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October 2022

Are There Bridges Over Troubled Waters?

bridge.jpg

Golf is Building Them in Southern California

By Harvey Silverman

Day in day out, my tear-stained face
Pressed against the windowpane
My eyes search the skies, desperately for rain
“I Wish It Would Rain,” The Temptations

“It’s better to fall short of high aspirations than to meet low expectation.” With that quote, borrowing from Michelangelo, SCGA Director of Public Affairs Craig Kessler opened the much anticipated Southern California Golf and Water Summit on Aug. 18. The "high aspirations" included learning how the Southern California golf community has been meeting the challenges of scarcity and increasing costs, and more importantly, aspires to continue meeting these challenges no matter what may come its way.

We've seen both ends of the precipitation spectrum displayed this summer as climate change takes a firmer grip on our weather. From five 1000-year rainstorms in five weeks to devastating droughts on both coasts, from Massachusetts to California and across the Southwest, we’re feeling and witnessing existential conditions unlike any in our lifetimes.

Golf cannot survive without water. It's why a "Golf and Water Summit" was organized. It's not the first water meeting to be held there, but as you'll read below, this one had national implications. Most notably is the conglomeration of associations and organizations that sponsored and presented to a crowd of over 220 people, led by co-sponsors SCGA (Southern California Golf Association), MWD (Metropolitan Water District of Southern California), the largest water provider in the country servicing directly and indirectly over 19 million people, and the USGA (we know who they are). Others in the alphabet soup of stakeholders included: the SCPGA (Southern California PGA section), CGCOA (California Golf Course Owners Assoc), GCSAA/GCSAAC (Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and its California chapter), and PRM (Performance Resource Management, a private business). The event was held at NGCOA stalwart David Kramer's Los Serranos Golf Club, in Chino Hills, Calif., which made a substantial financial contribution. The inimitable Geoff Shackelford emceed the event.

The list of speakers represents a top-shelf selection of water and turf experts from around the country, listed here.

The national implications are made evident in this chart. It's hard to understand at first, so let me help. Two issues were presented in a survey, "Water Scarcity" and "Water Cost." Threats for each were rated on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being "no worries, be happy" and 5 being "Houston, we have a problem." Reading across shows the percentage of respondents answering 1-5 (there should be a bold line down the center of the results). About half, 48.9%, of U.S. courses have no concern about water scarcity, and more than that, 58.2%, have no concern about cost. Alarmingly, only 22.7% in the Southwest, currently amid a 1,200-year drought, cite scarcity as a major concern; and 24.6% express significant concerns about cost. And only 5.2% in the Northeast considered scarcity a major problem – and now we have Massachusetts in a statewide drought. 


Brian Reed is the golf course manager for Simi Hills and Sinaloa municipal golf courses in Simi Valley, Calif., owned by the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. Reed is a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer, so water has been a part of his professional life for a long time. He attended the Golf and Water Summit and finds himself deeply involved with water issues that are an existential and immediate threat to his courses’ survival. Reed offered comments following the summit.

Q: Brian, how do you and your owners see and manage the ongoing water crisis?

Brian: We've seen this coming for a long time, but there is no way to forecast the severity. You are right; the drought is an existential threat to our golf courses, along with many others. That makes it an existential threat to the game and any growth it hopes to achieve, at least in California and the Southwest.

But I saw data at the summit that speaks to the much larger and broader implications of climate change. The graph on “rainfall variability” (shown below) shows just how messed up we are. The recent record rainfalls in Kentucky, Dallas and elsewhere, along with the drought in Massachusetts, make me wonder if I'd rather have a drought or a drainage problem. Either way, golf courses are threatened by the broad spectrum of our climate's variability. 


Q: So what are the plans for your courses?

Brian: Well, the timing of this summit was great for me since we are just jumping into the planning process for our irrigation renovation. I will definitely look into the subsurface irrigation initiative since the USGA talked about incentives to pursue this. I will also definitely reach out to others in California who have already taken and achieved positive steps toward water conservation.

This year, I was given $3M for my irrigation projects, $2.5M for construction, and $500K for revenue offset. We plan to do construction without closing the course down, just working on one or two holes at a time and giving golfers a discount to keep them playing through the project.

As it turns out, our irrigation designer returned with a range of $3.9M - $4.8M. Everything we do is more expensive since we are a public agency and must go out for public bid (prevailing wage). If I had another $1M free and clear on top of that, I would install sub-surface irrigation on our tee boxes. The presentation on that was impressive and could be a solution for tee boxes. The sub-surface irrigation technology is relatively new, and some kinks must be worked out. I think there is good potential for smaller plots, like a tee box, and there would definitely be water savings from evaporation and no wasteful overspray. But you'd have to be an Augusta National or Merion or Kohler to afford a full-course sub-surface irrigation installation.

Q: Did you try the "firm and fast" technique during the last drought, 2016-2018, promoted by national organizations?

Brian: Yes, to an extent. We've kept out-of-play areas as natural as we can without irrigation. But Justin Mandon from Pasatiempo spoke about what it tried when its water was cut 60%. Some members, especially the older ones, initially loved "firm and fast." They were hitting it in bunkers they hadn't seen in 25 years. But invariably, the fast and brown turf eventually turned into fast and dead dirt, which wears thin, pun intended. So we're not going in that direction, and I doubt other courses will, either.

Q: The USGA has taken a leadership role in golf course sustainability. What did you learn from its presentation?

Brian: The USGA segment on research and water initiatives generated a lot of questions and comments. The idea that the USGA is getting on message and trying to support change in the industry is great but stood in stark contrast with Dr. Unruh's earlier presentation about water-rich and water-poor courses. Why the USGA proposed a 45% cut in water use nationwide was asked. It was especially salient since many courses in the east and southeast have almost unlimited water falling from the sky and never even consider irrigating their courses. Achieving a 45% cut in water use nationwide would require courses that rely on irrigation to cut significantly more. Many of those courses have already cut water use as much as they responsibly could. It kind of showed the USGA as slightly underthinking their initiative, especially since Dr. Unruh started his presentation with the statement that he got 78 inches of rain in Florida. The presenter was very good and earnestly interested in helping. Still, he ended up defending an initiative that seemed to be a little out of step with the issues many courses in the Southwest, and especially Southern California, are dealing with. (Note – news is the USGA might be rethinking its “45%” campaign, and we’ll wait to see). 

Q: What’s the takeaway for other NGCOA members?

Brian: I think the take-home message to other NCGOA members is to open the lines of communication to your local water district and other policy-making agencies and institutions to make sure golf has a seat at the table regarding drought restrictions and policies that can directly affect their business. Also, stay tuned to advocacy efforts by golf's leading organizations and get involved. Cooperation and collaboration are the keys to protecting our businesses and the game of golf itself.

Kessler added his closing comments, "The organizers of the summit aimed to conduct a meeting that would get beyond the cozy confines of the golf community to reach the greater confines of the world that controls golf's destiny – office holders, public policymakers, water districts, public utilities, and the non-golf media. And we aimed to do it to convey golf's 100% commitment to working collaboratively and cooperatively with all of them to achieve the water footprint reductions that golf considers central to its ability to thrive in an arid Southwest that appears to be getting warmer and drier. Based on the size and eclectic nature of the 220-person crowd, I think we hit our marks."

Golf is singularly challenged nationwide because of its visible presence, especially in urban and suburban areas. Cooperation and collaboration are required to conquer the myriad issues we face, including water, taxes, housing development, environmental and more. The Southern California Golf and Water Summit is an example of how the golf course industry must shed its fragmented personality and organize for advocacy. Its survival depends on it.

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