Column: Are desert golf courses doing enough to save the environment?
Doug Thompson couldn’t believe what he had just been told. His wife, a botanist, was advising the Coachella Valley Country Club on drought-resistant landscaping, and Thompson, who spoke with the groundskeeper, asked how much water would be needed to irrigate a golf course.
“He proudly said they had just switched their system to a computer system and were going down 1.2 million gallons a night,” recalls Thompson, the ecologist who leads Natural History Tours. “I thought I didn’t hear him properly, so after about 30 minutes I asked again, and he said the same thing.”
That conversation took place a few years ago. But in the midst of a prolonged drought that led to the first-ever federal declaration of water shortage In the Colorado River Basin and brought invitations to More memorization Across California, Thompson and his wife, Robin Kubale, are becoming more aware of all the lush green golf courses set against the dry landscape of Coachella Valley.
How many golf courses?
About 120 of them, many shoulder to shoulder across the desert floor, complete with ornate ponds, fountains, and streams. It is one of the highest concentrations of golf courses in the world.
“From the homework we did… the smaller cycles use at least several hundred thousand gallons per night, but the larger cycles are in the million gallon range or more,” Thompson said.
“Not only is it infuriating, but over the course of many months of the year it’s too hot to play golf in the desert, and yet the watering continues,” he added.
When I met Thompson and Kubale in the desert, they told me they weren’t trying to shut down the golf industry, and I’m with them on that. There would be no Palm Springs without golf, just as there would have been no ratpack without Sinatra. The industry employs several thousand people, attracts hordes of snowbirds and injects up to a billion dollars into the local economy.
But now the planet is spinning on a grill, roasting and roasting in ways that are changing the landscape and forcing us to adapt. Thompson and Kubale wonder why golf courses aren’t doing more to preserve them.
“This water crisis is huge,” Thompson said. “They’ll tell us to do things like not let the water run when you brush your teeth, and it’s illegal to wash your car unless you turn off the valve on the hose. That might save 10 gallons of water, and in the meantime a million gallons per night are used on every golf course in the Coachella Valley.”
When I put these notes on Craig Kessler, director of government affairs at Southern California Golf Assn. He was more than happy to respond, as well as share his great knowledge of the state’s water policy.
He threw me a curve.
Kessler said golf courses in the Coachella Valley are in much better shape in terms of water supply than golf courses in California’s wetter climates. That’s because the desert, which had less than an inch of precipitation last season, has plenty of water to tap into, including the vast aquifer that lies beneath the desert floor.
“It’s complicated and illogical,” Kessler said, but many coastal golf courses that rely on the state’s melting ice and rain have been more affected by drought than those in the desert.
The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which serves 105 golf courses, derives from the California Water Project and the Colorado River and Aquifer. Kessler, who heads the Coachella Valley Golf and Water Task Force, said much of the water used to irrigate golf courses is undrinkable.
However, these 120 golf courses already use vast amounts of increasingly scarce precious water. Kessler said the valley has less than 1% of Southern California’s population, but 28.6% of its golf courses. He said golf consumes less than 1% of all water used in California, but nearly 25% of Coachella Valley’s water.
So what do they do about it? There are many, Kessler said, and conservation efforts date back several years. Golf courses have cleared grass, narrowed fairways, installed more sophisticated irrigation systems, looked for less thirsty weeds, and cut back on the practice of “overeating,” which kept the courses green in the winter months, when Bermuda grass became dormant.
Jim Schmid, operations manager at Palm Desert’s Lakes Country Club, tells me he has a weather station on site to help manage and reduce watering. Much of the water he uses is recycled water, Schmidt said, “that the area needs to dispose of because it has not been treated to standards that can be used for drinking purposes.”
Josh Tanner, general manager of Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert, said Ironwood pumps its water from the ground and pays a fee to the water agency to supply the aquifer with imported water. Tanner said the club has reduced its water consumption by 20% in recent years, largely by replacing grass with the local landscape.
But not every golf course seems to pull its weight. And CVWD, Doug Thompson tells me, does not provide data on water use on individual golf courses. When I asked why, Katie Evans, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation, told me that the district does not share information about individual clients. In fact, the Water Agency was sued for releasing the information, but it prevailed in court.
desert sun mentioned in 2018 that the golf industry did not meet its own target – set in 2014 – to reduce water use 10% below 2010 levels. Kessler told me that golf courses used 9% less water in 2020 than in 2013 when using a complex calculation that takes evaporation into account. , but only 5.6% lower in total volume.
In the Coachella Valley, years of growth have severely depleted the aquifer, just as agricultural irrigation has drained water levels in the center of the valley to the point where the land is sinking. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2014 requiring communities to develop groundwater sustainability strategies, and the Community Development Commission of the World has promoted its progress in stabilizing and increasing groundwater levels.
But that’s partly because the valley is able to recharge the aquifer with water from the Colorado River and water pumped from northern California. However, current allotments will not last if drought trendlines persist and water wars escalate.
One of Thompson and Kobaly’s pet annoyances is that residential water bills are based on a tiered pricing system that encourages conservation, but golf and farming pay flat rates.
They have an ally in Mark Johnson, the former Director of Engineering for CVWD and frequent critic agency. The retired Johnson said residential users have maintained much more than agriculture, which uses nearly half of the area’s water, and much more than the golf industry, which uses less than 25%.
“Certainly, there is inequity,” Johnson said, and in fact, residential users “subsidize the infrastructure used to get water to golf courses.” Johnson, a golfer, said he used to play at La Quinta where they “watered areas that weren’t even in play” and watered sand traps, too.
So why not put tiered pricing for golf and ag, as for resident users?
CVWD’s Evans said that such pricing is prohibited by state water law, but that it may be possible to implement a “different pricing structure” in the future.
I’ll be watching to see how it goes, but it’s worth noting that three of the five members of the agency’s board of directors work in the agricultural industry. Water and oil don’t mix, but in California, water and politics are always there.
“I agree that more can be done for the preservation,” Evans said. “At this time, we are rolling out new conservation announcements and continuing to offer a wide range of programmes. … To be sustainable we need to be water wise.”
Despite defending golf’s record of conservation, Kessler said that if drought and high temperatures persist, maintaining the latter’s rate of conservation “would not be enough to move 10-25 years forward.”
Unless it starts raining again as before, everyone in California will have to live with less water in the very near future, not 10 or 25 years down the road.
Thompson and Kubale, who are not golfers, have a suggestion. They’ve been looking at linkage-style golf courses, which are common in other countries and use much less water. You wear a green patch and you put on a green patch, but most of the area in between is natural, not irrigated.
“I have nothing against golf,” Thompson said. “But they have to find a different way to do it.”