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One Turfgrass Zealot's opinion about water in California

Dave Wilber


Perhaps it is time to cut through all the media hype and really talk about the water situation in California. California doesn't have a water problem. We all do.


I've been watching the water picture in California for 25 years. Water has been my key focus even before that, coming up in the business in Colorado. I've been fortunate enough to get to spend a lot of time around people who really understand water in just about every usage situation. It's my area of greatest professional interest and understanding.


150c0010ff21d6ab42e25d635a28a55d-.jpgWhen I first came here, I'll never forget taking to the local water people about how many Miner's Inches of water I would use on the golf course. It's still a way to measure water in Northern California's Sierra Foothills. A complex calculation based on so much water running through a 3 inch wide sluice box. And that is just one small example of a place that has really complex history in the storage and delivery of water. No where else that I've been has such a difficult to understand water dialect.


It hasn't rained much. It doesn't rain much here, but for the last few years it has barely rained. And suddenly (this is the part that I really dislike), everyone starts to talk about water. About the stuff that they should have talked about 20 years ago. About the stuff that other dry places like Colorado and Arizona have always talked about. About acreage restrictions and xeriscaping and irrigation efficiency. There is this kind of California attitude that says that resources are available as long as you can pay for it. We saw that happen with a so called power shortage some years back. The truth? California is dead last in the country in terms of per capita electricity use. 


But this is a little different. The information circulating is threatening an already hurting golf economy, still reeling from the overbuilding impregnated by the NGF debacle. And now, just about every reference to water includes a photo like this:


79ffc3d08990461019e7f815a745e67f-.jpegAnd included in the kind of press that we are getting right now are the big huge words used in the mandate to use less water. "You are going to be restricted!", cries the news. And the chatter at Starbucks and Whole Foods comes to the conclusion that golf courses and athletic fields are really bad. And lawns too. "And OMG...did you see that golf course on TV this week where they play something called---The Masters?" Ugh. It's a PR nightmare. And it's total BS. California doesn't have a water problem. We all do. 


Photographing golf holes in radiant green may be an effective way to draw attention to the state's plight. Out have come the politicians. with thundering, sweeping, mostly wrong statements and proclamations. Absurd. But the hard truth is the greenery of Palm Springs and Orange County and the Bay Area and the Sierra is not really the problem. The single most important statistic in understanding the current crisis is this: 80% of California's surface water supports agriculture, largely the farms and ranches of the Central Valley but nearly state wide. Compared to that massive flow, the residential abuses are almost an afterthought. If every single human being living south of Los Angeles packed up and moved to rainy Oregon, it wouldn't improve California's water situation as much as a mere 10% decrease in the water used by crops and livestock. If you really want to study more about water usage in California, this is the best infographic site I have seen. (from the New York Times, no less).


Northern California is vastly different than Southern California as far as water usage and water storage. The Central Valley takes up only 1% of the landmass of the United States, but it produces 25% of the food we eat, and almost half of the fruits or nuts we consume. California is running through its water supply because, for complicated reasons, it is part of feeding the rest of the country. You might want to think about the canned tomatoes, avocados, and almonds in the kitchen before denouncing the irresponsible lifestyles of the California people.


I have been an outspoken critic of watering practices in Turfgrass. In nearly every situation that I have ever seen as a consultant that was about to go off the cliff or already had, over-watering played a big part. Always. And the sucky part is that overwatering in professional sports turf is NOTHING compared to the overwatering of home and commercial landscapes. We all know this. But we have done a crappy job communicating. And that's not going to be OK going forward. There will now be demanding questions about water use. And those questions need smart answers from those who want to water grass in the future.


A mentor of mine in Denver, on a very hot summer day, said it clearly. "When the people who own houses in this neighborhood can't take long showers and can't water their lawns, we had better know how to use way less water than we do today", he said over a beer. It was a good prophesy and I took it to heart.  


With my delivery wells set around 1,400 feet doing fine and not regulated in any way. I imposed my own cutbacks, so as not to risk being wet. I didn't irrigate much and irrigated some areas very little. Re-zoned and re-wired a bunch of stuff. Installed new nozzles. Set up a better flow tree to make sure everything ran at proper pressure. Got rid of a bunch of flower beds. Changed everything in our landscapes to drip irrigation. This was 30 years ago. It wasn't tough thinking. And yes, in a dry year in Colorado we got some political pressure, but one thing for sure there weren't a lot of sprinklers running on rainy nights in Denver at anyone's golf course.


Scoffing at California water is a new sport. And you can talk about sustainability or whatever. And the politicians can come up with ways to manipulate the media into showing pictures of grass rather than almond trees (because the turfhead lobby is lesser than the almondhead lobby). But think twice before look down your nose too far or think it can't happen to you. Because the truth is California doesn't have a water problem. We all do.  




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Spot on (again) Dave. I've been in Idaho for 17 years now and not once have I been asked how much water I use! Amazing after the microscope we all lived under in AZ. I do keep detailed docs in case someone thinks about it some day. Heard the main measuring station at Snoqualmie Pass in WA was at 3% of normal snowpack. I think we may be in a spot of trouble here too.

If you haven't read Brunetti's book yet, theres an interesting discussion on pg 15-16 about the relationship between soil OM and water holding capacity. It has merit in our industry too.

Keep up the good work and hope you are well.

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I just read a Linkedin posting this morning of a column written by a very angry politico type blaming President Obama and Jerry Brown for all of California's water woes. It is refreshing to read a different viewpoint, Dave. Want to run for President? Or perhaps Governor would be enough :-)

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Wilber for President? Sure. I'll run. I'll get about 1,862 votes. I'm sure that won't be enough to win. Starting fundraising now.

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