California’s golf courses gird for long, dry summer – May 20, 2014

Gripping a hose, Robert Hirsch, a maintenance worker at DeLaveaga Golf Course in Santa Cruz, sprays a dry patch of grass, several feet away from a lush green where a group of golfers practice chipping with their 9-irons.

“In another month, all of this will be brown,” Hirsch says as he splashes another withered spot. “We’re going to sacrifice some fairways.”

DeLaveaga is just one of hundreds of golf courses across the state girding for an especially long, dry summer in the third year of California’s historic drought. In an effort to save water, Hirsch and other workers are watering more by hand and cutting back on indiscriminate sprinkling. For many courses, conserving means using more recycled water and modernizing irrigation systems — and all the while trying to convince golfers that when Mother Nature turns off the water spigot, brown is the new green.

A maintenance worker waters a fairway at DeLaveaga golf course in Santa Cruz, Wednesday, April 30, 2014.
A maintenance worker waters a fairway at DeLaveaga golf course in Santa Cruz, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)
Northern California golf courses like DeLaveaga use about 140,000 gallons of water per day, according to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. That’s roughly the same amount of water a family of four uses in a year.

But now golf courses across the state are being forced by water districts to cut water use by as much as 50 percent. So golf course operators are performing “triage” and setting strict priorities — saving the greens and letting the roughs and even some fairways go dry.

That’s only right, said Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst in the Oakland office of Clean Water Action, a national water conservation group.

“You walk past a green lawn during a drought and you wonder, ‘Why is that person wasting water?’ A golf course is just one big green lawn,” she said. “We live in a desert and golf courses that look like they belong in Scotland are not what you should have in a dry climate like this.”

Golf course officials are the first to acknowledge the image problem.

“A lot of people see us as a big water user,” said Jeff Jensen, the Southwest regional field representative with the superintendents association. “But while we’re in the business of growing grass for recreational purposes, we want to be a leader in water conservation efforts.”

Golf courses account for less than 1 percent of the fresh water use in California, while homes, businesses and industry use roughly 20 percent, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Farmers use almost 80 percent.

Like the overwhelming majority of California’s 1,100 courses, DeLaveaga does not use recycled water. As of 2009, only 14 percent of the total water used on golf courses had been reclaimed, according to the California Alliance for Golf.

But Jensen said his organization is hoping that number will soon blossom. The group now has several task forces aimed at identifying which golf courses could switch to recycled water. Water providers in Coachella Valley in Southern California, for instance, recently gave a $5.2 million grant to six golf courses to get them hooked up to reclaimed water by the end of summer.

Recycled water is wastewater that is not treated to meet drinking standards but is suitable for landscaping and agricultural irrigation.

Jensen said golf course officials are also looking at creating more efficient sprinkler systems and turf reduction programs — taking out the nonessential irrigated acres.

Poppy Hills in Pebble Beach, which uses only recycled water for irrigation, also just spent $3 million to improve its sprinklers.

“I think all golf course owners are committed” to using recycled water, said Brad Shupe, Poppy Hills’ general manager. “But it’s not as simple as ‘Yes, we’ll irrigate with reclaimed water.'”

Converting from using potable water to treated wastewater is a slow, expensive process. The piping alone can cost as much as $1 million per mile — and often also involves hundreds of millions of dollars of new infrastructure, Shupe said. He said in many areas there simply is no reclaimed water available.

“The less potable water we use, the better. That’s a no-brainer,” said Gary Ingram, superintendent at Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland. “But there’s just not enough piping out there.”

So if the new normal means browner golf courses, golfers have varying views on the future of the game in California.

At DeLaveaga, David Salac, a golfer for 30 years from San Jose, said he would prefer not seeing too much brown — which he fears will change the feel of the game.

“Part of golf is the beauty of the scenery,” he said. “If you got dead grass, it’s just not pretty.”

But Salac may be in the minority of golfers. In one survey by Golf Digest, 74 percent of golfers said they should be willing to play on brown grass during times of low rainfall.

A bit of brown doesn’t bother Jack Sanchez, 64, of Santa Cruz, who has been golfing with his workmates at the DeLaveaga every Wednesday afternoon for the last 20 years.

“As long as you’ve got 18 holes,” he said, “that’s all that matters to me.” (original:

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