How Southern California golf courses are adjusting to new water restrictions

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(LOS ANGELES) — Water restrictions in the West are becoming commonplace as the megadrought intensifies and reservoir levels continue to recede — including in recreational facilities that require ample amounts of irrigation.

In Southern California, golf courses are altering the way they tend to the green in the wake of new state mandates and forecasts that climate change will cause drought conditions to persist.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom implored the state’s largest water suppliers to combat drought and better engage customers to ensure all residents are doing their part to save water. But California law distinguishes between ornamental and functional turf, with parks, sports fields, cemeteries and golf courses falling under the functional turf category, allowing them to practice “alternative means” of complying with the 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 the state’s water usage, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Golf courses receive water budgets, based on state codes, and can alter the day of week, or time of week, in which they irrigate the grass, Kessler said.

In addition, although the varying levels of drought typically determine water budgets for households, golf courses do not fall under those ordinances. For instance, in the service area for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which houses nearly three dozen golf courses, a Level 3 drought ordinance aims for a 30% savings in water usage in households, Kessler said. However, the golf industry is “permanently” operating under a Level 2 drought, which has resulted in about 45% less water usage since 2009, and is not required to go up a level with the rest of the service area.

In the service area for the Pasadena Water and Power, golf courses are required to either cut their water usage by 15% or find alternate ways to make up that difference, Jeffrey Kightlinger, the utility company’s interim general manager, told ABC Los Angeles station KABC.

Los Angeles City Golf was awaiting on an agreement with the Department of Water and Power as to what percentage of water reduction they would face, Rick Reinschmidt, acting golf manager for the City of Los Angeles’ 12 courses, told ABC News.

Eight of the city courses are irrigated with recycled water, which does not fall under the state ordinances, but they are irrigating with a minimum of 25% reduction from the normal routine, Reinschmidt said.

“But we’re not exempting ourselves,” he said. “We’re cutting back the same as if we were not irrigating with recycled water.”

“Extraordinarily efficient” modern irrigation systems are installed on the courses, as opposed to automatic sprinklers, to help with the savings, Kessler said. But “in times like these,” when water scarcity is of such a concern, various other contingency plans are in place to keep courses to “maintain a semblance of playable conditions,” Kessler said.

Courses have begun to replace turf with warm-season grasses, which require much less water, and have also eliminated over seeding, except in the desert where it is necessary, because it is extremely water consumptive, Kessler said. Courses are also investing in redesigning irrigation systems to no longer cover areas where a substantial amount of turf was removed, Kessler said.

Reinschmidt said landscape managers at L.A. City Golf have been “killing turf all over the place” and turning off sprinkler heads “all over the place that are not in the play.” They have also prioritized identifying and repairing leaks to further limit water waste, Reinschmidt said.

Millions of people have taken up golf as the pandemic-created cabin fever forced people to recreate outdoors, Kessler said. But, the golf community “has been down this road before” and does not seem to mind the occasional browning of the courses, he said.

“Golfers are very understanding,” Kessler said. “They recognize that it’s not going to be optimal at a time like this.”

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

But with advanced agronomy practices, golfers may be surprised as course conditions improve despite the worsening drought, Brandon Fox, the PGA director of golf for the Rose Bowl Stadium, told KABC.

For now, the browning will likely continue, Fox said.

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

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

“But that’s in the hands of Mother Nature,” he said. “It’s beyond our capacity to control.”

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