California officials paint gloomy water picture: golf industry must do more to meet ongoing drought

Even in the middle of a cool and wet winter in California in general, officials of the Coachella Valley Water District have a blunt message for the desert’s golf course industry: Take the ongoing drought seriously, because changes could be coming to water availability sooner rather than later.

“We wanted to give the picture as we know it today where the state of play is for our water resources,” said Dr. Robert Cheng, assistant general manager for CVWD and one of the main speakers at a golf and water summit that attracted more than 150 golf industry officials Wednesday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. “We hope we paint a picture that is accurate, that is dire, that there is a need for additional actions from the golf industry to help them still maintain viability in this current situation.”

Golf course superintendents and general managers from throughout the desert listened to presentations on advances in drought-tolerant grasses and technological advances that can help save water on the desert’s 120 courses. But Cheng and Pete Nelson, a director of the CVWD, made the more important presentation on the state of the Colorado basin and how water from the Colorado River can no longer be counted on as a long-term solution to irrigation needs for golf courses or agriculture in the desert.

“The facts on the ground in the desert have never really created any sense of urgency,” said Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association and the head of the Coachella Valley Golf and Water Task Force. “But the important point in today’s presentation is the facts on the ground now create a sense of urgency in the Coachella Valley golf community as well, precisely because it is the Colorado River water allocation that has to be dealt with.”

Eighteen golf courses served by CVWD use strictly river water for irrigation, while more than 30 others use a blend of river water, recycled water and groundwater pumped from the aquifer under the desert. A desert course can use up to 1 million gallons of water a day in the heat of the summer, less in the cooler winter months. River water has been an inconsistent source of water, with Cheng saying the district has received as much as 70 percent of its contracted allotment in some years since the mid-2010s, but only five percent of that allotment in each of the last three years.

“This valley has survived droughts. That was the whole point of me making the point to 2014 (a drought year with just 5 percent allotment). I mean, something happened, and we still survived,” Cheng said. “I think what the story now is, as we are starting January 2023, it’s a different world. I think the spotlight and intensity of the drought conversation in the 23rd year of the drought is real.”

Nelson told the gathering how water levels at both Lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado River continue to decline. Even with the snowpack in the Colorado basin at 126 percent, Nelson said that will only provide a little more water than needed for an average year, not enough to wipe out two decades of drought in the basin that provides water for seven states and Mexico.

“That 7 million acre feet of water (in the snowpack this year) does not meet the demand of 9 million acres feet in the lower basin,” Nelson said. “So that’s Arizona, that’s California and it’s southern Nevada. And interestingly enough, that’s where all the golf courses are, right?”

The Mesquite Golf and Country Club in Palm Springs, January 31, 2020. (Photo by Jay Calderone/Palm Springs Desert Sun)

Federal mandates coming?

Nelson is part of negotiations trying to reach a consensus by the end of the month on a framework to keep the lakes above levels needed to generate electricity and to provide water for the Colorado basin. He told the crowd Wednesday he was not confident a deal can be reached by Jan. 31, which would allow the United States Bureau of Reclamation to come up with its own plan.

“Will the bureau come up with their own framework? Absolutely,” Nelson said. “They are going to look at things like reasonable and beneficial use of water. In government terms, that’s a 417 action. So they look at water use and see if it is reasonable and beneficial. Your and my observation of what is reasonable and beneficial is probably different from theirs.”

Chris Bien, golf course superintendent at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert and president of the Hi-Lo Desert Golf Course Superintendents Association, said the turnout Wednesday showed that golf facilities are taking water conservation seriously.

“We talk about it more than we used to and having this many people in the room sit there for two and a half hours and listen to everyone’s opinions, well, everybody came because they wanted to hear about it,” Bien said. “So absolutely we are taking it much more seriously.”

Tim Putnam, director of agronomy at La Quinta Country Club, said he attended the meeting to hear about the future Colorado River water restriction. Putnam said his club could move quickly on some conservation projects.

“We’ve got a turf reduction design ready to go. That’s why we asked the question. If we implement this right away, will we get credit for it,” Putnam said about looming mandates for reductions. “If they stick to the water budget, you’ve got a water budget based on the acreage at your facility, you’ve got to reduce the amount of that budget, not just a flat say 20 percent when you are already watering super efficiently.”

Another concern for superintendents and general managers was funding of such project. Clubs estimate it costs between $15,000 and $20,000 to take out one acre of turf and replace it with drought-tolerant plants and irrigation, and the return on that investment is long term. Some new funding for such projects could be on the way through the federal Inflation Reduction Act passed last August. Some of the money from that bill is set aside for fund water conservation projects. Cheng told the crowds that by May, CVWD will be ready to help golf courses apply for those funds.

“The message we hope (golf officials) will take to heart is that we want the golf course industry to survive,” Cheng said, noting that golf employs around 8,000 people in the desert and produces $700 million in revenue. “We recognize the importance of it. Right now, we have a golden opportunity to access some funding from the federal government to help you achieve some of these conservation measures.”

“There is confusion on how to sell it to a membership or a municipality,” Bien said. “You want to be able to say, ‘Hey, we are going to do this and we are going to get it paid for, or part of it paid for, or we’ll get funding.’ And we don’t know that we are actually going to get that, and it is hard to say that. So I think we are all trying to do other (conservation acts) in addition to that.”

Bien added that the message for the golf industry at the summit was clear.

“It was informative. We got a picture of what the future could hold, and we need to do better as an industry as a whole,” Bien said.

Kessler added the desert is still in better shape for golf courses than other areas of Southern California.

“Urgency by desert standards is a fraction of the coast (Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties), but as you heard from Peter Nelson’s presentations, if you look at the levels of those two lakes, it just keeps going down even when we have wet years,” Kessler said.

List

Where to play golf in the California desert: Palm Springs, La Quinta, PGA West

La Quinta Resort
La Quinta Resort

 

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek