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John Reitman

By John Reitman

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Navigating the drought

Aerial images show areas in front of the tees where water has been turned off.

For many superintendents in California, recent government-mandated water-use restrictions present a new set of challenges. For others who have made a habit of conserving water in recent years, like Justin Mandon at Pasatiempo Golf Club, reducing consumption by exponential amounts has become the rule, not the exception.

 
Mandon is in his third season as superintendent at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, and for the past two, he has been operating under city-mandated Stage 3 restrictions that have meant the amount of water available to the course has been cut by 50 percent.
 
When restrictions of 50 percent were announced by the City of Santa Cruz in spring 2014, developing a strategy for maintaining playability while conforming to these cutbacks became top priority not only for Mandon, but the rest of the club's management team as well.
 
About 30 acres of irrigated turf already had been replaced by native grasses during a 2009 restoration, so there wasn't a lot of area on the perimeter that could be converted out of managed turf. And a new irrigation system that went in the ground during that project meant water already was being distributed at peak efficiency.
 
Finding a way to be in compliance while not compromising the integrity of this 1929 Alister MacKenzie design required a team effort that included general manager Scott Hoyt and head golf professional Ken Woods. They proved invaluable to the process because they viewed the course from a player's perspective and provided the ability to approach membership as a united front.
 
"Ken has a better ideas of where shots are going to land throughout the course, and so does Scott," Mandon said. "Me, I'm just trying to save water."
 
The plan eventually included turning off water to the practice range as well as the first 30 to 40 yards in front of each forward tee.
 
"Working on this together was the only way we could do it. We all recognized that," Mandon said. "We had some heated and deep conversations on the golf course. We got it all out of our systems before going to the board. From those disagreements came a plan, and we're all taking responsibility for it. We went to the board as a team and told them what we were going to do. They were very supportive of our decision."
 
Mandated restrictions statewide stem from an April 1 directive by Gov. Jerry Brown, who ordered the state's 400-plus urban water districts to cut use statewide by 25 percent through June 2016. His order was implemented by the California Water Resources Control Board, which directed each of the state's 411 urban water providers to reduce usage by 8 percent to 36 percent (based on 2013 usage data). How much each district was required to save was based on location and prior consumption. Each district has been granted a wide berth as to how it meets its specific reduction quota.
 
The Marin Municipal Water District north of San Francisco is required to curb its water consumption by 20 percent.
 
Meadow Club director of grounds David Sexton and superintendent Sean Tully have been stingy in how they distribute water for years, so members at the course in Fairfax, a 1927 MacKenzie design and his first in the United States, likely won't notice much of a difference moving forward.
 
"We've been looking for ways to conserve water since David first got here more than 30 years ago," Tully said. "It has only gotten easier with all of the tools we have available today - irrigation system upgrades, wetting agents, and moisture meters have been integral in our water use reductions.
 
"We are part of the community, and we're already good stewards of the environment and we're going to continue to do that. We are part of the solution, not part of the problem."
 
To that end, Tully takes soil-moisture readings three days a week and uses the data to map areas on greens that are too dry, or too wet.
 

We are part of the community, and we're already good stewards of the environment and we're going to continue to do that. We are part of the solution, not part of the problem."

 
His pump station sends him text messages four times per day telling him how much water is being used and when. If water use increases, he knows right away, like in 2014 when he adopted new hose nozzles for hand-watering in hopes of cutting water use even more. Instead, he noticed he was using more water, not less, so he went back to using the old nozzles.
 
"If you're not paying attention, the numbers can get out of whack real fast," Tully said. 
 
This year, he's been removing heads throughout the course and drying down areas to reduce water use even more. 
 
Using less water has a trickle down effect that means additional savings elsewhere. Less water means less disease pressure, fewer pesticide and fertilizer apps and mowing less frequently.
 
"We are drier, firmer and faster. That means we're spraying less," he said. "I've gotten away from spraying preventively. With the climate here, I can get away with that. Not everyone can."
 
