The Water Hazard: How Monterey County Golf Courses Navigated Decades of Water Shortages

By Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel

PEBBLE BEACH >> Landscape architects must come upon the Shore Course with the same timidity that befalls a caricaturist confronted with the Mona Lisa.

Consider the image: jade-colored fairways sweep along a Pacific Ocean pounding insistently at the shore, while bentgrass greens are surrounded by natural rocks and sugary bunkers. Here and there, the horizon is pierced by the jagged scribble of cypress trees.

Part of the stately Monterey Peninsula Country Club, the Shore Course is one of several renowned golf courses on the Monterey Peninsula. This week, three of them — Shore Course, Spyglass Hill and the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links — will play host to the 2015 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

The marquee event emphasizes the region’s golf ties, with 28 courses helping bolster the Monterey County’s $2.3 billion tourist economy. And yet these luxuries have an open secret in an arid, drought-stricken setting where policymakers fight over water like bickering divorcees — they require billions of gallons annually, and no one says a peep.

One reason is that California’s loose groundwater rules have given many courses unfettered access to water. Another is that several courses, including those playing host this week to Bill Murray, Ray Romano, Buster Posey and some of the world’s best golfers, realized long ago that the well was running dry, and decided to do something about it.

That story was the first chapter in a book that is still being written, one that involves litigation, plenty of wheeling and dealing and how communities define themselves. As California’s seemingly interminable drought stretches on, local golf courses have started turning to recycled wastewater, begun to let creeks run dry and even reshaped course layouts.

But another chapter is still to come. While many courses have made impressive strides in adapting low-impact water practices, more still pump unregulated water from aquifers.

That could be about to change. Under California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state’s highest-priority groundwater basins — and several on the Central Coast rank at or near the top — will be forced to examine their long-term sustainability for the first time in state history.

And that means some courses could find themselves playing from a very difficult lie.


The Shore Course is the better-known of two tracks that surround the exclusive Monterey Peninsula Country Club, a stately collection of Spanish Colonial buildings that hosts dinners, drinks and golf outings for some of the Peninsula’s top movers and shakers.

But far from the spacious clubhouse and artfully manicured landscaping is a pitted road that ends at a chain-link fence. Beyond that are a series of run down, one-story buildings around a parking lot cluttered with mowers and other landscaping equipment.

“The not so pretty part of the club,” explains general manager Michael Bowhay, “the nuts and bolts department.”

In one of the modest offices hangs an enormous flat-screen monitor devoted to a single spreadsheet. Each of the 36 holes has a line, with a column for the amount of water it receives. Jarred O’Barr, the assistant golf course superintendent, sits in front of the screen and clicks through to a weather report.

Along with temperature and sky conditions, there are more technical measurements, like the evapotranspiration number that accounts for how much water is lost to the air and sucked up by plant leaves before it can get to the soil. O’Barr uses this information to set the sprinklers for the fairways.

With the greens, he is more specific. He calls up a view of a kidney-shaped green speckled with white circles marking out individual sprinklers. If one isn’t working, this would reveal it.

From the office — or even by using an iPad at home — O’Barr can target specific locations for a bit more, or a bit less, water. The system is hooked up to MPCC’s own weather stations to keep track of what is happening on the golf course.

“A huge part of our business is water and resource allocation,” Bowhay says.


In 1994, the Carmel Area Wastewater District and Pebble Beach Community Services District opened the Wastewater Reclamation Project, which replaced 300 million gallons of drinkable California America Water supplies with recycled water for local recreation facilities — primarily, Pebble Beach’s world-class golf courses.

It is not an overstatement to say the project saved golf in Pebble Beach. It turned water that was literally flushed down the drain into proverbial gold, keeping some of America’s most expensive rounds of golf worth the price of admission.

Mike Niccum, general manager of the Pebble Beach Community Services District, said the project has paid dividends.

“These golf courses are still in pretty good shape,” Niccum says. “I think statewide the golf industry is seeing a lot of golf courses close their doors.”

Bowhay agreed that the courses’ very existence depends on the project, which has also kept those courses on the sidelines of the region’s ongoing water debates.

“We understand and recognize that being on the grid would not be a real good thing, right now particularly,” Bowhay says. “We feel blessed that we have that resource available to us.”

Underwritten by the Pebble Beach Company, it was the Peninsula’s first major recycled water project. The $67 million project was expanded in 2009 to open up the 110-million gallon Forest Lakes Reservoir, and it now provides the courses all the water they need.

“From a business perspective, for the Pebble Beach Company — for Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Spanish Bay — those are key demand-generators for our business. We want those courses to be in the best shape possible for our customers,” said David Stivers, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Pebble Beach Company.

