Article provided by Craig Kessler, SCGA

Monday, March 27, 2023

Mother Nature may be blessing us, and the state legislature may be giving us a rest, but the fundamentals that make the surcease so welcome remain firmly in place. 

First up, Mother Nature.

With the Northern Sierra snowpack at near record levels and likely to hit record levels before April 1, and the Southern Sierra snowpack already at record levels:

  • Governor Newsom has rescinded most of the elements of last year’s emergency drought order, including the call for all water suppliers to invoke Level 2 of their water shortage contingency plans, otherwise known as 20% reductions;
  • State Water Project allocations are up to 75% and likely to go higher after April 1;
  • MWD has rescinded the 35% curtailment order it issued to 7 million of its customers last June; and
  • The state’s two largest reservoirs are at 78 and 82 percent of capacity before the spring snowmelt; what 60 days ago was worry about running perilously short of water has been replaced by worry about flooding.

On the other hand, snowpack and surface water are but two of California’s sources of homegrown fresh water.  The other is groundwater.  And while you are likely aware that one great precipitation year doesn’t refill groundwater basins the same way that rain and snowmelt fill reservoirs, you may not be aware that the gains made in the wet years of the 20th Century were never enough to offset the pumping that occurred during the non-wet years in between.  Estimates of the amount of subsurface water California has lost since its entry into the American Union in 1850 range from 110 million acre-feet to 140 million acre-feet in just the Central Valley alone.  Other areas have fared better, but there have been long-term losses, nonetheless.  The great exception is the Coachella Valley, which has for the most part kept its aquifer in a state of replenishment. 

But hovering over both the Coachella Valley “exception” and the rest of Southern California is that other great source of imported water – the Colorado Basin.  One good year in California cannot and will not do much to raise the levels of those two mega-reservoirs known as Lake Mead and Lake Powell that supply water from the Colorado Basin.  The water levels in both, which are at roughly 28% of capacity, barely above “dead pool” in terms of their ability to generate electricity, won’t rise much based off this one wet winter.  And given that those levels were at 50% in 2014 when the state stared down its last spike in the current 20-year megadrought, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the federal government has directed the seven states that form the Colorado Compact to come to agreement on ceding some portion of their extant allotments now to tide the Basin over until 2026 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that 2-4 million-acre-feet of allocation must be ceded on a permanent basis.  The hotter, drier conditions that have given rise to the worst drought in the Basin in 1,200 years aren’t receding anytime soon.

While California’s six other partners in the Colorado Compact don’t really believe their recent proposal to ignore senior water rights, past agreements, and federally sanctioned allocation formulas in favor an evaporation methodology that just happens to repose almost all the burden of ceding 2-4-million-acre-feet of water on California is going to come to fruition, they have succeeded in making clear that the days of slavish adherence to all those past arrangements that taken together have come to be known as the “Law of the River” are over.  A new day not yet determined and not knowable is upon us, but this much we do know:  That the “new day” won’t include the generous and disproportionate Colorado River allocation upon which California has long relied for its full complement of imports.  It’s not a matter of whether; just of how much. 

No doubt California will cede a portion of its current allocation within a framework that doesn’t concede any of its rights under the “Law of the River,” but it will cede a portion on some basis to bring the Basin upon which 40 million Americans rely into some semblance of stasis.  California has done just that before – most recently in the form of 2003’s Quantification Settlement Agreement in which the state permanently reduced its Colorado River water use by 800,000 acre-feet per year through various water management programs that turned out to be the largest agricultural-to-urban water conservation and transfer agreement in American history.  And California will do it again.  And that will have an impact separate and apart from what happens in the Sierra Nevada. 

But with the reprieve we just got in the form of record rains and snows, we’ve gained some time to harvest the fruits of some of the investments Southern California has made in constructing the water capture, storage, and conveyance mechanisms better suited to 21st Century realities than the 20th Century infrastructure that is no longer capable of meeting the needs of a 40-million person state that represents the 5th largest economy in the world – e.g., stormwater capture, aquifer replenishment, potable and non-potable reuse, desalination.  Example:  The parcel fee measure that 70% of Los Angeles County’s voters approved in 2018 to fund stormwater capture cum various forms of reuse. 

More specifically, golf can use the reprieve to gain the attention of policymakers and water wholesalers/retailers for the dispensations and programs capable of allowing for those kinds of long-term changes like re-grassing, turf removal, lake relining, and irrigation upgrades that taken together over time permanently reduce water consumption between drought emergencies.  Crises and emergencies crowd out long-term policy thinking in favor of short-term crisis management.  Moments like these are the only moments when golf can gain the attention of policymakers to entertain longer term strategies and tactics for aligning golf with what is really a state of permanent drought, or if you prefer, permanent deprivation, in an effort to keep the game an integral part of Southern California’s recreational lifestyle.  A “sunbelt” without golf is not much of a sunbelt. 

Next up, the 2023 legislative session.

There are no AB 672’s or 1910’s in this year’s queue of bills.  From that we can take some solace in having demonstrated in the last two legislative sessions that as the Los Angeles Times pointed out in its 2022 Sunday editorial on AB 1910:  While the housing crisis militates in strong favor of at least considering any and all ideas with the slightest possibility of ameliorating a critical housing shortage, the municipal golf courses are near the bottom of a long list of much better places to address it.  [Paraphrase, not a quote]

On the other hand . . . AB 1910 may have been enough of a crude overreach that golf was able to awaken enough of the state’s 3.5 million golfers to a danger so obvious that even a community as complacent as golf was able to rally enough of its members to take action – a community that had so long been asleep at the legislative switch that the opposition came as a genuine surprise to the proponents of the bill.  Caveat:  You only surprise once, particularly those who are active in politics.  As the laws keep evolving to prefer housing over parks, open space, and recreation, golf cannot rest content that it can merely duplicate last year’s campaign and expect the same successful result.

To that end we are tracking a slew of bills that continue to amend the Surplus Land Act to give affordable housing priority over open space/recreation, and we are tracking a slew of bills that bypass local control in favor of truncated ministerial approval processes for certain kinds of housing projects.

It’s not that any of these bills take aim at golf per se, but as a sector that encumbers substantial tracts of land in the hearts of many of California’s densest cities and suburbs, golf has to recognize that ONLY to the degree to which the communities in which these tracts are located consider those golf courses genuine community assets environmentally, socially, and otherwise will those tracts remain golf courses in the long term.  To suggest that the economic argument for their continued existence rings hollow is to understate the weakness of that argument.  One need only take a look at what constitutes the golf community in the City of Los Angeles, the nation’s 2nd largest city smack in the middle of the nation’s largest golf market, where the only golf that exists today is either private club or municipal.  Once the site of myriad daily fee golf courses, Los Angeles today is home to none.  That should tell one all one needs to know about the financial fecundity of golf versus the other kinds of land uses that have displaced it.  Yet it seems that we have to keep repeating it over and over again to crack through some of the game’s leadership organizations.

One bill of interest that doesn’t take aim at golf but poses dangers nonetheless is Chris Ward’s (D-San Diego) AB 68.  Click here to read the full text of the bill.  What piques our interest are the organizations sponsoring the bill – YIMBY (Yes in my Backyard), the group that sponsored and pushed the hardest for AB 1910, and The Nature Conservancy, a mainstream environmental organization that by virtue of this co-sponsorship has determined that solving the housing shortage by developing only in already densely settled urban environments represents a meld between the housing crisis and environmentalism – or as the title of last Friday’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times co-authored by YIMBY’s Chief Operating Officer Melissa Breach and the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Sustainable and Resilient Communities Liz O’Donoghue more directly put the proposition:  “California’s housing shortage is an environmental problem.”

