For some Southern Californians, the golf course is a loathed symbol of social privilege and wasteful water: a lush playground for the wealthy who can drink more than 100 million gallons a year, even as neighboring gardens wither and darken.
“Why do golf courses still exist?” East Hollywood resident Spence Nicholson said recently. The 38-year-old called them little more than a “massive waste” of resources.
Although the golf industry has long weathered resentment from non-golfers, golf course owners and managers find themselves in the crosshairs of state water officials who say California isn’t doing enough to conserve water in a time of severe drought.
Now, golf courses are being told to cut back on water use due to new drought restrictions in parts of Southern California, and course managers say they are preparing to lower their sprinkler levels and stop that some areas of green grass turn brown.
Water restrictions include a variety of different requirements throughout Southern California, and the rules for courses vary depending on the city or district that delivers the water. In some cities, golf course managers say they are waiting for additional details from local agencies to determine exactly how much they will need to cut.
The strictest water-saving rules apply to dozens of fields in cities from Simi Valley to Los Angeles, where the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has ordered restrictions on outdoor watering to conserve scarce supplies from the State Water Project. Water.
“We will make the necessary adjustments,” said Phil Lopez, general manager of El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana. “It will look a little different in some places. But that’s the world we live in here. And we are all willing to do our part.”
The 600-member country club, which gets its water from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has already found ways to conserve water, Lopezzaid says.
Last year, the 18-hole course closed for nine months to undergo a major refurbishment. Workers replaced decades-old grass with drought-tolerant hybrid Bermuda grass.
Those 92 acres of low-water use pasture, along with the conversion of some pastures to landscaped areas with native plants, have helped the course reduce water use by 20% to 25%, Lopez said.
“We can’t just rely on the same amount of water that we’ve always had because that’s not going to be plausible in the future,” Lopez said.
Lopez said that given the current shortage, the field is prepared to further reduce its water use.
But as residents grapple with their own restrictions, some say the water used for golf should be reduced much more.
“They are asking the public to reduce the watering of our lawns, when if you look at the amount of all lawns in California, the use of water is minimal compared to golf courses, other recreational places for the wealthy and corporate properties” Nicholson said. .
Although some non-golfers view the area’s courses as exclusive enclaves, they are not all private country clubs with wealthy members. Some of the most used courses in Southern California are public facilities frequented by people of various income levels, where green fees to play 18 holes can range from around $30 on weekdays to around $50 on weekends.
New restrictions in Los Angeles limit customers to watering two days a week: odd addresses on Monday and Friday, and even addresses on Thursday and Sunday.
The city’s emergency conservation ordinance allows large areas of landscape, including golf courses, parks and sports fields, to deviate from the two-day-a-week rule by requesting an “alternative means of compliance,” which requires reducing the monthly water use by the amount requested under the shortage, plus an additional 5% reduction below a historical water use baseline.
For golf courses, that means requirements will vary.
“We have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” said Delon Kwan, the DWP’s deputy director of water resources. “Some of them have reduced their water consumption in recent years. So it’s not an overarching goal that they have to achieve.”
Kwan said department staff will consider historical water use, including in the baseline year of 2009, as well as how much water use has reduced on a course in recent years.
“We have to look at it to see where they are and how much they’re down,” Kwan said.
The restrictions apply to golf courses that use potable water, but not to golf courses that rely on recycled wastewater.
There are 37 golf courses in the DWP territory, according to the department, including full-size courses and some smaller courses with just three or four holes. Twenty golf courses are private and 17 are municipal public courses.
The recycled water is used to irrigate 11 of these golf courses, eight of them municipal courses.
In total, Los Angeles-area golf courses use about 3,000 acre-feet (977 million gallons) of recycled water and about 5,000 acre-feet (1.6 billion gallons) of drinking water annually, according to the DWP. Golf courses account for an average of about 1% of the city’s total drinking water use.
Anne Houston, who lives in Los Angeles, said she thinks it’s time to get rid of golf courses because “they waste space and water.”