“If we were on Cal Am water with restrictions, it would be tougher to meet the demands of our customers,” he added.

The deal demonstrated not just how recycled water could work, but also the ties between golf courses and growth in a county where water is scarce. The 28 courses on the Peninsula and in the Salinas Valley have the potential to soak up an estimated 2.3 billion gallons of water a year, enough to supply 125,000 residential customers annually given the region’s low daily water usage rates.

In exchange for its financial guarantees — the project doesn’t pay for itself, with the resort covering the rest — the Pebble Beach Company was given the rights to 365 acre-feet of water, or nearly 120 million gallons annually.

The company has turned the allocation into a money-maker by selling the rights to Pebble Beach homeowners for residential expansions. In 2008, a company executive submitted a legal affidavit that Pebble Beach Company has sold 118 acre-feet of the water, netting $24 million.

But those rights are also being used for the development of the controversial Del Monte Forest project, which includes new residences and a hotel. Given the area’s persistent water shortages, it is likely Pebble Beach’s last major development.


Several other county golf courses supplement their water with recycled water. And some, like Seaside’s Bayonet and Black Horse, have installed the pipes to handle it but are waiting for the costs — and the politics — to sort themselves out before the water starts to flow.

The city of Pacific Grove is in the latter stages of a plan to convert to using recycled water at its municipal golf course, a popular oceanside course offering some of the same million-dollar views as Pebble Beach at a fraction of the price. It is one of just two still using Cal Am water to keep the fairways green.

The $5 million project would reinstate a dormant treatment facility within the course itself, providing 125 acre-feet of water annually.

While not much by course standards — some golf courses can use more than twice as much water — Pacific Grove Public Works Superintendant Daniel Goh said the course uses even less water — about 72 acre-feet annually.

But at Cal Am’s prices, the water currently costs the city of 15,000 residents about $500,000. Goh said the project would pay for itself in relatively short order.

The city is awaiting word on state funding, and hopes to have the project up and running by September 2016. Goh says the city wants to make sure its course is sustainable because it is a key part of the community, helping draw people through Pacific Grove’s commercial district.

“That’s one of the driving points behind this, is the longevity of the golf course,” Goh says.

The other Peninsula course still on CalAm water is Monterey’s Del Monte Golf Course, owned by the Pebble Beach Company. Several people contacted for this story said the course’s water supply was unsustainable.

Stivers, however, declined to discuss Del Monte’s water situation.


In the face of the drought, other courses have taken measures to save more water. The public, Salinas-run Fairway Golf Course cut back on watering fairways, where Kikuya grass, a drought-tolerant turf common in California, grows.

“We’re not watering the areas of the course people don’t play on,” says Ross Krocker, who manages the golf operations for the course.

When Carmel Valley Ranch Golf Course renovated its course, they pulled out the turf and replaced it with drought-tolerant “no mow” grass. In landscaping areas and around the hotel, they switched to native plants and a “micro-drip” system.

Carmel Valley’s Quail Lodge & Golf Club has water rights in the overtaxed Carmel Basin — it is the second-largest basin user, behind Cal Am — and state records show the resort uses nearly all of its 253 acre-feet allocation.

But Quail Lodge’s course, which did not respond to requests for comment, is undergoing a renovation. Besides improving playability, course managers are also removing some lakes, converting as many as 12 acres to native landscaping and hoping to cut water use by 10 percent.

Monterey Pines Golf Course went one step beyond, decreasing their playable area. A recent remodel narrowed the fairways and converted many areas to native landscaping. The course supplements well water with reclaimed storm water run-off from Lake Del Monte. Last year they used less than 150 acre feet and hope recent changes will reduce that number even more.


Bob Costa got his start as a golf course superintendent almost 30 years ago. He is currently the vice president of golf course maintenance for both Laguna Seca and Rancho Canada golf courses, runs a landscape water management company and teaches a course in turf grass management at Monterey Peninsula College. He feels golf courses get a bad rap for being green during a drought.

“People see large areas of green, it doesn’t matter what the facts are,” he says.

In the past, when water was easily available with little cost, golf courses did water large tracts of land beyond the course itself. But Costa said these days such areas have been converted to low-water turf or native species, and often aren’t irrigated.

Just as it does at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, technology helps elsewhere, with managers using digital feedback to calculate how much water to spray. Costa further optimizes this amount by paying attention to the sun exposure of different parts of the greens.

“As you develop a feel for the golf course, you can really dial back the amount of water,” he says.

