In charge of 500 acres of irrigated turf at Sun City Palm Desert, including two 18-hole golf courses, parks and softball fields for the 50-and-over community of 5,000 homes, Tyler Truman is no stranger to concerns about how much water the courses and the surrounding areas are using.
“I can see where (the critics) are coming from,” said Truman, director of agronomy at Sun City, which includes the two golf courses at the Mountain Vista Golf Club. “And you listen to them. And then you try to educate them. This is how we are trying to use the water. This is how we are using the water.”
As the drought in the southwest deepens, with a first-ever Level 2a Shortage Condition declared for the Colorado River—a major source of water for the desert and all of Southern California—golf courses in the Coachella Valley are aware that golf is always a target for those looking at water usage.
With golf courses using between 750,000 and 1 million gallons of water a day in the desert, and with 120 golf courses in the Coachella Valley alone, golf industry officials know they need to both reduce water usage and reinforce the benefits of the usage.
Mike Whan, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, said earlier this year he’d like to see a 45-percent reduction in golf course water usage in the next 15 years. Other USGA officials are now trying to figure out how to meet such an aggressive goal.
“I was part of a meeting to discuss if that number is realistic or not, and I think it probably is,” said Brian Whitlark, agronomist for the West Region Greens Section for the USGA based in Arizona, whose region includes the Coachella Valley. “Will a golf course in Los Angeles reduce its water by 45 percent? Probably not. But nationwide, I think that is possible.”
The Firecliff Course at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
From taking out irrigated turf to upgrading irrigation systems and computer technology, golf courses are constantly focused on water, said Craig Kessler, director of government affairs for the Southern California Golf Association.
At the recent Southern California Golf and Water Summit in Chino Hills, Kessler was one of the speakers to a crowd of more than 200 golf professionals, general managers and course superintendents looking to share ideas and learn new strategies on water reduction.
“We want to continue to bring this great game to Californians,” said Kessler, who is also the chairman of the Coachella Valley Golf and Water Task Force. “And we understand that we live in a land of permanent drought. As we read the headlines every day, we can see the consequences of a warmer, drier climate. We recognize that we need to do those things, we are dedicated to doing those things and we want to do those things in partnership.”
The summit was held in the shadow of negotiations on availability of Colorado River water that saw Nevada and Arizona have their water allotments cut by the federal Bureau of Reclamation by as much as 21 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District are still negotiating river water allotments.
The drought is a major concern for the California golf community, which the California Alliance for Golf estimates is a $1.2 billion per year industry. In the Coachella Valley, the alliance estimates 8,000 people are directly employed in the golf industry.
Making progress on reductions
For Truman, cutting water usage at Sun City Palm Desert began when he arrived at that job 11 years ago.
“When I first got here, we were using close to 4,000 acres feet of water a year,” Truman said. “With using the technology, the soil moisture meters, not just in greens, but with Toro’s in-ground sensors, we’ve now gone from 4,000 down to 3,000 in that time period.”
To save an acre foot of water, or 325,851 gallons, managers like Truman rely more and more on technological advances. That includes soil moisture meters, which measure moisture in the soil at various spots on the golf course. Irrigation software allows Truman and his staff to individually control the nearly 10,000 sprinkler heads at Sun City Palm Desert.
Moisture detectors on the Santa Rosa and San Gorgonio golf courses allow Truman to identify where turf is being overwatered or underwatered against Truman’s desire for an 18 to 20 percent soil saturation goal. Soil wetting agents, which draw water from the surface down to the roots of grass plants, also help courses cut back on water use.
Whitlark says more courses should be using soil moisture sensors, which cost no more than $15,000 or $20,000 for a course. But other measures also will save water, he said.
“Just optimizing the irrigation system by raising the level of the sprinklers, changing nozzles, changing the irrigation system about every 30 years to save water, the strategy of wetting agents and growth regulators, that one’s not really being utilized to the extent that it can be,” Whitlark said.
Advances are also being made in the grasses being used to carpet desert courses. At UC Riverside, the turfgrass science department is developing Bermuda grasses that could stay green in both summer and winter in the desert. That would reduce the need for overseeding, the process of converting from warm-weather Bermuda grass to cool-weather grasses like rye grass. Even changing from old types of Bermuda to new hybrid Bermuda grasses can save water, said Dr. Jim Baird of UCR.
The Coachella branch of the All-American Canal flows through the Golf Club at Terra Lago in Indio, California. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
“The savings would be in the 30-percent range, realistically, but is that enough to do this?” said Baird, a turfgrass specialist for UCR. “As we mentioned, renovating from one Bermuda grass to another Bermuda grass is no easy measure. Because one thing I know about Bermuda grass is it is hard to kill. So that said, I think we certainly will do our best in that regard to make some strides.”
River, recycled water important
The source of irrigation water is always a concern for desert courses, especially in light of the ongoing negotiations over the Colorado River and historic low levels in Lake Mead in Nevada, said Scott Burritt, director of service and communications for CVWD.
“The golf courses have a strong interest in conserving water because that’s part of their bottom line,” Burritt said. “It can be a major expense, so they have an interest in conserving water, and there are a lot of discussions about what different golf courses are doing.”
Thirty-six Coachella Valley courses use strictly Colorado River water for irrigation, while another 17 ½ courses (a course is considered to be 18 holes) use a blend of river water and recycled water from CVWD. Other courses use ground water from the aquifer beneath the desert, with Burritt saying CVWD replenishes more than 40,000 acre feet of water to the aquifer each year.
