Drought-Ridden California Restricts Water Use on Golf Courses

A tee box is watered by a sprinker at Gleneagles Golf Course in San Francisco in July.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

California is drying up, and so too are its golf courses.

Gov. Jerry Brown implemented mandatory water use restrictions for the first time in the state's history on Wednesday, saying that the severe drought conditions resulting from this winter's limited rain and snowfall have created a statewide crisis and ordering cities and towns to reduce water use by 25 percent.

"We're in a new era," Brown said in a press conference following the announcement. "The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past."

That includes golf courses. In one of seven water-saving directives, Brown directed the State Water Resources Control Board to "impose restrictions to require that commercial, industrial, and institutional properties, such as campuses, golf courses, and cemeteries, immediately implement water efficiency measures to reduce potable water usage in an amount consistent with the [statewide] reduction targets."

Local water agencies will determine individually how best to meet those goals, with the state water board wielding the power to fine agencies that fall short, so the effect of the stricter conservation measures on individual golf courses will vary.

Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist at the State Water Resources Control Board said that Gov. Brown's order emphasizes the need for commerical large-landscape customers, like golf courses, to be held accountable so that the entire conservation burden isn't dumped on residents.

"There are 866 golf courses in California," Gomberg said. "That's a lot of water."

Industry leaders stressed that while golfers will see changes in playing conditions as courses adapt to the new regulations, the industry as a whole has been preparing for such a crisis for years. According to Craig Kessler, the director of government affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, about a third of the state's 866 golf courses are already using recycled, non-potable water for irrigation.

"This was expected," Kessler said. "We've been through this before and managing to put out good golf products. This notion that people need to put their sticks in the closet until it rains in California would be a misunderstanding."

Jeff Jensen, the southwest field representative for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said that many courses will have to remove thirsty turf in favor of drought-tolerant landscapes, an expensive endeavor that can cost $35,000 to $40,000 per acre but offers significant long-term savings.

"This is the new normal," Jensen said. "We understand the magnitude of the water crisis in the state and we're going to cooperate. It didn't blindside us. We don't love it, but we're as prepared as we could have been."

Both Kessler and Jensen are active members of a group called the California Alliance for Golf, a trade association that advocates for the industry before the state legislature and other government agencies. Jensen expects the industry in the state, worth $6.3 billion by its own estimate, to "ramp up" its efforts with lawmakers in the coming year.

Kessler isn't itching for a fight just yet.

"There's a lot riding on what Mother Nature brings this season," he said.

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