Course managers use “wetting agents” — chemicals added to the water, or scattered across the turf — that increase the efficiency with which plants and soil absorb water. By releasing the tension in water droplets, the water spreads out and is absorbed rather than staying balled up on the surface of the grass or dirt.

Laguna Seca used about 300 acre-feet in the 2013-14 year to water all of their playable area. Costa said some golf courses have been forced by the drought to cut back on irrigation.

“You literally turn the sprinklers off,” he says.

Because the quality of the grass is critical to the game, managers are careful to choose which sprinklers to turn off. They make sure to keep the landing areas irrigated and let the area just beyond the tee, the part a well-struck ball sails over, go dry.

Almost all local managers keep their eyes not just on the sprinklers, but on public opinion as well. The Pajaro Valley Golf Course has well rights, but still cut watering 20-25 percent.

“We are conserving, but the golf course is nice and green,” head pro Mark Darby says, adding that the course wanted to be responsible with water. “Just to be politically correct.”


It isn’t always easy being green.

Seaside’s 2008 renovation of the Bayonet and Black Horse golf courses caught national attention in golf circles. Rising like an oasis from the sandy, shrub-covered Fort Ord, the courses offer tree-lined holes with gorgeous views of Monterey Bay.

When Seaside acquired Bayonet and Black Horse from the military, they came with pumps and water rights. But a legal battle over groundwater in the Seaside area — a fight that has roots in the Carmel Valley — has sent the course’s water supplies down an uncertain path.

Faced with a state order to stop over-pumping the Carmel River basin, Cal Am in 2003, sued to establish water rights in the Seaside Basin, an underground aquifer extending back toward the Salinas Valley.

The suit resulted in the establishment of a “watermaster” to oversee management of the basin. The city of Seaside and multiple golf courses were parties to the settlement, which includes steep over-pumping penalties.

To avoid racking up huge bills for taxpayers, Seaside struck an unusual side deal with the Marina Coast Water District — it traded land for water.

In handing over 17 acres near a Marina Coast reservoir to the district, Seaside got 2,500 acre-feet of potable water, using the allocation to replace what its courses are allowed to pump under the terms of the settlement. And, because the courses are using less water than what they’re entitled to under the terms of the settlement, the city is racking up credits with the watermaster.

Seaside officials say that water could last another two years or so. In the meantime, the company that operates Bayonet and Black Horse has installed an entirely new water distribution system to get ready for a more sustainable supply that mirrors what the Pebble Beach courses are doing.

But the pipes are dry. Without a motivated benefactor like the Pebble Beach Company to underwrite the deal, a planned Marina Coast recycled water project has never penciled out. Without it, Seaside may eventually be at risk of racking up financial penalties to keep its golf courses verdant — a bill that could fall to taxpayers.

“That’s why there’s so much importance put on the regional water project, or groundwater replenishment, or all of these projects,” says Tim O’Halloran, Seaside’s city engineer.

Seaside is also a city with ambition, with several projects in the development pipeline, including a hotel on the iste of its golf courses. O’Halloran said the hotel is a separate matter from the golf course water, but others caution that the issue could end up limiting the city’s growth options.

“The problem is, if they get too used to that water out on the golf course, they won’t have it to give to developments that they would like to do,” said Brian Lee, the Marina Coast Water District’s former interim general manager, before departing the agency recently.

It’s also clear that Seaside has no plans to get out of the golf business.

“That’s our gem up there,” O’Halloran says. “I don’t see them going anywhere.”


But even courses on recycled water aren’t out of the woods. With drought-driven water cutbacks driving people to cut back on home water use, Pebble Beach is beginning to see declines in the amount of available recycled water. Over the summer and fall, it had an impact on the courses.

“Everybody cut back a little, which allowed us to save enough water to get through the dry season,” Pebble Beach Company’s Stivers said.

The Monterey Peninsula Country Club let its driving range go brown, for example. And the club is taking another big step to further reduce water use, pursuing an overhaul of its second course — the Dunes Course — to remove 16 acres of irrigated turf and cut water use there by 25 percent. It is now before the county’s Planning Commission.

More hazards are around the bend. Under the state’s new groundwater law, local management plans must be in place by 2020, potentially signaling several years of fraught political fights with some of the county’s biggest power brokers.

Golf officials acknowledge that change is coming for those that rely on pumps, and want to be part of the solution.

“We’ve kind of known over the years that this was going to be inevitable,” said Jeff Jensen, southwest field representative for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Jensen said his group is sending word to members to get involved in the coming groundwater debates, which are still in their infancy in Monterey County.

“We want to be part of the solution moving forward, not part of the problem,” Jensen said. “As an industry, we realize how critical these groundwater basins are.”

Jason Hoppin can be reached at 726-4363.