The Palm Springs Desert Sun’s request for information was denied, with the agencies citing “a constitutional right to privacy and an obligation to protect individual customer data.” Meanwhile, low groundwater levels forced wells to be shut at Maderas Golf Club.
Recent requests by the Palm Springs (Calif.) Desert Sun for records showing details of water usage by individual golf course were denied by the two largest water districts serving the Coachella Valley region, the newspaper reported.
The newspaper said it sought information about area courses’ use of recycled sewage and water brought by canal from the Colorado River. But the Coachella Valley Water District (CVVD) and the Desert Water Agency have argued that such records should remain private, the Desert Sun reported.
“There’s a constitutional right to privacy, and we have an obligation to protect individual customer data,” CVWD Board President John Powell Jr., said on January 28. “We’re treating it as the same thing, whether it’s a person or a different type of entity.”
The subject of water use by the Coachella Valley’s 124 golf courses has increasingly become a topic of discussion, given declines in groundwater levels, the Desert Sun noted. Golf courses use about one-fourth of the water that is pumped from the ground in the Coachella Valley, the Desert Sun reported, and efforts to shift courses to other sources, such as recycled water, have taken on new urgency as California copes with a severe drought.
Following a series of articles in 2013 in which The Desert Sun documented long-term receding of the aquifer, Board members of the Coachella Valley Water District announced plans to speed efforts to wean more golf courses from groundwater, the newspaper noted.
A total of 22 golf courses in the region now use a mix of recycled water and Colorado River water, the Desert Sun reported, while 28 other courses use canal water from the Colorado River. Most courses still depend on groundwater pumping.
Managers of golf courses have recently sought to step up efforts to reduce their water footprint, and are forming a task force focused on water conservation, the Desert Sun reported. Representatives of golf courses planned to meet privately with several CVWD officials on January 29 to decide on a mission statement and work out other details of the task force, it was noted.
The Coachella Valley Water District typically releases annual reports showing pumping of groundwater by private entities including farms, golf courses and resorts, the Desert Sun reported. The water agencies also report estimates of aggregate water usage by sector.
But the water agencies have declined to release additional data that would provide a comprehensive picture of water use by golf courses and would allow more detailed analysis, the Desert Sun reported. The disagreement has prompted the newspaper and the water districts to consult their attorneys.
“Water is a public resource, and it’s our job to protect the public’s interest,” said the Desert Sun’s Executive Editor, Greg Burton. “The water districts are telling us that converting golf courses to recycled and canal water is a pivotal step to preserving our aquifer. Unfortunately, there’s no way to independently verify the impact unless we review all of the data.”
David Luker, general manager and chief engineer of DWA, said in a letter to The Desert Sun that “those records are not public information” and that it has been the agency’s practice not to disclose private customer data.
CVWD’s board voted to deny the Desert Sun’s request on November 26. After a discussion in closed session, Board member Peter Nelson said the board “has found that the public interest of the nondisclosure outweighs the public interest of disclosure.”
Both water agencies have cited a provision of state law that says “nothing in this chapter shall be construed to require the disclosure of the name, credit history, utility usage data, home address or telephone number of utility customers of local agencies.” It also says that such information may be disclosed “upon determination by the local agency that the public interest in disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.”
Peter Scheer, Executive Director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, told the Desert Sun that the law was meant to protect the privacy of individuals, but it wasn’t addressed to large businesses such as golf courses.
“I think they’re stretching this provision and they’re not prohibited by the public records act from disclosing the data about golf courses, and in a period of drought like we’re in, it would certainly be very much in the public interest to know about water usage by golf courses,” Scheer said.
Government agencies should be doing everything possible — especially given the governor’s recent declaration of a drought emergency —to provide as much information as possible about how water is being used, he added.
“I can’t even imagine what the argument would be that there’s a greater public interest in suppressing this information than in making it public,” Scheer said. “It’s the wrong time to be interpreting the law as narrowly as they can.”
Craig Kessler, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, said that other public utilities have generally taken similar positions about customer privacy, but that cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego have begun giving golf courses annual water “budgets” that set requirements for reductions in water usage and penalize any that exceed their budget.
“It is really just a matter of time before California follows suit with other Western states and begins to compel information about groundwater supply/usage,” Kessler said in an e-mail to the Desert Sun. Kessler added that he doesn’t know of any such bill before the Legislature for now.
The Desert Sun’s report on the denial of their request included data on groundwater usage by private entities in the valley that it obtained through CVWD Engineer’s Reports in April 2013. Mission Hills Country Club was the second-highest user on the list, behind Anthony Vineyards. Other club and resort properties on the list included the Vintage Club, Lakes Country Club, Westin Mission Hills Resort, Ironwood Country Club, Palm Valley Country Club, Rancho La Quinta, Marriott Ownership Resorts and Bighorn Golf Club.
Meanwhile, the Pomerado (Calif.) News reported that a drop in the groundwater level had forced the Maderas Golf Club in Poway, Calif. to shut off well water pumping at three of its nine locations.
The level in well No. 6, being used as a test site under terms of a conditional-use permit issued by the city, was down to 180 feet on January 10, according to a required report submitted by the golf course’s owner, Sunroad Enterprises, the News reported.
The permit requires pumping at three wells on the east side of the country club to be shut off until a future measurement at No. 6 shows a water level of at least 178 feet. Measurements are taken monthly and are posted on the city’s website.
The golf course resumed pumping a few days after a 3-2 City Council vote on November 19 permitted groundwater pumping of water for golf course irrigation purposes, the News reported. All wells were turned off in August 2011 in response to concerns expressed by Old Coach Estates neighbors, who live east of the golf course, that their well-water levels were dropping due to golf course pumping. Sunroad is limited to removing 173 acre feet (56.4 million gallons) of water per year, the News reported.
At the November 19 meeting, which was attended by over 100 people, Sunroad representatives presented studies to show that no relationship existed between pumping on the golf course and declining water tables in nearby private wells. Several of the 17 people who spoke against having the council approve a modified permit insisted that the golf course was the reason their wells ran dry.
Since opening more than 12 years ago, Maderas GC has depended on a combination of well water and municipal water to keep its approximately 88 acres of landscaping green, the News reported.
Maderas GC’s water-management efforts have been included in C&RB’s special two-part series on water management in its December 2013 and February 2014 issues. (Read the December installment here: http://clubandresortbusiness.com/2013/12/23/fluid-situation/)