California statewide water restrictions will affect golf courses

California statewide water restrictions will affect golf courses

State water board approves emergency regulation requiring local cutbacks.

July 18, 2014
Kyle Brown

Water districts throughout California are required to develop and activate water contingency plans, after an emergency resolution passed by the State Water Resources Control Board July 15. The resolution will affect golf courses throughout the state, especially those not already under mandatory restrictions.

The board, a department within the California EPA, adopted the resolution to mandate minimum conservation efforts across the state. Under the rule, local water districts with a water shortage contingency plan must put it into practice. Districts without a plan to implement must develop one.

“If they have a plan, they go to the stage of that plan where there are mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use,” says Max Gomberg, senior environmental scientist for the SWRCB.

There are 440 local water districts in California that serve more than 3,000 connections, and the current estimate for districts serving fewer is 2,674, says Gomberg. That total doesn’t include areas like campgrounds or RV parks. About 30 percent of water suppliers in the state have already gone to some stage of mandatory restrictions this year. That number covers about 10 million people, which makes up about a quarter of the state’s total population.

For outdoor irrigation including commercial and public users, that conservation must either limit irrigation of ornamental landscapes with potable water to no more than two days each week, or implement plans to reduce water use by a comparable amount of a landscape’s 2013 water use total.

“It’s a little unfair,” says Craig Kessler, director of government affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. “If you’re dealing with golf courses that have been on restriction, that have invested in new nozzles, smart irrigation systems and removed acres of turf and gotten their water footprint substantially down in the last five or 10 years; then there’s another golf course that’s been completely profligate.

“Then you put percentages decreased based on a last year baseline – what you’re doing is you’re killing one course and doing a favor for the other.”

Either restriction puts outdoor irrigation roughly in line with the 20 percent water use reduction requested by California governor Jerry Brown at the beginning of the year. They both should have about the same effect on the overall use total, Gomberg says.

“Our analysis, which goes along with this as a supporting document, is that we can achieve up to 20 percent reduction in use statewide from implementing these regulations,” Gomberg says. “’Comparable is what could really be achieved by the two-day-a-week plan, and we think that’s roughly 20 percent.

“The message we’re trying to send here is that everyone can do more, even if it’s a little bit more. I think every golf course, even ones that have been good stewards of water, they can do more - even if it’s getting pinpoint-accurate about times of day and the amount of water that’s applied to the green or leaving everything else unwatered or minimally watered. This is a drought that affects the entire state.”

An important aspect for turf professionals is that these restrictions only affect potable water. There are currently no restrictions on the use of recycled water, which can be a resource for outdoor irrigation. Offering non-potable water as an alternative is “something we’re really trying to promote in California,” Gomberg says.

“There are a number of golf courses that are using recycled water to irrigate, and that’s not covered,” he says. “We really do recognize the great strides that golf courses have gone through.”

Many California cities and districts already have mandatory restrictions in places, like Los Angeles and San Diego. Some involve alternative conservation plans. Others, like the Palm Springs-based Desert Water Agency, have cracked down on outdoor usage by restricting watering during the hottest parts of the day for golf courses, lawns and commercial nurseries.

“For the golf industry in L.A., there will be no changes,” Kessler says. “We’re on a mandatory program that’s well-drafted. Where it becomes problematic is where that golf community is trying to put together their own golf and water task force.”

The resolution puts those superintendents in a tough situation, because past efforts to bring golf courses and water districts together have delivered promising results. Listen to some of their stories on our Superintendent Radio Network.

“Golf courses, of course, are very conspicuous users of water,” says Pat Gross, director of the southwest region of the USGA. “There may be political pressure to see golf courses brown out and look like they’re using less water.

“But when you give superintendents and golf courses the latitude to manage water how they need to, they’ll get you the conservation level that’s required.”

Regardless of how those programs are implemented, golf courses and water task forces like the ones Kessler has helped build will continue to push for plans with lighter restrictions for golf.

“We are definitely going to work for the alternative mechanisms,” Kessler says. “The largest water provider in the state for the city of L.A. has demonstrated that it works. It accomplishes measurable conservation and does so in a way that is consistent with doing business. The other will reduce water even more, because it’ll put a lot of golf courses out of business.”

Under the regulation, all Californians are expected to stop: “washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle, and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated.” According to the resolution, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping in many areas.

Large water providers will be required to report to the board on monthly water use.

The restrictions could save enough water to supply 3.5 million people each year, says Gomberg.

Water users could see fines up to $500 each day requested by local agencies if restrictions aren’t followed. But that’s a maximum fine at the district’s discretion, Gomberg says. More likely, if a district gets a complaint, “they’ll send a letter, send someone out. It depends on their resources.”

“We’re not expecting people to go out and levy $500 fines,” he says.

A water agency out of compliance with the state board’s order could see a penalty of up to $10,000 each day. That would only happen after a district received and refused a cease-and-desist letter from the SWRCB.

The State Water Board will submit the resolution to the state’s Office of Administrative Law for final approval, with an eye to an Aug. 1 effective date. From there, it would remain in effect for 270 days unless extended by the board for continued drought conditions.

“We’re looking at another three-plus months of very dry and warm conditions, and that’s only going to exacerbate the current drought impacts,” Gomberg says.

The new statewide resolution comes after two drought emergency declarations by Brown following three dry or critically dry years. In January, Brown asked all Californians to cut back on water use by 20 percent. In April, he issued an executive order to strengthen the state’s ability to manage drought.

Despite Brown’s requests, water consumption in the state has risen 1 percent this year, according to updates from a recent water-use survey released by the board July 15.

Related content

GCI's senior contributing editor Bruce Williams looks at the California water issue