How Southern California Golf Courses Adapt to New Water Restrictions

Water restrictions in the West have become common as mega-drought intensifies and reservoir levels continue to decline—including at recreational facilities that require large amounts of irrigation.

In Southern California, golf courses are changing the way they tend to green in the wake of the new state’s mandate and predict that climate change will cause drought conditions to persist.

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom appealed to the state’s largest water supplier to combat drought and better engage customers to ensure all residents do their part to save water. But California law makes a distinction between ornamental and functional turf, with parks, sports fields, cemeteries, and golf courses falling into the functional turf category, allowing them to exercise “alternative means” to comply with rules and restrictions, Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, told ABC News. Functional turf is responsible for about 9% of water use in the state, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

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Kessler said golf courses receive water budgets, based on state codes, and can change the day of the week, or time of week, that they water the lawn.

Additionally, although varying levels of drought usually determine homes’ water budgets, golf courses do not fall under these ordinances. For example, in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy’s service area, which includes nearly thirty golf courses, the Tier 3 Drought Act aims for a 30% savings in water use in homes, Kessler said. However, the golf industry is “permanently” operating under a level 2 drought, which has reduced water use by about 45% since 2009, and is not required to scale up with the rest of the service area.

Photo: A golfer plays at Wilson & Harding Golf Course in Los Angeles, May 9, 2020 (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images, FILE)

In the Pasadena Water & Power service area, golf courses must either reduce water use by 15% or find alternative ways to make up for that difference, Jeffrey Keitlinger, interim general manager of the utility company, told ABC Los Angeles Station KABC.

Rick Reinschmidt, the 12 acting director of golf for Los Angeles, told ABC News that Los Angeles City Golf was waiting for an agreement with the Department of Water and Energy on the percentage of water reduction they would encounter.

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Reinschmidt said eight of the city’s restrooms are irrigated with recycled water, which is not subject to state laws, but is irrigated with a minimum 25% of normal routine.

“But we are not excluding ourselves,” he said. “We lower the same thing as if we were not irrigating with recycled water.”

Photo: Dear, Crossing the Course at Wilson &  Harding golf courses in Los Angeles, May 9, 2020 (Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images, FILE)

Photo: Dear Crossing the course at Wilson & Harding Golf Course in Los Angeles, May 9, 2020 (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images, FILE)

Kessler said modern “high-efficiency” irrigation systems have been installed in courses, as opposed to automatic sprinklers, to help with savings. But in times like this, “when water scarcity is a major concern, various other contingency plans are put in place to maintain the courses” to maintain semblance of playable conditions,” Kessler said.

Cycles have begun to replace the lawn with warm season grasses, which require less water, and over-seeding has also been eliminated, except in the desert where it is necessary, because it consumes a lot of water, Kessler said. Kessler said the courses are also investing in redesigning irrigation systems so that they don’t cover areas where a significant amount of grass has been removed.

Reinschmidt said landscape managers at Los Angeles City Golf are “killing grass everywhere” and shutting down sprinkler heads “everywhere not in the play.” They also prioritized identifying and repairing leaks to reduce water waste, Reinschmidt said.

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Kessler said millions of people have played golf as cabin fever caused by the pandemic has forced people to restart golf outdoors. But he said the golf community “has been on this road before” and doesn’t seem to mind browning the courses once in a while.

“Golfers are very understanding,” Kessler said. “They realize it wouldn’t be optimal at a time like this.”

The only observations Reinschmidt has seen, he said, are comparisons between the green of golf courses and the surrounding vegetation, which is almost all dry and brown.

Photo: Golfers use umbrellas to protect them from the sun while on the ties at Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena, California, April 25, 2022 (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images, FILE)

Photo: Golfers use umbrellas to protect them from the sun while on the ties at Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena, California, April 25, 2022 (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images, FILE)

But with advanced agro-engineering practices, golfers may be surprised by improved track conditions despite a worsening drought, Brandon Fox, director of PGA golf at the Rose Bowl, told KABC.

For now, the brown is likely to continue, Fox said.

“Brown is the new green,” Fox said. “We said that two years ago.”

Kessler said the golf community is also ready for additional contingency plans that may be put in place in the event water restrictions start to seep into levels 4 or 5, such as ramping up the use of recycled water, adding that much of Southern California has accepted a “permanent drought” future.

“But that is in the hands of Mother Nature,” he said. “It is out of our control.”

How Southern California Golf Courses Are Adapting to New Water Restrictions Originally featured on abcnews.go.com

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