Can Coachella Valley golf courses save water during the drought?

By: , The Desert Sun

For golf course architect John Fought, taking two lakes out of the South Course at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert as part of a water-reduction project makes perfect sense.

“Water is an unnatural hazard in the desert,” said Fought, a noted architect who has contracted with Ironwood to oversee the turf removal project at the 36-hole facility in the hills of south Palm Desert.

With California still in the grips of a statewide drought and with state mandates for water reduction still in force, Ironwood is among numerous desert golf courses working to cut water usage through a variety of methods. At Ironwood, course officials are removing 10.45 acres of turf and surface water this summer, part of a three-year plan to eliminate 40 acres of irrigated turf and surface water from the South Course’s 239 acres.

Josh Tanner, general manager at Ironwood, believes the turf reduction and updated irrigation systems will propel Ironwood well past the mandated 25 percent reduction the state wants.

The efforts at Ironwood and other desert golf courses come as a Desert Sun analysis of water district data found that golf courses in the Coachella Valley reduced water usage just 8 percent in the 12-month period ending in May compared to the same period ending in 2013. That’s short of the 25 percent state reduction mandates.

Mark Cupit, head golf superintendent at Ironwood, said the removal of the 13 acres of turf last year led to a reduction from 2,110.9 acre feet of groundwater for 2014-15 to 1,698.7 acres feet in 2015-16, according to Coachella Valley Water District meter readings. That’s a savings of 412.2 acre-feet, or 19.5 percent year over year. One acre-foot is 325,850 gallons of water. Ironwood, above the desert floor in Palm Desert, pumps its water from underground since Colorado River water and recycled water are not available to the course.

Fought, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who has designed or renovated more than two dozen courses across the country, including the Players Course at Indian Wells Golf Resort, believes such turf reduction and water savings must be achieved without impacting the playability of the South Course, the home each spring of a U.S. Open local qualifying tournament. That’s a consideration in turf reduction that is important to golfers, though it might be lost on non-golfers.

“You are not a bull in a china closet. You don’t just blow everything up,” Fought said. “We are trying to do it in a way where, I think when they get everything done, it will be considerably better.”

When Ironwood took out 13 acres of turf in 2015, it was all grass. This year, the project includes taking out two lakes on the golf course, one on the par-3 fourth hole and another on the par-5 fifth hole. Those lakes had a combined 1.2 acres of surface areas.

“The water district told us we were losing about six feet of water a year just through evaporation from a lake that was just sitting there,” Fought said. Tanner pointed out that the liners in the lakes were old, so they likely were leaking water as well, adding to the water loss.

The rest of the work is on reducing turf in non-playing areas, either grassed areas between holes or areas on holes where golf balls rarely, if ever, land. For that work, Fought’s background as an architect makes the work perhaps different than other turf-reduction projects.

“Landscape architects know more about plants, but they don’t really know where to take the turf out. They just see green and they figure it is all the same,” Fought said. “It’s not on a golf course. I have worked a lot in Arizona, and you’ve got to have turf where people hit the ball off line the most, which is in the tee shot landing zone. So those areas are a little bigger and other areas that are not played, those we can take out. And we can plant a lot more drought-tolerant plants or just go straight sand and decorate it with more native-type vegetation.”

Tanner said that while the current work is not a direct response to state mandates over the current drought, the Ironwood membership approved the work because of a growing awareness even four years ago that water usage and expenditures needed to be reduced.

“We commissioned John over four years ago to create drawings and construction plans to do this,” Tanner said. “It went through the committee process for two years, vetted it, did the financial analysis, brought it to the members for a vote and the members approved it. The members were very supportive of converting turf and using less water.”

While the water savings are immediate, the financial return for Ironwood will take a little longer. Tanner said the turf-reduction project is costing Ironwood $27,000 an acre, including removal of the turf, changing irrigation heads to drip irrigation and buying and planting drought-resistant plants. The project is also taking out 117 water-thirsty trees and replacing them with 107 water-friendly ironwood and mesquite trees.

Even with CVWD incentives of $15,000 per acre of removed turf up to seven acres, Ironwood loses money on the direct turf replacement. But Tanner said the club estimates a return on investment – reductions in water and electricity costs, fertilizers and other chemicals and man hours from reduced mowing and no autumn overseeding in the new native areas – of $5,000 a year per acres once the work is done.

Other courses look to save water

Ironwood is hardly alone in working on turf removal and irrigation updates at desert courses. At the 36-hole Mountain Vista Golf Club at Sun City Palm Desert, golf course superintendent Tyler Truman reports a reduction of 410 acre-feet of water usage between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 fiscal years.

“We are looking at select areas of the golf course and moving them over from turf to desert landscaping,” said Truman, who has been at Mountain Vista for five years. Truman oversees all 500 acres of turf on the golf courses, parks and common areas at the community as well as all desert landscaped areas.

An example of how water can be saved is one acre of turf on the seventh hole of Mountain Vista’s San Gorgonio course. Truman’s staff removed the grass as well as 20 sprinkler heads that put out eight gallons of water per minute. For a 10-minute watering, that was 1,600 gallons of water. With 217 new drip irrigators for plants in the area using just two gallons a minute, the savings for a 10-minute watering is 1,166 gallons of water.

This summer, Truman and his staff have removed that acre of turf, about three acres near the Mountain Vista clubhouse with more acres scheduled to be removed later this summer. Truman added that seven years ago, all the lakes on the Mountain Vista Santa Rosa Course were drained to replace old liners that were allowing water to leak into the ground. That course will get a new, more efficient irrigation system next spring, he said.

But if these courses are working on savings of up to 20 percent in some cases, why is the overall water reduction in the Desert Sun analysis just 8 percent over 2013 levels? According to Craig Kessler of the Southern California Golf Association, Ironwood is the exception at the moment, not the rule.

“Ironwood is a bit of an outlier,” said Kessler, director of government affairs for the SCGA. “They have been at this for four or five years. Most of the courses have only been taking dead aim at the problem in the last two years. There is a lag time at most golf courses of two or three years. Ironwood is a dramatic example. They have removed a lot of turf and have seen results.”

Kessler, who said he agrees with the Desert Sun’s number of just an 8 percent water reduction by desert golf courses since 2013, said he is confident that number will rise as courses begin making changes that have taken a year or so to plan and in some cases be approved by memberships at clubs. He also said that at many courses, like with Ironwood’s three-year plan, changes are being made in phases. That means full water savings might not be measured at courses for another two to three years.

But Kessler added that the lag time only explains part of the low water reduction number now. Despite state mandates and public outcry about water reduction, Kessler said there still must be more education and greater acceptance of the water problem by courses throughout the state, including in the Coachella Valley. While the rest of the state must deal with the issue as a financial problem because of skyrocketing water rates, Coachella Valley courses must look at the issue as a conservation matter, Kessler added.

“Longtime golf courses have to change their practices. There is an ethic, especially among private clubs, to be forward thinking and be part of the leading edge of desert life,” Kessler said. “A lot of golf courses haven’t yet got on that train, and others who are on it haven’t always put their plans into action.”

For Fought, the work he is overseeing at Ironwood is not just about helping the golf course but helping the desert.

“I am a believer that we are stewards of our own domain and that we should be proactive,” Fought said. “I don’t care if we have tons of water here, we are still better by doing this. I do think in the desert southwest, more than any part of the country, we have to be good.”

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