Golf properties in the Bay Area are dealing with the state-wide drought in different ways, some opting to leave swaths of land unirrigated, while others chase expensive recycled water, and some are even forced to close.
Bay Area golf courses are dealing with the California drought in a variety of ways, in some cases leaving large swaths of land unirrigated and in other cases chasing elusive, expensive recycled water, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The South Course at Alameda’s Chuck Corica Golf Complex, when it reopens next year, will feature grass needing less water than usual. Diablo Country Club, near Danville, no longer irrigates nearly 40 percent of its course and plans to spend millions of dollars to build its own recycled-water plant, the Chronicle reported.
Stevinson Ranch in Merced County, once ranked the No. 5 public layout in the U.S. by readers of Golf World magazine, took another route: it closed Saturday, the Chronicle reported.
New restrictions are forcing Bay Area courses to become adept at conservation. Abby Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), described the 19 golf courses in her agency’s service area as “much more efficient” with water management than residential customers, the Chronicle reported.
EBMUD’s single-family residential customers trimmed collective water use from 85.9 million gallons per day in 2013 to 72.8 million in 2014, a 15 percent reduction. Those 19 golf courses cut their use from about 2.3 million gallons per day in 2013 to 1.8 million last year, a drop of nearly 22 percent, the Chronicle reported.
This year, EBMUD asked irrigation customers such as golf courses—along with school districts, parks, universities and cemeteries—to reduce their use by 40 percent from 2013 levels. Still, the sheer volume of water required to maintain a course makes the golf industry a logical target during a drought. The water used last year by the 19 courses in EBMUD’s domain is approximately the same as what 8,000 households used, Figueroa told the Chronicle.
Stevinson Ranch owner George Kelley envisions the day when courses in California are required to use recycled water, also known as reclaimed water. About one-third currently do, according to Max Gomberg of the State Water Resources Control Board. Kelley couldn’t make it work at Stevinson Ranch, so he understands the urgency for golf’s future, the Chronicle reported.
“Any course with the opportunity to use reclaimed water should be doing it,” Kelley said. “To use potable water on golf is a crime, in my opinion.”
Stevinson Ranch offers an extreme example. So does Diablo Grande in Patterson (Stanislaus County), which shut its Legends course last year because of water issues. San Francisco’s Gleneagles Golf Course nearly closed last year because of rising water costs. Tom Hsieh, who runs the rough-edged and demanding nine-hole course, ultimately reached a new lease agreement with the city, the Chronicle reported.
Cinnabar Hills in San Jose reduced watering in its fairways, started aerating more often and eliminated ornamental flowering in front of the clubhouse. General manager Ron Zraick knows recycled water is the best long-term solution, but that’s complicated because the course sits more than 5 miles from the nearest source, the Chronicle reported.
“It’s not as simple as laying a hose down and having water delivered,” Zraick said.
Menlo Country Club in Woodside, which reopened in July 2014 after an extensive renovation, quickly faced severe restrictions from its local agency, requiring about a 50 percent cut in water use. Now wide portions of the course go unwatered, the Chronicle reported.
Stevinson Ranch’s closure ended its 20-year run as a popular destination for Bay Area players. A canal traverses the course and historically provides water to Kelley’s land and that of adjacent landowners. Now there’s no water flowing through the canal for the first time in 125 years, according to Kelley (whose family has been on the property almost that long), the Chronicle reported.
Kelley also used ryegrass when he opened Stevinson Ranch in 1995. That’s a decision he came to regret, because ryegrass requires 40 to 50 percent more water than hybrid Bermuda. “It was a combination of economics and lack of water, basically,” Kelley said of the decision to close. “In retrospect, if I knew then what I know now, I would have planted hybrid Bermuda.”
Kelley tried other ways to find affordable water, to no avail. It didn’t help when rounds played at the course fell more than 20 percent, a reflection of golf’s lingering struggle to attract and keep players, the Chronicle reported.
The game’s cost and time demands usually count as the biggest challenges. But navigating the water shortage—especially for California courses, and especially if the drought extends into 2016 and beyond—will be just as important, the Chronicle reported.
Meadow Club in Fairfax found an innovative, efficient tool when it recently upgraded its pump station. The station now sends four automated text messages each day to superintendent Sean Tully, helping him monitor water use and make any needed adjustments, the Chronicle reported.
Still, the truth remains: More courses will need to say goodbye to green grass. “I think you’re going to see a lot more brown than you’ve seen in the past,” said Olympic Club General Manager Pat Finlen, who spent 11 years as the club’s superintendent, “and it’s going to be acceptable.”
That’s already happening at Diablo. The club satisfied EBMUD’s request to cut water use by 40 percent, mostly by significantly reducing the amount of irrigated turf. Diablo General Manager Larry Marx also peered further ahead in launching a pioneering program to build a recycled-water plant. The project is going through environmental reviews, with Diablo hoping to break ground early next year and have water flowing by late 2016 or early 2017, the Chronicle reported.
The club would own and operate the plant. The cost, described by Marx as “in the millions,” will be financed by “generations of members. This is about sustainability, being a good conservation partner and getting off the grid,” Marx said.
However, this is not a realistic avenue for most courses. Local and regional agencies sometimes share the expense in building the necessary infrastructure; Proposition 1, approved in November, included $725 million in bond money for water-recycling projects. Chuck Corica complex, unlike Diablo, had access to reclaimed water via a plant near the Oakland airport. The same is true in San Francisco, where pipelines from a Daly City water plant provide recycled water to Harding Park, Olympic Club, Lake Merced and San Francisco Golf Club, the Chronicle reported.
The company operating Alameda’s courses, Greenway Golf, which includes Kelley (of Stevinson Ranch) as part-owner, is spending $6 million to $9 million for the long-planned redesign of the South Course, built in 1957. Water issues weren’t the motive for the renovation, but they quickly became part of the plan, the Chronicle reported.
The central tenet is to use hybrid Bermuda to reduce the amount of water needed to maintain the course. Marc Logan, one of Kelley’s partners, insisted the Bermuda will thrive in Alameda and trim water use by more than 30 percent, the Chronicle reported.
Logan previously worked in Australia, which has been dealing with a drought for decades. He anticipates the South Course will require water only once every 10 days; the North Course, with another kind of warm-season grass (Kikuyu), needs water about once per week, the Chronicle reported.
“It makes all the sense in the world,” Logan said. “The only downside with warm-season grasses is they go dormant in winter—to me, that’s a fair trade-off.”
No doubt it’s a trade-off Kelley would have made if he were more drought-savvy in 1995, when he built Stevinson Ranch. Instead, he struggled with his emotions approaching Saturday’s closure, the Chronicle reported.
“I’m kind of in denial,” Kelley said. “A lot of courses are closing in America, but not many great ones.”