Native grasses that Tully thought had been squeezed out through the years gradually have taken advantage of the arid conditions and have begun to reclaim areas where they once thrived.
 
"We had a lot of non-native grasses that had overgrown the perennial stuff in our naturalized areas. We thought we'd lost the perennial grasses," he said. "Now, the non-native grasses are gone and the perennials are coming back gangbusters.
 
"We still have some non-native grasses, they're just not as prolific. It's a work in progress."
 
Steve Agin has cut his water use by more than 20 percent in part by reducing irrigation on the driving range by about 80 percent.
 
About 30 miles east of Oakland in Pleasanton, Steve Agin began reducing water use at Ruby Hill Golf Club long before the governor told him he had to, and long before the Zone 7 water district implemented mandatory reductions of 24 percent.
 
When the state asked for voluntary cutbacks last year, Agin curbed usage by 23 percent by reducing irrigation in the club's 14-acre practice range and in the roughs. That made compliance with this year's mandatory cuts much more palatable. This year, he's met his requirement by continuing to dry down the roughs and reducing irrigation on the practice range by 80 percent. There, he waters targets only, which he says is more cost effective than applying colorants every four to five weeks. His plan has been embraced by the club's administration, including director of golf Nigel Rouse, a native of Manchester, England, who says the new look makes him homesick.
 
"He liked the look and the playability," Agin said. "He said it reminded him of England."
 
Even homeowners in the Ruby Hill community, who also were ordered to cut water use, came to Agin seeking advice on how to maintain some semblance of a lawn without incurring fines or surcharges for exceeding their quota.
 
"We have to do this while trying to retain members and attract new ones," Agin said. "It's tough.
 
"Homeowners have embraced it more than I thought they would, and that has helped us get over the hump. It makes it easier to handle when you have that support."
 
The City of Santa Cruz has been a pioneer in how to use less water.
 
Directed by the Water Resources Control Board to cut its use by 8 percent, the city is requiring its customers to be far more judicious in their water use. Unlike other water districts that are using 2013 as a benchmark for determining cutbacks, Santa Cruz is basing its reductions on real-time data. Mandon says that provides him with much more accurate information when determining how much water he can use. It also requires much more detailed reporting on his part.
 
The city receives an average of nearly 32 inches of rain per year, so there is no shortage of water, compared with nearby cities like San Jose that receive half that amount. For Santa Cruz, much of which is on the western slope of a mountain, the challenge has been catching and keeping rainfall for a city growing at a steady clip of nearly 4 percent per year.
 
"Santa Cruz has just gotten bigger and bigger. Water is pumped from the San Lorenzo River into just one reservoir," Mandon said. "We've had almost 30 inches of rain in the past year. It's about not having enough storage capacity, not about enough water."
 
Each April 15, the city announces what restrictions, if any, it will enact to get through the summer. Those restrictions go into effect May 1 and remain in place through at least Nov. 1. The baseline on which those restrictions are established is the result of a complex formula that determines how many gallons of water are needed daily to irrigate an area based on acreage, a landscape (turf) coefficient, daily ET and precipitation. That number, theoretically, can change daily. And although it means Mandon is able to irrigate off real-time data and real-time needs, it also means he has to monitor his use daily to avoid real-time penalties.
 
"It's great that it's based on current conditions, but the hard part is the work involved," Mandon said. "We can't wait for six weeks and get a bill and see where we are then. You're fined $66,000 for every million gallons you're over budget.
 
"I put all our data into an Excel document and compare it to meter readings. By season's end last year, we were within 1 to 1.5 percent."
 
Navigating through restrictions requires walking a fine line between golfer expectations and the negative PR golf receives from outside the industry. There already are many detractors of the game who believe the game symbolizes a waste of water resources. The drought has brought out more of them. For facilities in California, success might be reserved for those who can educate people on both sides of the issue.
 
"It's frustrating for superintendents and golfers," Mandon said. "We have to change their perception of what a golf course should look like."
 
This is part of a multi-part series on golf and water in California.

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