Local golf courses going from green to brown amid drought


As San Luis Obispo County enters its fourth year of exceptional drought, the county’s golf courses are taking steps to conserve water.

These steps include letting some fairways go brown and replanting courses with more drought-tolerant grass varieties. As a result, golfers are finding more challenging playing conditions on some courses — and, in some cases, that’s leading to fewer rounds of golf and declining revenue.

“Golfers have to think a lot more than they usually do about what the ball will do when it lands, making club selection and targets significantly more important than they usually are,” said Nick Franco, county parks director.

The county parks department operates three courses in the county at Morro Bay, Dairy Creek and Chalk Mountain in Atascadero. All three use reclaimed water and have reduced their water consumption by more than 25 percent over the past two years, said Josh Heptig, county golf superintendent.

“Golf superintendents understand the value of water as it is the life blood of our operations and is often the largest cost within a budget so we conserve at every possible opportunity,” he said.

Dairy Creek has been hardest hit. It irrigates with reclaimed water from the nearby California Men’s Colony prison, but its supply has been cut by 60 percent to 70 percent.

As a result, only greens and tee boxes are watered and fairways and roughs have gone brown. Brown fairways are harder and increase the likelihood that golfers will lose a ball and have much more challenging shots.

This has caused significant dissatisfaction among some of the golfers, Heptig said.

“Dairy Creek suffered a loss of 45 percent of our rounds from July to November last year, and as our turf begins to turn hues of brown this year, we are preparing for losses to possibly be even greater,” he said.

The county spent as much as $10,000 during the fall and winter planting drought-tolerant ryegrass. It is also using a variety of techniques to reduce water use including using computerized irrigation programs and watering at night to minimize drift and evaporation.

Hunter Ranch Golf Course in Paso Robles recently spent $150,000 replanting its fairways with a hybrid Bermuda grass that reduced irrigation by 25 percent to 30 percent, said John Carson, general manager.

Hunter Ranch, a privately-owned golf course, and the county also use wetting agents and soil penetrants to reduce the time needed to get water into the grass root zone. They also perform frequent irrigation audits to ensure that the irrigation systems are at maximum efficiency.

Heptig estimates that golf directly contributes $20 million to the county’s economy. Most of the golfers who use the county courses are senior citizens.

“Golf is often a stable recreational activity utilized by these senior residents to maintain their physical, mental, competitive and social health,” he said.

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