Beyond the spirit

Features - the water issue

A Southern California megacollaboration demonstrates how water conservation projects are being taken to the next level.

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July 21, 2016

© Rudchenko

Ron Kerley is a superintendent who works for a management company operating a course bordering an iconic California highway. Even if people don’t experience Los Robles Greens, Kerley knows thousands notice the course.

Stuck in a region lacking regular rainfall, thoughts of a dry future are shaping the visible course’s present. Los Robles, a municipal facility along the Ventura Freeway in Thousand Oaks, Calif., recently reinvented itself by removing 41.6 acres of turf.

The project represented a mega-collaboration to conserve water. Kerley watched golf course architects, landscape architects, irrigation consultants, contractors, water district representatives, city officials and his bosses flock to the course. Working with a bevy of entities while maintaining a course for daily play with a crew of nine doesn’t rattle Kerley. “I’m not only a superintendent,” he says, “I’m a business-minded superintendent. With the water costs almost doubling in the nine years that I have been here, I knew there was something that needed to be done.”

For all the chatter about El Nino, increasing Sierra Nevada snowpack and the lifting of state-mandated water restrictions, golf remains a tricky, unpredictable and cutthroat business in Southern California. A facility such as Los Robles, which is owned by the City of Thousand Oaks and managed by Arcis Golf, appeared to be a tap-in for future success, using solid conditions, a desirable location, affordable green fees and interesting layout to attract 75,000 rounds per year before the renovation.

But the city and Arcis Golf determined complacency might not yield a prosperous future. They saw themselves competing with a dozen public courses within a 20-mile radius for a customer base showing no signs of expanding. They also saw the course’s annual bill for low-quality potable water surge past $500,000.

Ron Kerley

On the eve the Metropolitan Water District was set to expire in May 2015, city and Arcis Golf officials contacted Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design’s Jason Straka at his Dublin, Ohio, home. They wanted a plan by midnight. “I was like, ‘Wow, OK. Let’s get a plan done in the next four or five hours,’” Straka says. “Talk about making phones calls to staff that were having dinner or whatever.”

Thousand Oaks finance director John Adams says the potential of receiving a more than $1.5 million rebate spurred the action, although the parties started exploring options nine months before concocting a formal plan. Their goal extended beyond making the project a rebate-securing cash grab.

“The easiest way to do it would have been to take the turf out, put landscaping plants in, fix the irrigation and call it good,” says Arcis Golf vice president of construction Ed Easley. “But we all collectively stood out on a plank and said, ‘Let’s do something different and unexpected to not only put Los Robles on the map from a conservation standpoint, but from a design and remodeling of what Los Robles really could be.’”

More than the minimum

Los Robles’ first hole runs north. The 18th hole heads south. A steep bank separates the first tee and 18th green from a staging area for golf carts below the clubhouse. Los Robles incudes space for weddings, banquets, meetings and community events. Visitors who never step on the course notice the view of the holes. Today they see a landscape epitomizing the intent of the project: vast clusters of mulch created from green waste dotted with young plantings where turf once rested.

California fescue was planted in March, and landscape architect Brian Brodersen of Brodersen Associates Landscape says the fescue requires no water after establishment. The fescue provides temporary challenges for Kerley and his crew, and employees are being added until the native areas mature. “It’s going to be a learning process for the whole team the next 18 months to maybe even two years,” Kerley says. “And it’s going to be more of a not just sitting on a mower and mowing grass, but weeding and spot spraying and watering stuff that needs water.”

In addition to California fescue, Brodersen says manzanitas, salvias and oak understory plantings are among the primary plants being established at Los Robles. The total number of plants added through the project will exceed 35,000. “What this course does which is really a departure from what I have seen and been involved in thus far is that once you get onto the golf course itself, everything we are planting should never need another drop of water and should do a fairly good job of providing some aesthetic benefit to the golf course and the golfer experience,” Brodersen says. “It makes perfect sense.”