Plans for switching another 40 ½ courses to non-potable water are underway, though many of those courses need pipes extended from the two CVWD recycling plants to reach the courses before switching over. Burritt said current street work in Palm Desert is designed to take more recycled water to big landscape customers like golf courses.
But Burritt points out that recycled water’s drawback is that in the summer, when courses need more water to fight high temperatures, the desert has less recycled water available because fewer people are in the desert to take showers or flush toilets.
Turf reduction could be key
Another strategy for reducing water is simply reducing the amount of turf being irrigated. In the last seven years, CVWD reports more than 160 acres of turf, or the equivalent of nearly two average golf courses, have been removed at desert courses, but convincing golf courses to reduce turf and replace it with drought-tolerant native plants and desert landscaping can be difficult.
“You don’t just remove turf and you are done with it,” said Chris Bien, head agronomist at the city-owned Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert. “There is a cost involved with (removing) it. There is a cost involved with maintaining it, and that sometimes gets shoved under the rug.”
Whitlark and superintendents in the desert say removing an acre of turf can cost $20,000, including putting in new irrigation systems and planting drought-tolerant plants in place of grass. At one time CVWD offered a rebate of $15,000 to golf courses for each acre of turf removed, up to seven acres per course. But money for the project ran out, and Burritt said the agency is always looking for more grant money for such programs.
While the return on the investment of reducing turf may not be immediate for golf courses, Truman hopes more courses make changes.
“What I am seeing is that the newer people that we have, the younger generations that are moving into our facilities, a lot of them are okay with the desertscape popping up in (golf) areas,” Truman said. “You are getting people who are understanding hey, we need to do this. The older generation likes that parkland setting where everything is green and lush. So I think just like everything, the younger generation is more open to it.”
Removing turf is also something that impacts course homeowners, Bien said. Desert Willow has two courses, the Mountain View and the Firecliff, totaling about 150 acres and including acres of desertscape on both courses.
“It’s a property-to-property thing, though, because you run into a danger of are there homeowners next to your golf course,” Bien said. “That is their backyard and they want the green backyard, and there are property values and the like to think about. For here (at Desert Willow), we don’t really have homes on Desert Willow, which is great.”
Whitlark said repeating the message of turf reduction is important, with Arizona golf courses often having just 70 to 80 acres of turf compared to courses in the Coachella Valley that often have between 100 to 120 acres of grass. The message isn’t always popular but needs to be pushed, he said, pointing to a course in Sun City, Arizona, he has been working with for 15 years.
“My very first visit, they almost shoved me out of the room,” Whitlark said. “But every year, I just kept saying it, turf reduction, turf reduction. Finally they realized they need to make some changes because they saw the writing on the wall.”
Cutting back expectations
Part of the problem for golf courses in the desert, particularly private ones, is that the area has a reputation for perfectly manicured and green golf courses in the winter. Those are two factors that lure snowbirds to the area for months at a time.
“That’s tough. It’s just such a long history of having that oasis out there in the wintertime,” said Baird. “That’s going to be tough.”
Overseeding, the planting of cool-weather grasses to keep courses green in the winter, is still needed because Bermuda grass can go dormant and brown in the winter, when part-time residents and tourists spend their time in the area.
“From October to May is so important as the prime revenue season,” Whitlark said. “Overseeding is still going to be important for now and probably not something that courses can consider reducing.”
Some golf visitors to the desert don’t want to see a change in what they view as a key element of the appeal of desert courses: a lush, green carpet of grass. Doug Evans of Oklahoma City, who was recently playing golf in the desert with two of his friends after not visiting for a few years, said he loved the conditions at Marriott’s Desert Springs on a hot afternoon.
“The course is beautiful. But if the golf course was not in as good a shape or was brown, what would be the point of being here?” said Evans, who spent his summer golf vacation last year in Arizona.
Other golfers understand the drought might cause needed changes.
The Firecliff Course at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
“You can walk around any golf course and see areas where there is grass where no one is going to hit a golf ball,” said David Barnett of Mission Viejo, California. “So why not take the grass away. It is the desert, so let it be the desert. We save water all the time in Orange County. The desert should, too.”
Bien says expectations have to change based on the golf course and its clientele.
“There are different levels of managing expectations. I want to have a firm, fast golf course,” Bien said. “People get better playability out of a firmer, faster golf course. Does that mean that I’m okay having the golf course brown? No, it does not. Does that mean I’m okay with having a brown spot here or there? Absolutely.”
Looking to the future
Truman said talk of river water cutbacks have to be a concern for desert courses.
“California has a lot of water rights, but who’s to say if this federal government doesn’t step in and renegotiate all of those rights?” Truman said. “I know CVWD will do everything to protect our water. Hopefully, we can keep those things. But I look at people who need water and we need to manage our water the best possible way that we can.”
Whitlark says with a focus on water reduction for golf courses, mandatory cuts might be in the future.
“It is probably going to take a regulatory body to say, hey, I don’t care how you reduce the water use, but you are going to have to reduce the water use by 20 or 30 percent,” Whitlark said. “It is probably going to take that. Either that or water costs are going to have to go through the roof. Now many of those courses use canal water, which comes from the Colorado River, so I imagine they are going to feel some impact from the Bureau of Reclamation.”
For Kessler, keeping the regulatory agencies and state government out of the decision process is important, but so is assuring the future of golf and courses.
“What is the point of living in the great southwest in Southern California or Arizona or Nevada, where you can literally play golf 365 days a year, if we can’t continue to provide golf,” Kessler said.