Water, Humans, Agriculture and Golf Courses: Symbiotic Cooperation & Competition

Blog Exclusives from Urban Ag News

I had planned to write a doom and gloom piece about the well-known California drought and what golf courses should be doing to manage and mitigate their water consumption. Then, surprisingly, it has rained all week. It is raining as I write this. Cold and constant but a most welcome rain. In fact, one could safely write that midway through this winter California has turned the corner on this most brutal, 5-plus year drought. Still there is no denying that with the growing population and the accompanying increased demand, golf courses in places like the Coachella Valley – my home, on and off, for the past four decades – and beautiful and diverse San Diego County, face daunting challenges.

I for one am glad it’s raining. I am glad the reservoirs throughout the Golden State are as full as they have been in many years. I am glad golf course water-reclamation ponds and wells are brimming and in fact, overflowing. For many, this winter is a time to breathe a very big sigh of relief. Be not mistaken though, dear non-California reader; it will stop raining and when it does, it may not substantially rain again for a year…or two…or seven. This is the nature of nature here in Southern California – in the Coachella Valley and in San Diego County.

Most Southern Californians understand the cyclical tide of rainfall is fraught with ebbs and flows, torrents and trickles – a good rain in Southern California is as welcome as it is inconsistent. There simply is never enough rain to create a real sense of comfort for those involved in water management; for health and human safety, for agriculture and to irrigate, for example, the 122 golf courses of the Coachella Valley. Yes, 122 golf courses. This figure ranks as the highest aggregation of golf courses anywhere in the world. San Diego County comes in at a close second, possessing nearly 100 golf courses.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images


Factoid: the Coachella Valley receives less than 5 inches of rain on an annual basis and in 2013/2014 received less than an inch!  Source: desertweather.com

Southern California, for its fabled Hollywood history, abundant year-round sunshine and diverse and vibrant economy has always been hobbled by a reality that cannot be overlooked (see the film China Town with Jack Nicholson for a little perspective). The film was inspired by the California Water Wars and the controversial actions of William Mulholland who oversaw the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The 233-mile aqueduct completed in 1913 was, without a doubt, the primary reason the Los Angeles metropolitan area grew from around half a million residents at the time to nearly twenty million today. It is why Hollywood even exists.

If Mulholland swiped or, to be more diplomatic, sequestered water from the Owens Valley, where then does the arid Coachella Valley get its water? From two sources: the Colorado River and its various canals and tributaries coupled with a vast underground aquifer. The Colorado River is inconsistent in terms of its output – just look to the cyclical droughts – and the aquifer is unsustainable. Thus, the need for permanent conservation measures in agriculture, human use, and golf. 

As the cold rain fell during this third week of January, it strangely allowed, without too much interruption, for the playing of the first PGA golf tournament of the year. The tournament is called the CareerBuilder Challenge or what valley residents once knew as the Bob Hope Desert Classic…or simply, The Hope. As a former collegiate golfer here (College of the Desert men’s golf team in 1986 – I was part of the last losing team before they won some 25 conference championship titles – in a row) I’m acutely aware of the hallowed history of this tournament.

During the tournament’s inaugural year in 1960, won by Arnold Palmer, the storied “Pro Am” where professionals and amateurs play together, could once find Mickey Rooney paired with Dean Martin. I witnessed firsthand a few of these historic pairings many years ago. There were a lot of laughs, and lots and lots of booze. Times have changed and both the players and their amateur partners are a little more serious these days. One reason, there is a hell of a lot more money at stake (the average winner’s check for a PGA tour event now exceeds $1 million) while the other defining factor of modern golf is how first rate both the golf courses and the amateur players have become. Perfectly manicured fairways and putting greens, matched by outstanding amateur golfers often out-driving and sometimes even out- scoring their professional partners are becoming more common than in years past.

Bob Hope and Arnold Palmer (photo: geoffshackelford.com)

Without question, the golf courses in the Southern California desert are world-class and, coupled with pristine weather, make the valley a destination location. We call the Canadian and northern state visitors “Snow Birds” because they migrate from their cold environs beginning in early November and depart for good when it starts getting warm in mid May. With their help, Coachella Valley golf courses see up to a million rounds of golf per year. During “the season” the restaurants remain full along with the shopping malls. The economic impact the game of golf bestows on the Coachella Valley is inarguably, enormous. According to the recent Coachella Valley Golf Economic Impact Study, the regions’ 122 golf courses generate an estimated $745.6 million in golf-related spending and directly employ over 8,000 workers. The fact that so much of the region’s economic engine is fueled by golf is not lost on state and local officials vying to get a hold of the new gold – water.

On the Monday before the CareerBuilder Challenge, I was in attendance at the 2nd annual Coachella Valley Golf Industry Summit. The summit, through panel discussions and special presentations by industry leaders, sought to address “concerns and best practices for many of the game’s big-picture issues, which affect golf’s lifestyle and landscape on a local level.” Water supply management was one of these concerns. So when Craig Kessler, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Southern California Golf Association, moderated the panel on water – I was all ears.

A little water background as it relates to Mr. Kessler…He has been in the news lately for his partnership with the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the water powers-that-be in Sacramento. In the case of the CVWD, a mandate has been set stating yearly water savings for valley golf courses must meet or exceed 10% by 2020. During 2015-2016 valley golf courses achieved an 8% year-over-year savings. Progress is being made but there remains work to be done.

Regarding the aquifer, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014  conveys “The legislation provides a framework for sustainable management of groundwater supplies by local authorities, with a limited role for state intervention only if necessary to protect the resource.  The act requires the formation of local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that must assess conditions in their local water basins and adopt locally-based management plans. The act provides substantial time – 20 years – for GSAs to implement plans and achieve long-term groundwater sustainability. It protects existing surface water and groundwater rights and does not impact current drought response measures.”

Mr. Kessler confirmed the necessary and collaborative partnership that exists between golf, agriculture and water which I initially thought would be a highly contentious relationship given the option of food and water, over yucking it up on the fairways at the expense of the many. Not true, Craig noted. In fact, there is a symbiotic, cooperative relationship between golf and water. Or as he articulated, “First it’s about water for human health and safety. Then agriculture and finally, golf.” This makes sense when one thinks of the aforementioned economic impact golf has on the Coachella Valley that is rivaled only by the region’s robust agriculture industry.

Craig Kessler (Photo: The Desert Sun)

Look no further than to a few short miles south from where the CareerBuilder Challenge is being held to find the agricultural communities of Thermal, Mecca and Coachella. These areas are leaders in lettuce, carrot and table grape production, for example. The question remains, how does agriculture compete with golf and humans for precious water resources? Locally and in large measure through the adherence to the CVWD mandates and the Sustainable Ground Water Act of 2014.

Both of these entities – golf and agriculture – have a proven to provide a significant economic impact on the region and the nation and because of this, the symbiotic relationship makes perfect sense.

Green peppers harvested in the eastern Coachella Valley   (Photo: Palm Springs Life)

What does it really mean to cut back on water usage and how are golf courses meeting the challenge? For one, the buzz word of the week is “turf conversion.” If you are a golfer, it is understood that beyond the fairway resides the rough (or the longer grass meant to penalize a player should they not position their ball in the fairway). Turf conversion aims at drawing back the rough, replacing it with a natural environment of desert ground, or DG, for example. In the desert, this calls for the use of indigenous, drought-resistant plants, like lantana, fed by targeted drip irrigation techniques. In part, this is precision agriculture at its best, focusing on controlling the golf course, the plants and the very means by which to irrigate and maintain both.

