By Steve Breazeale
Amidst the chatter concerning golf course water waste that has grown louder and louder as the four-year-long California drought drags on, courses like Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point hope to lead the way in terms of proper course maintenance practices, specifically when it comes to conserving water.
In April, Gov. Jerry Brown enacted a law that all residents cut potable water usage by 25 percent. For a sizeable portion of the golf industry in California that uses potable water to keep the grass green, that has put them squarely in the government’s cross hairs.
Brown directed the State Water Resources Control Board to “impose restrictions to require that commercial, industrial and institutional properties, such as campuses, golf courses and cemeteries, immediately implement water efficiency measures to reduce potable water usage in an amount consistent with the reduction targets mandated.”
However, golf courses that run on reclaimed water are not required to cut their usage. Monarch Beach Golf Links runs exclusively on reclaimed water, along with other area courses such as The Ranch at Laguna Beach, Talega Golf Club and San Clemente Municipal Golf Club.
The South Coast Water District, which provides reclaimed water to Monarch Beach and The Ranch at Laguna Beach, sells recycled water at a price that is 10 percent lower than the potable water rate, according to South Coast Water District director Wayne Rayfield.
The fact that they are under no water usage restrictions has not stopped Monarch Beach Golf Links from taking action in regards to water consumption, according to general manager Eric Lohman.
In 2011, the course was certified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf courses, which issues guidelines and practices for member courses to follow in order to limit the impact on the surrounding environment.
Aside from keeping watchful eyes on sprinkler heads and replacing bathrooms with waterless urinals, Monarch Beach Golf Links uses advanced sensor technology to avoid overwatering. Sensors are placed in the greens that provide real-time evaporation rates to the course superintendent, highlighting when and when not to water.
Monarch Beach Golf Links also uses paspalum, a drought tolerant turf, across the grounds. Lohman and his staff said the paspalum responds best to reclaimed water and is a better alternative to other strains of grass, which could require more watering in order to stay alive and lush.
The amount of water being used on the course has also decreased over the years, Lohman said. He estimates the course has reduced consumption by roughly 10 percent compared to last year and is down 15 to 20 percent from its all-time high several years ago.
“There is an effort in golf that whether you have reclaimed (water) or don’t have reclaimed … at the end of the day we understand that our neighbors are having to make sacrifices, our hotel partners are having to make sacrifices,” Lohman said. “So we just want to make sure that we’re definitely doing everything in our power, whether we’re required to or not, to at least lead by example … We have taken it upon ourselves to do that.”
The South Coast Water District provided an assist to area courses last year, when they added reverse osmosis units to their Aliso Creek recycled water facility. Prior to the units’ installation, the water district was having difficulty controlling the elevated salt content of the recycled water, which made it unusable for golf courses, according to Rayfield. With the reverse osmosis units in place, the water district is now able to run the reclaimed water through the units, remove more salt and bring the quality of the water up to usable levels.
In San Clemente, Shorecliffs Golf Club is the only course in town currently using potable water.
Under the guidance of course superintendent Jose Pelayo, Shorecliffs Golf Club has been decreasing its water usage considerably since 2009 while maintaining the quality of the course, according to general manager Joe Leicht. The shining light at the end of the tunnel for the course has been the expansion of the city’s recycled water plant, which opened on Sept. 25, 2014. Shorecliffs Golf Club has been waiting to tap into the reclaimed water pipeline and plans to be fully converted to recycled water by the end of August, Leicht said.
“We’re at a strategical disadvantage because all of the other golf courses around us are already on reclaimed water … We were the only ones that were turning brown and we couldn’t afford the water and nor would we have been allowed to use it if we could. That’s why the timing is perfect to be switching to reclaimed because the city is finally able to give us (that),” Leicht said.
In the time spent waiting for the pipeline, Pelayo and his grounds crew have learned to get creative with their landscaping and agricultural duties. Roughly 20 acres of turf has been removed since 2009 and replaced with biodegradable mulch, which can be seen primarily around tee boxes and areas that are not considered in play to golfers. Watering days have been limited to two days instead of four and the greens are now being hand-watered in order to precisely deliver water to stressed areas. A combination of aerating the turf and applying a wetting agent, which seeps into the deeper layers of the soil in order to retain moisture, has kept Shorecliffs green. In some areas, irrigation systems have been removed entirely. The condition of the course’s poa annua greens remains “perfect,” according to Leicht.
There is also the amount of water being used on the course, which has dropped off dramatically since 2014. According to Pelayo, Shorecliffs Golf Club used 8,000 units (almost 6 million gallons) of water per month last year compared to the 5,200 units they are averaging per month in 2015, a decrease of 35 percent.
Last year the course spent $270,000 on water. Despite the impending shift to reclaimed water in August, Leicht is not anticipating a large increase in savings down the road. Certain chemicals, such as calcium and gypsum, will need to be purchased and added to the course in order to offset the lower-quality water’s impact on the turf.
“The savings aren’t going to be all that significant in the long run … but long-term, the nice thing is, we won’t be under those restrictions,” Leicht said. “We’ll be able to make sure we can water when and if we need it and at the same time, we’ll be more responsible stewards.” –Andrea Swayne contributed to this report
Watering the Greens
Here are some numbers associated with the California golf course industry’s water usage.
921—Number of golf facilities statewide (including stand-alone ranges and miniature golf facilities)
0.9—Percentage of California’s ground and surface water consumed by golf courses
1.2—Percent of the total water used for California’s irrigated crops consumed by golf courses
15—Percent of irrigated golf course acreage using reclaimed water
*Numbers based on The California Golf Economy: Economic and Environmental Impact Summary, a 2011 report compiled for Golf 20/20 by SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute.