Even in the middle of a cold and rainy winter in the Coachella Valley and California in general, officials with the Coachella Valley Water District have a blunt message for the desert golf course industry: Take the ongoing drought seriously, because changes may be coming to the water sooner rather than later.
said Dr. Robert Cheng, assistant general manager for CVWD and one of the keynote speakers at the Golf & Water Summit, which drew more than 150 golf industry officials Wednesday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. “We hope to paint an accurate picture, dire, that additional action is needed from the golf industry to help them continue to maintain viability in this current situation.”
Golf course supervisors and general managers from across the desert heard presentations on developments in drought-tolerant grasses and technological advances that could help save water for the 120 courses in the desert. But Cheng and Pete Nelson, director of CVWD, gave a more significant presentation on the state of the Colorado Basin and how water from the Colorado River can no longer be relied upon as a long-term solution to irrigation needs for golf courses or farming in the desert.
“The facts on the ground in the desert never created any sense of urgency,” said Craig Kessler, director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association and president of the Coachella Valley Golf & Water Club. “But the point of today’s presentation is that the facts on the ground are now creating a sense of urgency in the Coachella Valley golf community as well, precisely because it is the Colorado River water appropriation that must be dealt with.”
more:The Land of Perpetual Dryness: Coachella Valley golf courses are cutting water use
Eighteen golf courses served by CVWD use strictly river water for irrigation, while over 30 others use a mixture of river water, recycled water, and groundwater pumped from the sub-Saharan aquifer. A desert course can use up to 1 million gallons of water per day in the heat of summer, and less in the cold winter months. River water has been an inconsistent source of water, with Cheng saying the region has received as much as 70 percent of its contracted allotment in some years since mid-2010, but only five percent of that allotment in each of the past three years.
This valley has survived drought. That was the whole point for me making the point to 2014 (a drought year with only 5 percent allocation). “I mean, something happened, and we’re still alive,” Cheng said. “I think the story now, as we start January 2023, is a different world. I think highlighting the conversation and intensity of drought in the 23rd year of drought is real.”
Nelson told the gathering how water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado River continue to drop. Even with snowpack in the Colorado basin at 126 percent, Nelson said that would provide just a little more water than is needed for an average year, not enough to eradicate two decades of drought in the basin that supplies water to seven states and Mexico.
“The 7 million acres of water (in the snowpack this year) just doesn’t meet the demand of the 9 million acres in the lower basin,” Nelson said. “This is Arizona, California and southern Nevada. Interestingly, this is where all the golf courses are, right?”
Federal mandates coming?
Nelson is part of negotiations that are trying to reach consensus by the end of the month on a framework to keep the lakes above levels needed to generate electricity and provide water for the Colorado basin. He told the public on Wednesday that he was not confident that an agreement could be reached by January 31, which would allow the US Bureau of Reclamation to come up with its own plan.
“Will the office come up with its own framework? They will look at things like reasonable and beneficial use of water. From a government standpoint, this is a 417 measure. So they look at water use and see whether it is reasonable and beneficial. Your observation and mine of what is reasonable may differ and helpful for their observations.”
Chris Bean, golf course supervisor for Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert and president of the Hi-Lo Desert Golf Course Superintendents Association, said Wednesday’s turnout showed that golf facilities take water conservation seriously.
“We talk about it more than we used to, and having this many people in the room sitting there for two and a half hours listening to everyone’s opinions, well, everyone came in because they wanted to hear about it,” said Bianne. “So definitely we’re taking it more seriously.”
Tim Putnam, director of agricultural engineering for the La Quinta Country Club, said he attended the meeting to hear about future restrictions on Colorado River water. Putnam said his club could move quickly on some conservation projects.
“We have a turf reduction design ready to go. That’s why we asked the question. If we apply this immediately, we’ll get the credit,” Putnam said of impending mandates for cuts. “If they stick to a water budget, you have a water budget based on the area in your facility, and you have to reduce the amount of that budget, not Just a flat to say 20 percent when you’re actually watering super efficiently. “
Another concern of supervisors and general managers was financing such a project. The clubs estimate the cost of uprooting one acre of turf and replacing it with drought-tolerant plants and irrigation at $15,000 to $20,000, and the return on this investment is long-term. Some new funding for such projects may be on the way through the federal inflation-reduction law passed last August. Some of the money from this law is set aside to fund water conservation projects. Cheng told the crowd that by May, CVWD will be ready to help golf courses apply for the money.
“The message we hope (golf officials) will take seriously is that we want the golf course industry to continue,” Cheng said, noting that golf employs about 8,000 people in the desert and generates $700 million in revenue. “We know the importance of that. Right now, we have a golden opportunity to access some funding from the federal government to help you achieve some of these conservation measures.”
“There is confusion about how it can be sold to a membership or a municipality,” said a statement. “You want to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this and we’re going to pay for it, or we’re going to get financing for it.'” And we don’t know we’ll actually have that, and it’s hard to say. So I think we’re all trying to do other[conservation work]in addition to that.”
A statement added that the message to the golf industry at the summit was clear.
“She was helpful. “We’ve got a picture of what the future could hold, and we need to do a better job as an industry as a whole,” said Bian.
Kessler added that the desert is still in better condition for golf courses than other areas in Southern California.
“The precipitation by desert standards is a fraction of the coast (Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties), but as I heard from Peter Nelson’s presentations, if you look at the levels of those two lakes, they’re going to continue to drop even as we go,” Kessler said.