Or better, as I was to learn from one of the sponsors of the Coachella Valley Golf Industry Summit, Joe Guerra, CEO of Turf Star, the principal distributor for all of The Toro Company’s line of commercial equipment and irrigation products on the West Coast, precision agriculture regarding golf has gone high tech. According to Joe, “Today we are better able to micromanage water, understanding moisture and taking turf out of play.”

Factoid: The Agriculture industry in the Coachella Valley, with about 70,000 acres produces $575 million dollars of crops and agricultural products per year. Top crops are citrus, dates, table grapes, melons, lettuce, carrots, broccoli and bell peppers.

With an eye on the IoT (Internet of Things), sensors, beacons and smart controllers, the company through its Lynx® Central Control System, have put essential irrigation information onto a single, intuitive interface (accessed via tablet) to optimally manage water and resources. Please do check out www.toro.com/lynx to see how the challenge of water usage on golf courses through the use of precision agriculture technology is being met, head on, one fairway at a time.

Toro’s Lynx® Control System

The firsthand testimony of Josh Tanner, General Manager of Palm Desert’s Ironwood Country Club, articulated how their recent turf conversion initiative took 259 acres of golf course and cut water usage by more than half. This feat was achieved by replacing turf with DG, including removing several lakes (none of which affected play). Ironwood went from using 2100 cubic feet of water per acre to 750 cubic feet per acre. Altruism coupled with the goal of saving water is enhanced with an economic incentive from the CVWD, which provides rebates and tax credits.

The massive retirement community of Sun City Palm Desert with 36 holes of golf and over 5,000 residents is also addressing the challenge. I was able to chat with CareerBuilder Challenge tournament volunteer and 17-year resident of Sun City, Ron Wolke, who shared the golf courses’ use of reclaimed water stored in several reservoirs located on the property. As a former member of the golf committee, Ron is acutely aware of active turf conversion initiatives, not only for the 300-plus acres of golf course but also for nearly 200 acres of greenbelt space throughout Sun City.

Some of the most knowledgeable and savvy people in the world of golf just happen to be the pack mules lugging a golf bag – the caddies. Long time caddy Tim Evers of the exclusive Hideaway Golf Club in La Quinta, California, has witnessed marked changes just in the past year. He notes there has been a significant reduction in turf and the rough has been transformed into DG with native plants fed by drip irrigation.

The Classic Club in Palm Desert & Desert (Photo: Damon Winter/New York Times/Redux)

If turf conversion has a cousin, it would be synthetic turf, not the “Astroturf” originating in the 1970’s but the realistic, long-lasting, zero-maintenance, faux grass turf replacement. During the CareerBuilder Challenge, I was able to chat with desert resident Dave Stockton Jr., NCAA All-American golfer from the University of Southern California and 10-year touring professional – Dave is also the proud son of the 1970 and 1976 PGA Champion and 1991 Ryder Cup Captain, Dave Stockton. Dave Jr. is now a professional instructor, often partnering with his father who is the preeminent putting teacher on the PGA tour. He shared with me that he’s also been moonlighting for Back Nine Greens, who for the past 20 years have installed artificial grass, synthetic turf lawns and drought-friendly landscapes. It is this gig which recently had him involved in a major turf conversion project at the exclusive, non-desert yet water conscious, Del Mar Country Club.

Synthetic turf by Back Nine Greens


I was pleased to find that the Coachella Valley golf courses are not alone in changing its water usage. The notable PGA tournament played during the last week of January is the Farmers Insurance Open (keeping with the celebrity vibe – the old Andy Williams San Diego Open) held at the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California. Noticeably, the golf course’s topography is not conjoined with a desert but rather ocean and scrubby “arroyos” situated directly (and beautifully) on the Pacific coast of Southern California. An arroyo, often the term is followed by seco (meaning “dry” in Spanish) peppered with native cacti, is a steep-sided gully located in an arid or semiarid region. Looking around the golf course two things stood out: beside the awesomeness of the weather – not a cloud in the sky where one could see miles and miles of Pacific Ocean – was the vast amount of green grass set against the brownish arroyos.

