With water-use restrictions for golf looming once again in the nation's largest state, the time for developing a plan to conserve is before such rules become mandatory, not after.
"The time to plan for this is now," said Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. "Get the message, and let's start doing it before it is mandatory. Document what you are doing and be a good corporate and environmental citizen and life will go better for us."
When it comes to conserving water on golf courses, there is no one-size-fits-all model. Winter months historically are California's rainy season, so when fall storms last fall drenched much of the state, it is understandable if the drought-weary were anxiously awaiting what should have been a wet first three months of 2022 for even more relief.
Rather than more precipitation falling across a state mired in a three-year drought, January, February and March have been the driest first three months of the year since weather records have been kept.
In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order asking all Californians to voluntarily reduce water consumption and the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt emergency conservation measures among the state's urban water districts. The difference between current restrictions compared with the 20 percent minimum mandated by former governor Jerry Brown in 2015, is the former accounts for differences in microclimates and water supplies across the state.
The good thing about the drought is that if you've gone through it before then it is easier to communicate going forward. When you know the impact it will have on the operation, it is easier to get ahead of it. It makes it easier to communicate to stakeholders.
"The greatest lesson we learned from the last drought is to be cognizant of the fact that everything should be dictated by local water supply, which is radically different in California," Kessler said.
"I still think we're going to see mandatory restrictions, but we won't see mandatory restrictions like what we saw before. I believe it will be much more nuanced, and not like the numbers that were assigned before. This will be a looser structure that will allow local jurisdictions to define things that work there."
Justin Mandon has been superintendent at the Alister MacKenzie-designed Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, for nine years. On the western slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains about 2 miles from the northern end of Monterey Bay, Pasatiempo is one of those locations that could potentially benefit from locally derived restrictions if cutbacks extend to golf again this year.
The area receives significantly more rain than courses on the Monterey Peninsula 50 miles to the south.
"If you look across to Pebble Beach and Cypress Point, they get 30 to 40 percent of the rain we get," Mandon said. "And if you go over the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose, they get 50 percent of what we get. When the rain hits the mountains, it just stalls."
So far, the voluntary cutbacks do not include golf, and also excludes schools, sports fields and cemeteries, but many expect use restrictions to be expanded if drought conditions that have dominated California for much of the last 22 years persist through the summer. Because further cutbacks appear to be imminent, Kessler, California's resident expert on the relationship between golf and water, says now is the time to develop a savings plan.
The greatest lesson we learned from the last drought is to be cognizant of the fact that everything should be dictated by local water supply, which is radically different in California.
"It always does (include golf) in one way or the other," Kessler said.
"This is a clue to get out front. If you are proactive and get out front before they make you (reduce water use), it will always go better for you."
Proponents of the governor's current approach see the merit in leaving conservation up to the state's 421 individual water districts to manage the flow in their own jurisdictions based on local need and supply.
"This is a serious drought that requires serious action," said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, a non-profit association that represents 27 urban water districts that serve 27 million water users. "We learned a lot from the last drought. In addition to the increased drought planning requirements and responsible preparation that were put in place, the governor is wisely focusing on local shortage contingency plans with today's executive order. Urban water agencies throughout the state have water-shortage contingency plans that can be activated right away to ensure conservation and other actions consistent with their region's unique circumstances.
"Managing through this drought requires each and every Californian to reduce their water usage. The governor's order today recognizes the diversity of California communities and their water supply conditions. Ordering agencies to exercise their specific plans strikes that important balance of statewide needs and local action."
Detractors of the plan who remember the across-the-board mandates of 2015 say the current plan does not go far enough.
An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News on March 30 read: "As California's devastating drought worsens, Gov. Gavin Newsom's leadership has run dry. . . . (W)ith no signs that this historic drought is relenting, Newsom on Monday again refused to impose mandatory water restrictions on urban users. Instead, our spineless governor ordered the state's 420 water agencies, which serve 90% of California residents, to tighten their water conservation rules, allowing each provider to set its own plan. . . . No statewide water reduction goal. No set of simple rules for Californians to follow. No equal sacrifice for the benefit of all. No leadership from the top."
Pasatiempo received plenty of rain last fall, but it has been pretty dry there since. Through a deal with nearby Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz trades its potable water for recycled water from its neighbor. The deal gives Scotts Valley the drinking water it needs and provides an outlet for disposing of its reclaimed water. A wastewater treatment plant on site at Pasatiempo provides Mandon with plenty of water to irrigate the golf course.
It has been so dry so far in 2022 Mandon is considering firing up the treatment plant early.
"This is our rainy season, so you don't want to be irrigating right now. If you are irrigating this time of year, then you are extremely dry," Mandon said. "Typically, I would not consider turning on the wastewater treatment plant until May, sometimes not until June. At this rate, I might be turning it on in a couple of weeks."
I still think we're going to see mandatory restrictions, but we won't see mandatory restrictions like what we saw before. I believe it will be much more nuanced, and not like the numbers that were assigned before. This will be a looser structure that will allow local jurisdictions to define things that work there.
Mandon was superintendent through the 2014-16 drought. For superintendents who have been through drought before, the experience will help them prepare members if cutbacks return.
"The good thing about the drought is that if you've gone through it before then it is easier to communicate going forward," Mandon said. "When you know the impact it will have on the operation, it is easier to get ahead of it. It makes it easier to communicate to stakeholders."
As a longtime superintendent in California, Austin Daniells is no stranger to drought, either. A regional superintendent for U.S. Navy golf courses in California, Daniells was the superintendent at the Navy's Monterey Pines course when then-Gov. Brown mandated blanket water cuts seven years ago. He said he is in constant conservancy mode, making it easy for him to pivot if and when mandated restrictions are implemented.
"Monterey is on a well, so it always felt like we were in restrictions," said Daniells, who also is superintendent at Admiral Baker Golf Course, a 36-hole Navy facility in San Diego. "We knew the well would not produce as much water by the end of the summer and we had to manage it."
In constant water-saving mode, Daniells maximized coverage at Monterey Pines through a program that included finding the right wetting agents for use on cool-season grass in an area with a 12-month golf season, dialing in nutrition and adjusting and moving irrigation heads.
"We always paid attention to weather in the summer, and we knew when we had to back off, or when we could push it," he said. "As far as restrictions, I dove into wetting agents more in the last five to 10 years than I ever have before. You have to find one that works for your property. I found some that work for me. When you have to cut back during a drought, the golf course might not be what you want to put out there, but by managing irrigation and using wetting agents, you're not losing turf when you have to cut back."
The time to plan for this is now. Get the message, and let's start doing it before it is mandatory. Document what you are doing and be a good corporate and environmental citizen and life will go better for us.
Newsom dialed up voluntary cutbacks last year in hopes it would result in water savings of 15 percent. The ask resulted in use reductions of about 6.2 percent. But that does not tell all of the story, said Kessler. Water use in California is down 16 percent from the last drought that lasted from 2014 to 2016.
"That's 6.2 percent off of 16 percent," he said. "You put those two together, and we are using substantially less water than we did eight to 10 years ago."
The length of California's drought depends on who you ask. With nearly the entire state in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, some say the current dry period is in its third year. However, many climatologists believe the past three years are part of a longer megadrought that began 22 years ago.
While a history of drought provides an opportunity to communicate with golfers about how cutting back water use might affect playing conditions, Daniells said golfers historically have been pretty understanding.
"We're already behind the 8 ball every year anyway," he said. "When we cut back, if we focus down the middle, I don't know if it really affects the golfer. As a superintendent, I want the property to look the best it can year-round, we all do. At the same time, if we focus down the middle, we can make down the middle look as good as we can in the heat of the summer and still provide a quality product."