Covering native areas with appealing, drought-tolerant plants instead of leaving decomposed granite or recycled green waste alone and hiring an expert such as Brodersen, a landscape architect since 1990, are among the examples of Los Robles going “beyond the spirit” of a rebate program. Filling the team assembled to complete the project with industry veterans further illustrated the commitment to using the rebate to improve the golfer experience.

Straka, who completed a turf removal in 2013 at Camelback Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., that reduced the irrigated acreage on the resort’s Ambiente course to 90 acres, used two decades of design experience to craft architectural plans for Los Robles. Bryant Taylor Gordon Golf reconfigured the irrigation system to fit the new landscape. American Landscape served as the contractor and developed ways to complete work while the course remained opened. Everybody selected for the project had what Easley calls a previous “working relationship” with Arcis Golf.

The acreage removed exceeded 21 acres, the maximum total covered by the MWD rebate. The city and Arcis removed an additional nine acres. Los Robles also included 11.6 acres of existing non-turf areas. Before the renovation, the course had 85 irrigated acres and used an average of 78 million gallons of water per year. Officials are projecting the renovation to reduce water usage by 20 to 25 percent.

‘Saving water is better!’

Kerley continuously evaluated Los Robles’ water situation during his first eight years as superintendent, and proactive measures such as not irrigating driving range turf and turning heads off in wayward areas put Los Robles in a tricky spot when Gov. Jerry Brown announced state-mandated water restrictions last year. The water district serving Los Robles required 32 percent usage reductions, 7 percent higher than 25 percent target for most of the state. Kerley and his bosses all asked the same question: How does Los Robles hit mandated targets without removing turf when it had already significantly trimmed its water usage? In a surprising move, Brown lifted the mandatory restrictions this past May, leaving local water districts to decide appropriate conservation targets.

Arcis Golf manages courses in 15 states, but Easley says nothing compared to the mandate California experienced. The lifting of the mandate offers little protection for the price of water, which everybody involved with Los Robles only sees increasing. The cost of water was $2.70 per unit when Kerley arrived in 2007. That number has swelled past $6. Los Robles’ operators budget for dry weather. “We make money when it rains,” Easley says.

© Guy Cipriano
A pond was drained and removed on the ninth hole at Los Robles Greens and replaced by a waste area filled with sand, mulch, native plants and rocks.
© Ed Easley

“Water is never going to get less expensive,” Adams adds. “It’s going to become more and more of a commodity in the infrastructure that’s going to be needed to support Southern California going forward. This is a major step in that direction. Who knows? Maybe as time goes on and we learn from this renovation and turf reduction, there might be other areas that we are going to have to trim. Going forward Ron is going to be looking at other opportunities to reduce water wherever we can, but not necessarily impact play.”

Customers are playing a revamped course, with 37 bunkers surrounded by kikuyugrass faces. A pond in front of the ninth green was drained, removed and replaced with a naturalized area. Giant oak trees frame numerous holes and offer barriers between the hilly course and the Ventura Freeway. The trees guzzle water, but local ordinances make them near impossible to remove. Los Robles, coincidentally, means Oaks in Spanish.

The project represented Los Robles’ first major renovation of the existing footprint since the course opened in 1966. “In looking back, we should have made the decision sooner,” Adams says. “I think what happens is the course is doing 75,000 rounds, it’s busy, people are enjoying it. There is no reason to change it, so you are afraid. You don’t want to remodel a course and lose a lot of rounds, a lot of regulars.”

Perhaps nobody has embraced the changes more than Kerley, who energetically scurried between holes during a crisp, sunny March day. Everywhere he traveled, he encountered a stop-worthy scene: a pond being eliminated, bunkers taking shape, plants arriving at staging areas and teenagers playing twilight nines. So much to process. So much to anticipate. Kerley’s Twitter profile reads: “Green is Good … Saving water is better!” The course Kerley manages – the one everybody sees along the Ventura Freeway – is now positioned to achieve the exacta.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.