Torrey Pines Golf Course & Arroyos (Photo: Rees Jones, Inc.)

With all that green grass comes the obvious, a hefty requirement of water for irrigation. I quickly learned the courses (the North and the South Course as they are geographically named) use only reclaimed water.

I was able to connect with Scott Bentley, a member of the PGA and Torrey Pines’ Assistant Deputy Director with the City of San Diego Parks & Recreation, Golf Division. With a budget of $12.6 million dollars for hard construction costs, the recent course renovation provided for some turf conversion and a new pump station with control boxes added to the South Course. The latter course, where the professionals play the final two rounds of the Farmers tournament, was recently the site of the 2008 US Open won by Tiger Woods…with a broken leg. The South Course will again be the host site for the US Open in 2021.

According to Scott, “About 90 to 95% of our water usage is reclaimed water. We only water the greens with potable water. We just installed a state of the art irrigation system on the North Course with individual head control that will help us save water. Next year we will be replacing the main lines, laterals and heads separating the fairways and the roughs. On the North Course, we took out five acres of turf and replaced it with drought-tolerant landscape.”

(Photo: J. Pantaleo)

Based on the economic impact, not only from the Farmers tournament but also from the US Open; there is a strong case that the return on investment, water investment, is solid. The use of reclaimed/recycled water, however, is the lynch-pin making it all work. Unfortunately, two of the city’s three golf courses do not use reclaimed water. According to a 2015 article in the San Diego Union Tribune, City Sprays Golf Courses with Tap Water, both Balboa Park and Mission Bay golf courses used millions of gallons of municipal/tap water for irrigation. Given the extreme drought conditions at the time, literally the worst in decades, public outcry was vociferous, long and loud.

Like the Coachella Valley, agriculture in San Diego County brings a significant economic impact to the region with a population of more than 2.6 million people. According to the Farm Bureau of San Diego County agriculture’s economic impact is measured annually at $5.1 billion generated by more than 6,000 farmers, with 65% of them growing on nine acres or less in size. Nationally, San Diego County ranks as the 12th largest farm economy among more than 3,000 counties. Alas, the high cost of water (more than $600 per acre foot) and real estate make farming an expensive proposition, so conservation and sustainable practices by all – golf, agriculture and people – are a must for 21st Century and beyond.

Factoid: San Diego County is the #1 producer of avocados in the nation.

Avocado groves and homes in north San Diego County (Photo Source: Jamie Scott Lytle)

The recent mid-January heavy rains in the desert also reached the coast, allowing Torrey Pines to turn the water off for several days prior to the start of the Farmers tournament. Thank you Mother Nature.

And Mother Nature continues to show some love to the Golden State. According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, “Statewide, the snowpack – which represents the snow’s water content – is 186% of normal for the date. In the southern Sierra, it is a whopping 219% of average for this time of year. The numbers are putting a smile on the face of water managers, who look to melting snow to help fill reservoirs in the spring.”

As in life, nothing good ever lasts forever and so it goes with the inconsistent California rainfall. Although we are working our way out of this current drought, one snow flake and raindrop at a time, there will be another drought – guaranteed. The symbiotic nature or “coopetition” (competition and cooperation) between golf, agriculture and population growth as they relate to water can be sustained and enhanced for generations to come. I believe this. Call me an optimist. There are too many good people who care. There are too many sophisticated advances in water and agriculture technology which can be used for the benefit of all. Let’s face it; there are also too many people who need to eat…and too many people who need to play golf. I am both of them.


With appreciation to those who I directly quoted, I would also like to warmly thank the following for their generosity and contributions to this article:

Greg Ball and Damian Secore of Brener Zwikel & Associates, Paul Levy – President of the PGA of America and President of Club Operations & Development at Sunrise Company and Bob Marra – Director of the CareerBuilder Challenge.


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