Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Long a symbol of water profligacy, some courses have been conserving for years. Others have not.
To the rest of the country, there are perhaps three classic symbols of California water profligacy: Bright green front lawns, swimming pools, and sprawling golf courses.
The image of sprinkler sin is especially vivid in places like the Coachella Valley, home to the "desert oasis" of Palm Springs and the largest concentration of golf courses in the country. According to a 2013 report by the California Alliance for Golf, golf courses make up about 3.5 percent of the total turfgrass in California, and use an estimated 324,246 acre-feet—almost 300 million gallons—for irrigation every year. Courses in the southwest part of the state, including the Coachella Valley, make up more than two-thirds of that amount, due to high evaporation rates from the hot, dry air.
With California now in its fourth year of devastating drought, Governor Jerry Brown issued a first-of-its-kind executive order last week, mandating a 25 percent reduction in water use statewide. Brown specifically called on California's 900-plus golf courses as needing special restrictions in order to meet that significant reduction.
Yet California golf advocates say they've got a undeservedly bad rap. "We've got a target on our back, and it isn't fair," says Jim Ferrin, a government relations representative with the California Golf Course Superintendents Association. "In terms of potable water, parks and golf courses use just one percent across the state."
It's true—residential and commercial customers account for about 20 percent of all water use across the state, while agriculture drinks up the rest. Of course, golf courses serve only a fraction of the state's population.
Still, says Ferrin, California's golf-course managers are experts in turf management. Water conservation has been a strategic part of the long-term business plan for many courses across the state. Ferrin estimates that one-third of the state's courses use non-potable, reclaimed water, and that the goal is to get 100 percent on board. It can be a lengthy, expensive process to install the pipes and facilities needed to divert the water, however, and many golf courses haven't been given the go-ahead by their local water agencies.
Meanwhile, many courses have been reducing their turfgrass footprint, and replacing old sprinkler heads with more efficient ones, that are individually controllable and moisture-responsive. Ferrin thinks about 75 percent of the state's courses have these kinds of high-tech sprinklers. "Just because a course is super green, doesn't mean it's not super water-efficient," he says. He adds that many players appreciate the slightly drier, less "pluggy" grass.
"We've been dealing with water issues since way before this current drought,” says Craig Kessler, government affairs director for the Southern California Golf Association, told the LA Daily News. “The golf industry in LA has been on a 20 percent diet since 2009, during the last serious drought.”
Yet not all golf courses have been conserving equally. The Coachella Valley Water District, for example, only started offering golf courses turf-removal rebates in January. Last month, the district sent letters to golf course managers containing individualized "water budgets" with a goal of 10 percent water reduction overall, according to The Desert Sun. These are mere tokens, compared to the aggressive conservation measures that course managers have taken in other regions. Kessler worries that Brown's reductions will punish the golf industry across the board.
"There’s a misguided sense of shared sacrifice," he says. "It’s not equal sacrifice if industries and cities have been sacrificing for years."
It's still not clear how the new mandate will impact water allocations to the golf industry. Ultimately, it's up to local water agencies to interpret the governor's order. They'll issue specific directives on how water will be allocated accordingly in their districts in the next month or so. What those agencies decide will rule the fate of the hundreds of courses using California's potable water.
Exempt, however, will be the numerous desert courses that draw ever-shrinking groundwater from private, onsite wells. Whether they step up to the plate to conserve water on a voluntarily basis will be just another way of measuring the success of Brown's mandate—and gauging the future of a state in crisis.