Golf courses

Column: Are desert golf courses doing enough to conserve?

Doug Thompson couldn’t believe what he had just been told. His wife, a botanist, was advising a Coachella Valley country club on drought-resistant landscaping, and Thompson, who started talking with the gardener, asked how much water it takes to irrigate a golf course.

“He proudly said they just computerized their system and they were down to 1.2 million gallons per night,” recalls Thompson, an ecologist who leads natural history expeditions. “I thought I hadn’t heard him correctly, so about 30 minutes later I asked again and he said the same thing.”

This conversation took place a few years ago. But amid a prolonged drought that prompted a first-ever federal declaration of water shortages in the Colorado River Basin and sparked calls for greater conservation across California, Thompson and his wife, Robin Kobaly, are became more acutely aware of all the verdant golf courses set in the arid landscape of the Coachella Valley.

How many golf courses?

About 120, many of them side by side on the desert floor, with decorative ponds, fountains and streams. It is one of the highest concentrations of golf courses in the world.

“From the homework we’ve done…the smaller courses use at least several hundred thousand gallons per night, but the larger courses are in the range of a million gallons or more,” Thompson said. .

“It’s not just an outrage,” he added, “but several months of the year it’s too hot to play golf in the desert, and yet the watering continues.”

When I met Thompson and Kobaly in the desert, they told me they weren’t trying to shut down the golf industry, and I agree with them on that. There would be no Palm Springs without golf, just as there would be no Rat Pack without Sinatra. The industry employs several thousand people, attracts hordes of snowbirds and injects up to $1 billion into the local economy.

But the planet is now spinning on a rotisserie, roasting and grilling in ways that transform landscapes and force us to adapt. Thompson and Kobaly wonder why golf courses aren’t doing more to conserve.

“This water crisis is huge,” Thompson said. “They’ll ask us to do things like not leaving the water running when you brush your teeth, and it’s illegal to wash your car unless you turn off the valve on the hose. That could save 10 gallons of water, and meanwhile, a million gallons a night are used at every golf course in the Coachella Valley.

When I submitted these observations to Craig Kessler, Director of Government Affairs for the Southern California Golf Assn., he was more than happy to respond, as well as share his considerable knowledge of state water policy. .

And he threw me a curveball.

Kessler said Coachella Valley golf courses are in much better shape in terms of water supply than golf courses in California’s wetter climates. That’s because the desert, which received less than an inch of rain last season, has a lot more water to draw on, including a vast aquifer that lies beneath the desert floor.

“It’s complicated and counterintuitive,” Kessler said, but many coastal golf courses that rely on sleet and rain from the state have been hit harder by the drought than those in the desert.

The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which serves 105 of the golf courses, draws from the California Water Project, the Colorado River and the aquifer. Kessler, who leads the Coachella Valley Golf and Water Task Force, said much of the water used to irrigate golf courses is not potable.

And yet, these 120 golf courses do indeed consume massive amounts of precious and increasingly scarce water. Kessler said the Valley has less than 1% of Southern California’s population but 28.6% of its golf courses. Golf, he said, uses less than 1% of all water used in California, but nearly 25% of the water in the Coachella Valley.

So what are they doing about it? A lot, Kessler said, and the conservation effort goes back many years. Golf courses have removed turf, narrowed fairways, installed more sophisticated irrigation systems, sought out less thirsty grasses, and reduced the practice of “overseeding”, which has kept courses green during the winter months when Bermuda grass goes dormant.

Jim Schmid, operations manager at the Lakes Country Club in Palm Desert, told me he has a weather station on site to help manage and reduce irrigation. And much of the water it uses, Schmidt said, is recycled water that “the district has to get rid of because they haven’t treated it to a standard where it can be used at drinking purposes”.

Josh Tanner, general manager of Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert, said Ironwood pumps its water out of the ground and pays a fee to the water agency to replenish the aquifer with imported water. The club has reduced its water usage by 20% in recent years, Tanner said, largely by replacing turf with native landscaping.

But it doesn’t seem like all golf courses are doing their part. And CVWD, as Doug Thompson told me, does not provide data on water use by individual golf courses. When I asked why, Katie Evans, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation, told me the district doesn’t share information about individual customers. In fact, the water agency was sued for disclosing the information, but prevailed in court.

Professional golfers walk past a water feature on the course at PGA West’s Pete Dye Stadium in La Quinta in January.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The desert sun reported in 2018 that the golf industry had not met its own goal – set in 2014 – of reducing water consumption by 10% from 2010 levels. Kessler told me that golf courses were using 9% less water in 2020 than in 2013 using a complicated calculation that takes into account evaporation, but only 5.6% less in total volume.

In the Coachella Valley, years of growth have severely depleted the aquifer, just as agricultural irrigation has drained groundwater from the Central Valley to the point where the ground is sinking. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2014 requiring communities to develop groundwater sustainability strategies, and CVWD has touted its progress in stabilizing and increasing groundwater levels.

But that’s partly because the valley is able to recharge the aquifer with water from the Colorado River and water pumped from northern California. However, current allocations will not last if drought trend lines continue and water wars escalate.

One of Thompson and Kobaly’s pet peeves is that residential water bills are based on a tiered pricing system that encourages conservation, but golf and agriculture pay flat rates.

They have an ally in Mark Johnson, former CVWD Engineering Manager and a frequent criticism of the agency. Retired Johnson said residential users have conserved far more than agriculture, which uses about half the district’s water, and far more than the golf industry, which uses less than 25 percent.

“Absolutely, there’s an inequity,” Johnson said, and that in effect residential users are “subsidizing the infrastructure used to get water to golf courses.” Johnson, a golfer, said he used to play a La Quinta course where “they irrigated areas that weren’t even in play” and also watered sand traps.

So why not institute tiered pricing for golf and agriculture, just like for residential users?

CVWD’s Evans said such pricing is prohibited by the state water code, but it may be possible to implement “a different pricing structure” in the future.

I’ll be watching to see how it goes, but it’s worth noting that three of the agency’s five board members are in the agriculture industry. Water and oil don’t mix, but in California, water and politics always mix.

“I agree that more can be done to conserve,” Evans said. “Right now, we are running new conservation ads and continuing to offer a wide range of programming. … To be sustainable, we need to be water efficient.

Kessler, while defending the golf’s record on conservation, said if drought and higher temperatures continue, maintaining the recent conservation rate “will not be enough to move forward 10 to 25 years.”

Unless it starts raining like it used to, everyone in California will have to make do with less water in the very near future, not 10 or 25 years from now.

Thompson and Kobaly, who are not golfers, have a suggestion. They looked at links-style golf courses, which are common in other countries and use much less water. You tee off on a parcel green and you putt on a parcel green, but most of the middle area is natural and unirrigated.

“I have nothing against golf,” Thompson said. “But they have to find another way to do it.”