Doug Thompson couldn’t believe what he had just been told. His wife, a botanist, advised a country club in Coachella Valley on drought-resistant landscaping, and Thompson, in conversation with the gardener, asked how much water is needed to irrigate a golf course.
“He proudly said that they had just computerized their system and that they were only using 1.2 million gallons a night,” recalls Thompson, an ecologist who leads natural history expeditions. “I thought I couldn’t hear him properly, so about 30 minutes later I asked again, and he said the same thing.”
That conversation happened a few years ago. But in the midst of a protracted drought that has led to a first-ever federal declaration of a water shortage in the Colorado River basin and calls for greater conservation efforts across California, Thompson and his wife, Robin Kobaly, became more acutely aware of all the lushness of the area. green golf courses set against the arid landscape of the Coachella Valley.
How many golf courses?
About 120, many of them shoulder to shoulder across the desert floor, complete with decorative ponds, fountains and streams. It is one of the highest concentrations of golf courses in the world.
“From the homework we’ve done … the smaller courses consume at least several hundred thousand gallons per night, but the larger courses are in the range of 1 million gallons or more,” Thompson said.
“Not only is it a shame,” he added, “but many months of the year it is too hot to play golf in the desert, but the water just keeps going.”
When I met Thompson and Kobaly in the desert, they told me they are not trying to shut down the golf industry, and I agree with them. There would be no Palm Springs without golf, just as there would have been no Rat Pack without Sinatra. The industry employs several thousand people, attracts hordes of winter visitors and pumps as much as $1 billion into the local economy.
But the planet now spins on a rotisserie, roasted and broiled in ways that transform landscapes and force us to adapt. Thompson and Kobaly wonder why golf courses aren’t doing more to save money.
“This water crisis is huge,” Thompson said. “They’ll ask us to do things like don’t let the water run when you brush your teeth, and it’s illegal to wash your car unless you turn off the tap on the hose. That could save 10 gallons of water, and meanwhile, a million gallons are used every night on every golf course in the Coachella Valley.”
When I forwarded these comments to Craig Kessler, director of government affairs for the Southern California Gulf Assn., he was more than happy to respond and share his considerable knowledge of state water policy.
And he threw me a turn.
Kessler said golf courses in Coachella Valley have a much better water supply than golf courses in California’s wetter climates. That’s because the desert, which has had less than an inch of rain in the past season, has a lot more water to draw from, including a huge aquifer that sits beneath the desert floor.
“It’s complicated and counterintuitive,” Kessler said, but many coastal golf courses that rely on the state’s melted snowpack and rain have been hit harder by the drought than those in the desert.
Serving 105 of the golf courses, the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) draws from the California Water Project, the Colorado River, and the aquifer. Kessler, head of the Coachella Valley Golf and Water Task Force, said much of the water used to irrigate golf courses is non-potable.
And yet those 120 golf courses do indeed use vast amounts of precious, increasingly scarce water. Kessler said the valley has less than 1% of Southern California’s population, but 28.6% of its golf courses. Golf, he said, uses less than 1% of all the water used in California, but nearly 25% of Coachella Valley water.
So what are they doing about it? A lot, Kessler said, and conservation efforts go back several years. Golf courses have removed sod, narrowed fairways, installed more sophisticated irrigation systems, surveyed less thirsty grasses and scaled back the practice of “overseeding,” leaving the courses green in the winter months when the Bermuda grass is dormant.
Jim Schmid, director of operations for the Lakes Country Club in Palm Desert, told me he has an on-site weather station to help manage and reduce irrigation. And much of the water he uses, Schmidt said, is recycled water that the district has to throw out because they haven’t treated it to a standard where it can be used for potable purposes.
Josh Tanner, general manager of Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert, said Ironwood pumps its water from the ground and pays a fee to the water agency to replenish the aquifer with imported water. The club has reduced its water usage by 20% in recent years, Tanner said, largely by replacing sod with native landscaping.
But it doesn’t seem like every golf course will get its money’s worth. And the CVWD, as Doug Thompson told me, doesn’t provide data on water use by individual golf courses. When I asked why, Katie Evans, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation, told me that the district does not share information about individual customers. In fact, the water agency was sued for disclosing the information, but prevailed in court.
The Desert Sun reported in 2018 that the golf industry had failed to meet its own target – set in 2014 – of reducing water consumption by 10% below 2010 levels. Kessler told me golf courses used 9% less water in 2020 than in 2013 in a complicated calculation that takes evaporation into account, but only 5.6% less in total volume.
In the Coachella Valley, years of growth have severely depleted the aquifer, just as agricultural irrigation has drained the central valley’s water tables to the point where the ground sinks. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2014 requiring communities to develop groundwater sustainability strategies, and the CVWD has praised its progress in stabilizing and raising underground water levels.
But that’s partly because the valley can replenish the aquifer with water from the Colorado River and the water pumped up from Northern California. However, current allocations will not hold up if drought trendlines continue and water wars escalate.
One of Thompson and Kobaly’s annoyances is that residential water bills are based on a tiered pricing system that encourages conservation, but golf and agriculture pay flat rates.
They have an ally in Mark Johnson, a former CVWD technical director and a frequent critic of the agency. The retiree Johnson said residential users have saved much more than agriculture, which uses about half of the district’s water, and significantly more than the golf industry, which uses less than 25%.
“Definitely, there is an inequality,” Johnson said, and that, in effect, residential users “subsidize the infrastructure used to get water to golf courses.” Johnson, a golfer, said he used to play on a La Quinta golf course where they “irritated areas that weren’t even in play,” and also watered sand traps.
So why not set tiered pricing for golf and ag, the same as for private users?
Evans of the CVWD said such pricing is prohibited by the state water code, but it could be possible to implement “a different pricing structure” in the future.
I’ll watch to see how that goes, but it’s worth noting that three of the five members of the agency’s board of directors work in the agricultural sector. Water and oil don’t mix, but in California, water and politics always do.
“I agree that more can be done to save,” Evans said. “Right now, we’re launching new conservation ads and continuing to offer a wide variety of programs. … To be sustainable, we must be water wise.”
Kessler, despite defending golf’s conservation record, said that if drought and higher temperatures continue, maintaining the recent pace of conservation “will not be enough to move forward 10-25 years.”
Unless it starts to rain again like it used to, everyone in California will have to make do with less water in the very near future, not in 10 or 25 years.
Thompson and Kobaly, who are not golfers, have a suggestion. They are looking for links-style golf courses, which are common in other countries and use much less water. You take off on a patch of green and you putt on a patch of green, but most of the area in between is natural and not irrigated.
“I have nothing against golf,” Thompson said. “But they have to find another way to do it.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.