The drought in California might be over, but managing water use likely will be a way of life forever for golf course superintendents - and everyone else with a spigot - in the country's most populous state.
Since one of the worst droughts in California's history ended in 2016 after five years, the California's reservoirs are brimming with water. The rising cost to deliver that water coupled with erratic climate conditions and uncertainty about future supplies as well as a groundwater system that still is overtaxed and might never recover all have combined to help providers and users, as well as lawmakers realize that long-term management of the state's water supply is a necessity.
For all those reasons, a law that has been in place since the early 1990s but largely forgotten since, is taking center stage as Californians plans how to manage the state's urban water supply.
"Because of the compelling nature of water in California and because of all the droughts we've had, and because we're seeing evidence of a climate that is statistically, whatever the reason may be, warmer than it used to be and not as stable as it used to be, California is now on a three-year rolling basis of reviewing this particular ordinance," said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. "Since this ordinance was adopted in 1991 or '92, it was reviewed every 10 years. That was reduced to five years, and now is every three years.
"This is important, because it takes almost three years to do it, so we're almost in permanent review of this ordinance."
That is how important water is in a state of 39 million people and that some project could swell to nearly 60 million by 2050: stakeholders there are seeking - in perpetuity - more efficient ways to use it.
Thanks to people like Kessler and others, golf has a seat at that table and they stand collectively as an example of what can be accomplished when industry stakeholders work with government officials, utility providers and even environmental groups.
Known as the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, the legislative rule was adopted in the early 1990s to "reduce the water footprint of landscape pallets of all kinds," Kessler said. That includes back yards and golf courses and everything in between. Among the goals of the ordinance is to reduce that water footprint by reducing the number or irrigated acres of turf throughout the state. And a popular target for such a philosophy is golf.
They're not anti-turf or anti-golf. But the goal is to reduce the amount of irrigated turf across the state."
What people like Kessler, Mike Huck and Jim Ferrin, CGCS, are doing is ensuring that water providers, lawmakers and environmental groups know that golf course superintendents already are well-schooled on water-use efficiency, with many throughout the state already operating for several years under voluntary cutbacks of up to 20 percent.
Throughout the review process, an independent technical panel of 11 people, comprised mostly of public utilities and environmental groups, establishes and makes recommendations to the California Department of Water Resources. That group, which includes Kessler, will meet in early December and will submit its final recommendations to the CDWR in January and an updated version of the ordinance will be in place, Kessler predicts, in about a year. Huck, an irrigation consultant and an expert on California golf's water issues, drafted the language in the current set of recommendations that relate to golf.
For the purposes of the ordinance, golf courses are lumped into a group - known as special landscape areas - with other entities like parks and cemeteries, where there is no substitute for turfgrass. The rule applies to new and rehabilitated (i.e., renovated in golf vernacular) properties and is aimed primarily at residential landscapes, Huck said. Under the current language of the rule, the SLAs are exempt in that each is allotted a certain amount of water and can manage it how they see fit.
The last time the ordinance went through the review process three years ago, there were some who wanted to permanently reduce the amount of water available to golf courses by 20 percent. Since so many already are operating under voluntary cuts, that 20 percent would actually be 64 percent of the maximum allowable water under allocation. That would be devastating for many golf courses in California.
"We've been lucky to get 100 percent of maximum allowable water under allocation. If we get .8 of that and they tell us to cut by 20 percent, now you're getting close to .6 and you're going to have turf loss with that," said Ferrin, who oversees Timber Creek and Sierra Pines golf courses in Roseville, near Sacramento.
"The problem with golfers, they hear water reductions and savings and they see courses go brown just a little bit, and there is a pushback. They stop playing. The public doesn't like it. They don't like the hard surface. . . . What do you do when you go brown? That message sure hasn't been embraced by golfers."
Kessler, a former attorney, and others were able to intervene on behalf of the state's golf industry and keep water use at 100 percent of maximum allowable water under allocation during the last review. That the panel came so close to adopting a measure that might have doomed many golf courses shows what can happen when those who don't understand how the industry works are making decisions - without input - that affect its future, Huck said.
"They're not anti-turf or anti-golf," Huck said. "But the goal is to reduce the amount of irrigated turf across the state."
Kessler can't overstate how important it is to show water providers and lawmakers how willing the industry is to work with them for a positive solution, which for many golf courses will include further reducing the amount of irrigated turf under management.
"This is an example of an industry proactively getting out in front of inevitability and writing a regulatory protocol that is most consistent with (an industry's) ability to thrive and gives you the time to do it," Kessler said.
"If we wait, we fought back the .8 (maximum allowable water under allocation) a couple of years ago, and maybe we'll be able to do it again, but at some point we'll lose that and we may lose more. . . . We just want golf courses to thrive and do business, and in the case of superintendents, keep their jobs. It's an evolutionary way of reducing your (water-use) footprint, which ultimately makes you competitive in your business because you're going to have to do that just to accommodate the cost of water in most places in California."