent sources of water supply”—primarily that means water pumped from private wells—would be subject to 25% cutbacks. Historically in California, unlike in most states, underground water has been largely unregulated by the state and considered to be the property of the land that sits atop it. Many people in golf expected that to remain the case.

Inexpensive ground water is the basis for the golf-driven economy of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, whose more than 120 courses—including famous ones like PGA West, La Quinta Country Club and Mission Hills that host annual PGA Tour and LPGA events—depend in whole or in part on water pumped from the ground. The ancient aquifer beneath the desert floor is so vast (years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey gave up estimating how large it was when researchers reached 12 trillion gallons) that water rates in the Coachella Valley are less than half what they are in Los Angeles. As a result, there has been little incentive for courses, or towns and residents, to scale back on lush landscapes.

Now, apparently, there will be.

Compared with the more or less orderly water-saving initiatives over the past five years in Los Angeles, San Diego and other parts of the state, a sudden 25% cutback in ground water usage in the Coachella Valley could be chaotic. The Board won’t require courses to report their ground-water savings, only that they keep records should people complain. “Enforcement by complaint,” Kessler said. Courses in the Valley do have more “conservation cards” to play than in other parts of the state, since until now conservation there hasn’t been as high a priority. But they also face unique challenges, such as disruptions to play caused by blown sand if too much maintained turf is taken out of play. Members of the California Alliance for Golf, an industry trade group, spent an hour on the phone Monday with the authors of the new regulations. Tweaks remain possible, but one way or another, the courses around Palm Springs face significant changes soon.

Another challenge for golf is how conspicuously it uses water. Oil refineries, food and beverage processing and microchip manufacturing companies use comparable amounts of water, but do so behind factory walls. A single semiconductor chip can take more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce. Golf’s lushly green product, by contrast, is on display for anyone driving past to shake a fists at. Golf in California generates $13.1 billion in economic activity and employs 128,000 people, according to a 2013 study by the California Alliance for Golf. But the game is not viewed kindly by all.

If the current drought continues unabated into 2016, there will probably be fatalities. Most vulnerable are courses that aren’t located near recycled water pipelines and are already weakened by the last recession and a shrinking golf market.

Even so, golf will likely remain popular in California. The famous courses on the Monterey Peninsula, including Pebble Beach, are making do just fine with 30% less water than they used four years ago. Poppy Hills there just finished a renovation that reduced to 50 acres the total fairway turf on the course—half what typical courses elsewhere maintain.

In recent years the U.S. Golf Association has been trying to change the public’s perception that golf needs to be lush to be fun. Its recent U.S. Open sites—Pinehurst last year, with sandy waste areas bordering the fairways, Chambers Bay in Washington this June, with firm, treeless fairways—were specifically chosen to help make that point. Consider California a beta test site.