As we have written more than once and always with proper credit to James Carville, “it’s the land, stupid.”  It’s clear that this YIMBY/Nature Conservancy alliance that announces itself as “California’s housing shortage is an environmental problem” is not likely to consider a municipal golf course a park, green space, or environmental refuge for the purposes of preservation.  And we doubt they’ll see much wisdom in continuing to tax private equity golf clubs in tony urban neighborhoods as open space.  But as we learned in last year’s AB 1910 episode, there are many urban legislators who don’t share their view of golf, and it is to those legislators that golf must continue to conduct itself to make true a narrative that positions golf courses as community assets environmentally, socially, and otherwise.  Make “true” with deeds, not with “spin” as some sort of public relations yarn. 

As for the fate of AB 68 in the 2023 session suffice it to say that the California Building Industry, which was silent during the AB 1910 episode, has called the bill a “housing killer,” and the California Chamber of Commerce has put it on its 2023 short list of “job killers.”  We’ll be watching to see what Assembly Housing & Community Development Committee Chair Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) does with it.  The Oakland Assemblymember, who many find the odds-on favorite to assume the Chairmanship of the Assembly Budget Committee when Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) assumes the Speakership from Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) in July, was a vocal supporter of AB 1910 and opposes moving from 6% to 7% the percentage of California land mass dedicated to developed space. 

Of the water bills with traction in the 2023 session, bills like Laura Friedman’s (D-Burbank) effort to curtail the use of potable irrigation on non-functional turf (AB 1572 & 1573), none seek to recategorize golf as non-functional or to take golf out of the class of “Special Landscape Areas” (SLA’s) that in California law protect the use of turf in parks, cemeteries, sports fields, and golf courses.  But we track them nonetheless, because there are organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that persist in trying to change the biological needs (evapotranspiration factor) of turf through legislative/regulatory fiat.  Again, golf’s response cannot be to simply oppose such things, but as golf has done with the California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) in its continuing updates of the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), propose regulatory paradigms that guarantee the game’s use of less water in ways consistent as opposed to inconsistent with nature, biology, and sound agronomic/business practices. 

However, there is one water bill, or more accurately companion bills in the Assembly and Senate, that don’t have traction in our opinion but bear close scrutiny for what they portend.  At this point Assembly Member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan’s (D-Portola Valley) AB 460 and Senator Ben Allen’s (D-Redondo Beach) SB 389 are more the opening of a conversation than an effort to get something passed of substantial impact this year.  And that’s the point – this year.  The conversation it opens, and we might add actually opened at the policy committee level as more tutorial than bill vetting, is in sync with so much else that suffuses the moment in water law, legislation, regulation, and just plain discussion.

While the details of both are complicated, suffice it to conclude, as have most legal and academic analyses, that AB 460 and SB 389 would undermine existing legal protections for pre-1914 and riparian water rights and result in significant changes to how California’s water rights system are administered – rights and arrangements as sacred and established if not more firmly established than parallel rights and arrangements held by California in the Colorado Compact. 

Click here to read the 8-page “Adapting Water Rights to our 21st Century Climate” document that was used by the Water Parks & Wildlife Committee to introduce AB 460 to the members at their February 28 “informational hearing.”  It’s a veritable rewrite of much of California’s water law. 

Whether the Colorado Basin or certain longstanding water rights, the facts on the climatological ground are going to increasingly govern who gets what when and how than rights accorded and laws firmly established in a past that has been overtaken by new realities.  The process promises to be painful and acrimonious to say the least, but golf fails to pay close heed and engage in the discussion at its great peril. 

Engage in the discussion and get proactively involved at every level thereof, that is.  And while we’re at it, perhaps use the reprieve Mother Nature has blessed us with and the surcease from virulent anti-golf legislation that last year’s successful AB 1910 has earned us to take a hard look at just how well prepared the game is to deal with the “fundamental” challenges that remain so firmly in place.