“There are all these incentives to replace your lawn with drought-tolerant alternatives…but my entire neighborhood of tiny, tiny lawns doesn’t even come close to a tiny fraction of, say, the golf course at Wilshire Country Club not far away. from me,” said Houston, 38. “Literally 100 acres of land. What are you doing to replace your grass with drought tolerance?”
Houston said she is so convinced of the issue that she recently signed a petition calling for golf courses in California to be removed.
“It seems obvious to me that in this climate crisis we can’t afford to waste space and heavy water consuming green grass for only the rich to walk on,” he said.
The last three years have been some of the driest on record in California, and scientific research shows that global warming has intensified extreme aridity across the West over the past 22 years.
The MWD ordered water restrictions beginning June 1 across much of its territory, including parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties that rely on the drought-ravaged State Water Project. District administrators have said they could switch to a complete ban on outdoor watering starting in September if conservation efforts don’t meet the necessary goals.
Other water agencies that are subject to the new restrictions include the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, Las Vírgenes Municipal Water District, Calleguas Municipal Water District, Three Valleys Municipal Water District and the Municipal Water District. of Upper San Gabriel Valley Water. These districts, in turn, provide water to smaller cities and providers.
How different cities and water providers treat golf courses depends on local regulations.
In Chino Hills, for example, there are two golf courses. One course, Los Serranos Golf Club, relies entirely on recycled water and is not subject to the restrictions. The other, Western Hills Golf & Country Club, uses a combination of imported water and other supplies and is subject to the restrictions, said Nicole Freeman, a city spokeswoman.
“Stage 3” restrictions in Chino Hills limit residents and businesses to watering two days a week. Alternatively, businesses can be exempt from the twice-weekly watering rule if they reduce their use of potable water by 28% compared to 2013, Freeman said.
The rules are different in the area served by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which supplies Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village and unincorporated areas of western Los Angeles County.
The two golf courses in the area use recycled water and some groundwater, and since December they have been required to reduce water use 25% below their individualized water budgets, said Michael McNutt, a spokesman for the district.
In Simi Valley, water is delivered by the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which requires watering restrictions of one day a week.
Exactly how much the Simi Hills public golf course will need to reduce irrigation will be determined as Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks District administrators decide how to distribute the cuttings among local parks, said Brian Reed, the golf course administrator. .
Reed said he expects to need to reduce irrigation around the edges of the course, “heavier cuts in the out-of-play areas,” while maintaining irrigation on the most important playing areas: the greens, tees and fairways.
Simi Hills has about 100 acres of grass and five ponds. Reed said the course’s current water use is about 110 million gallons a year, an amount that has already been reduced with conservation improvements over the years.
“It is a very large expense for us every year. So we actively manage our water use,” Reed said. That includes the use of an irrigation system that allows staff to closely monitor and adjust irrigation.
He said he can instruct his staff to reduce run time on parts of the irrigation system, while turning off some sprinkler heads.
If the field has to cut back on raw watering, Reed said, the grass in those areas will lose its green.
“It’s going to get a little bit brown,” Reed said. “It just is what it is. I mean, there just won’t be as much lush green grass in the areas around the edges of the golf course.”
While course managers adjust to the new local rules, they may also be asked to start differentiating between playable and surrounding non-playable areas.
The State Water Resources Control Board last month adopted regulations that prohibit the use of potable water to irrigate “non-functional” lawns on commercial, industrial and institutional properties.
Sports fields are exempt, as are parts of golf courses used for play, such as greens and fairways. But state board staff have said that water agencies and golf courses must assess whether or not other grass on a golf course property is “functional.”
The rules should apply to golf courses the same way restrictions apply to all others, said Charming Evelyn, chair of the Sierra Club Angels Chapter water committee. Evelyn, who has advocated for more recycled water use for golf courses, said she hopes to see golf courses make more progress in reducing water use, including switching to more drought-tolerant grasses.
“Residents can reduce outdoor water use. And many of them have. But we also have to be looking for businesses and golf courses,” said Evelyn. “They really need businesses to scale back a little bit.”
Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, said golf courses have made great strides in using less water over the past two decades by investing in efficient irrigation systems, switching to other types lawn and replace part of the lawn. with low water consumption landscaping.
He said golf course managers acknowledge they will have to “go further and even faster” to adapt to these drier times.