Southern California is well known for its trend-setting nature, especially in the film and fashion industries. But one discouraging regional trend is causing a small segment of the population to lose sleep: drought.
The Golden State is facing a water deficit of 11 trillion gallons, according to former USGA Green Section agronomist Mike Huck, principal at Irrigation & Turfgrass Services, in Mission Viejo, Calif., for the past 13 years.
“We’re hurting,” said Pat Gross, director of the West Region for the Green Section, who is based in Fullerton, Calif. “This is our rainy season and we’ve only gotten a few sprinkles.”
An area that typically receives nearly 18 inches of annual precipitation has only received an average of 4 to 6 inches in the past three years. Water costs have skyrocketed as a result. Steve Sinclair, the superintendent at Woodland Hills Country Club in the western San Fernando Valley, has seen his rates climb from $2.50 per 100 cubic feet of water in 2007 to the current rate of $5.
“And it won’t stop [going up],” said Sinclair. “In 2000, it was $2 and in seven years [the price] went up 25 percent. In the last seven years, it has doubled.”
These are disturbing figures for an industry that is working to allay public perceptions about its use of water. According to a study published in 2009 by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s Environmental Institute for Golf, golf facilities account for just one-half of 1 percent of all irrigated water withdrawn annually, and just 1.5 percent of irrigated water applied. In their drive to make courses more sustainable, Green Section agronomists and golf course superintendents are constantly seeking solutions to conserve water while preserving playing characteristics.
One early solution was to reduce water usage by relying more on recycled water. In addition, courses such as Woodland Hills and nearby North Ranch Country Club, in Thousand Oaks, are no longer overseeding with perennial rye in the winter, opting to install warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass and kikuyugrass for year-round play, even if it means browner conditions when those strains go dormant over the winter months.
But as the drought continued, further conservation measures were needed.
“In the end, it came down to one or two things we could do,” said Ryan Bentley, superintendent at North Ranch, a 27-hole facility that hosted the 1988 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship. “Turf conversion to bermudagrass in our fairways… and the last decision was to reduce turf.”
Turf reduction isn’t a new phenomenon. Since the early 1980s, water restrictions limited courses constructed in Arizona and a few other arid climates to 90 acres of irrigated turf and an additional 20 acres of transition areas, such as rough or bunkers, outside the fairways.
In 2012, Gross and course architect Todd Eckenrode co-authored an article in the June edition of the Green Section Record on the role of turf reduction in paring maintenance costs, specifically water usage. The article cited a 2009 survey by the Environmental Institute for Golf that concluded the average size of an 18-hole golf course was 150 acres, of which 100 acres is maintained turfgrass. Of those 100 acres, just over half (51 acres) is designated as rough and out-of-play areas.
“Reducing the amount of rough and eliminating turf in non-play areas creates excellent opportunities to save money by reducing costs for irrigation, fertilizers and other turf-care products, mowing and maintenance,” Gross wrote.
Some courses heeded the advice. In 2010, Woodland Hills used a rebate of $1 per square foot from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to reduce 7 acres of turf. The 70-acre facility was one of the first in Southern California to complete such a project. Mulch and other native plants replaced irrigated grass.
“Obviously, we are saving over what we would use if we didn’t take it out,” said Sinclair, who has been at Woodland Hills for 23 years. “Not all golf courses water the same. Realistically, you can say we’re saving 5 to 8 percent [of our cost].”
North Ranch projects a five-year savings of $500,000 once its $3.2 million renovation is completed in May. Like a number of other facilities, North Ranch is taking advantage of a recent turf-reduction rebate program from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), a cooperative of 26 cities and water agencies that serves nearly 19 million residents in six counties. The MWD is offering $2 per square foot, and of the $115.2 million earmarked for rebates, nearly $79 million has been committed for commercial properties such as golf courses.
When its project is completed, North Ranch will have removed 37 acres of turf. Seven years ago, the club completed a smaller turf removal project, in which grass was converted to mulch underneath native trees. In all, the club will have reduced its rough coverage from 106 to 67 acres, with drought-tolerant shrubs, plants and wildflowers replacing turf.
Without the MWD essentially funding the project, Bentley said it would have been extremely difficult to ask club members for an additional dues assessment that didn’t improve greens, tees or fairways. However, when members saw the impact that Pinehurst No. 2, site of the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, had on the public, Bentley said that any negativity was eliminated.
North Ranch isn’t alone. Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, a host site for 2011 U.S. Open sectional qualifying, is nearly done with a $2.3 million, 23-acre removal. Wilshire Country Club has met with Gross about a planned turf-removal project. Bentley said nationally known neighbor Sherwood Country Club also has plans to remove turf. Brookside Golf Club, a 36-hole public facility adjacent to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, recently removed 22 acres.
Glendora Country Club began a 25-acre removal process last fall. The project, which was planned before the MWD began issuing rebates, should be finished by early April, though recent rains have caused some minor delays.
“We’re doing this project for lack of rain and it’s slowing us up because of rain,” said Sean Rathje, superintendent at Glendora. “It’s given the course a fresh new look. Before, we were just a parkland course with green grass everywhere. Now you have nice sweeping lines in the turf-removal areas. It’s a chance to beautify your course. And membership is generally excited to be a leader in the community when it comes to water conservation.”
Rathje is not yet able to quantify how much financial benefit the project will create. Industry experts can’t predict where water rates will go in the next five years or how much maintenance will be required for the native areas.
“I hope to save 25 percent, but we are not that naïve to say that’s absolutely going to be true,” said Rathje. “We know we’ll save a lot of money. We are anticipating this will keep us ahead of the game because probably in five years [water] rates will go up and it will all even out.”
Gross echoed those thoughts. Turf removal doesn’t necessarily create economic impact.
“There is no formula for figuring this out,” said Gross. “I’ve asked different superintendents about how much they have saved … and the [figures] are all over the place. It all depends on the price of water. You are definitely going to use less water, but the fact is the person who is scheduling the irrigation system has the greatest influence on how much water is being saved.
“It’s the people who maintain lawns and the way they maintain them that controls the water. It’s not the plant itself.”
The reduction in maintained turfgrass is about more than garnering rebates for reduced water consumption.
“In the end, we are doing something that has multiple benefits to the club,” said Bentley, of North Ranch. “It’s [also] the right thing to do. This is going to be beneficial to our current members and new members.
“When I play a course now, I see it in a different light. I look at out-of-play areas. It’s not something I looked at in 2005.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.