All about water on the West Coast

At the Southern California Golf & Water Summit, golf industry figures discussed water conservation and environmental stewardship during trying times for parched regions. 


Southern California Golf & Water Summit
Topics covered during a session titled “Unpacking the Facility Tool Box,” included benefits of converting from cool- to warm-season grasses and irrigation technologies. L-R: moderator Geoff Shackelford; Brian Whitlark, USGA West region senior agronomist; Jim Baird, Ph.D., UC, Riverside; Marta Pudzianowska, Ph.D., UC Riverside; GCSAA Class A superintendent Matt Muhlenbruch, Hillcrest Country Club, Los Angeles; and Matteo Serena, Ph.D., USGA. Photos by Howard Richman

Sahith Theegala made his presence known at Los Serranos Golf Club even though he wasn’t on the premises.

When over 200 golf industry movers and shakers assembled Aug. 18 at the Chino Hills, Calif., club, Theegala was on the opposite end of the country preparing for the BMW Championship at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club. Technology placed Theegala inside the ballroom at the 36-hole public facility. Theegala was raised playing golf at Los Serranos, and spoke to participatants in the Southern California Golf & Water Summit at his old stomping grounds.

“A shout out to the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA). I wouldn’t be here without you guys. And a shout out to all the great superintendents. You are underappreciated, in my opinion. Without you, this wouldn’t be possible,” said Theegala, a 24-year-old rising star on the PGA Tour. “Thanks for letting myself and future generations play this game we love while also caring for the environment.”

Those who dearly care about the game and its future convened at Los Serranos, and the sense of urgency was palpable. In a region where water is scarce, and with drought rampant in some locations, it was a no-time-like-the-present situation at the West Coast summit.

A recent GCSAA study indicates water use on golf courses has decreased, however there’s no time to waste in striving for more outcomes. To university Ph.D.s, business partners and superintendents alike, the message was clear: policy makers, researchers, regulators and golf facilities are dedicated to water conservation efforts, while protecting and growing the game even in the face of challenges.

Southern California Golf & Water Summit
Over 200 people attended the Southern California Golf & Water Summit at Los Serranos GC in Chino Hills.

As of mid-August 2022, reports indicate over 70% of the western U.S. is in extreme or severe drought. A decline in levels of the Colorado River and diminishing snow pack in the Sierra Nevada are two examples of what’s happening in real time. Daven Upadhyah, chief operating officer/assistant general manager at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), noted Lake Mead has dropped 25 feet since January. He wants to see water use reduced immediately, with the help of those he spoke to. “We want to work with you,” Upadhyah told them.

Collaboration was a big theme of the summit, with an audience made up of industry leaders and stakeholders from regions including California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. The meeting at Los Serranos was organized by the SCGA, Southern California PGA, GCSA of Southern California, Metropolitan MWD, GCSAA, USGA, California Golf Course Owners Association, Performance Resource Management and Los Serranos GC.

“This is why the golf business is what it is, because of the cooperation. We’re at a critical point of golf and we’re pulling together,” says Tom Addis III, executive director/CEO at the PGA Southern California section.

Eric Dutt, manager of operations at Reflection Bay Golf Club in Henderson, Nev., and inductee in the Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame, agreed. “It’s important we educate, cooperate, and have even more collaboration. Without the golf courses, none of these organizations exist,” Dutt noted.

The Summit had much to do with education, whether through colleagues, neighbors who play once a week, or those who view golf in a negative light. One of the guest speakers, GCSAA Class A 22-year association member Josh Heptig, encountered a skeptic at Dairy Creek Golf Course in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“In April 2020 (early in COVID-19’s emergence), a lady came to our property after reading about a free women’s golf clinic in an email blast that I had sent to the parks database. She looked lost, so I asked, ‘May I help you with something?’ At the time she talked about disliking what golf stands for and how we waste water. She had never been to a golf course before and had no desire to do so until the pandemic hit and read my email,” Heptig said.

She later told him she was tired of being cooped up in her house and looked forward to being outdoors with appropriate social interaction. When Heptig first met her, it turned out she was having an internal debate whether she had made the right decision to come to the course.

Today, Heptig said, the woman is thankful she gave golf a chance.

“She became a four-day-a-week golfer. Fell in love with it,” Heptig said. “Yet there remains work to be done in the gulf between perception and reality. If most of the public think we abuse water, we’re not going to get much support in public opinion polls. The golf industry needs to understand that on a scale of water needs, golf courses are at the bottom, if we’re even on the list. We’ve got to do something about this to change the narrative.”

Southern California Golf & Water Summit
PGA Tour player Sahith Theegala participated in the summit via a video message. He grew up playing at Los Serranos Golf Club, and thanked those in attendance for their part in growing the game.

Jim Baird, Ph.D., Associate Cooperative Extension Specialist in Turfgrass Management and Associate Turfgrass Horticulturist at UC Riverside shared some potentially game-changing information in that regard. Baird disclosed that bermudagrass cultivars which retain color in winter and have an improved drought resistance are expected to be ready in an initial limited release by 2024. Baird said beyond Northern and Southern California, the new bermudagrasses should have value anywhere bermudagrass can be grown. “I really believe these (cultivars) are as good or better than anything that’s out there,” Baird said.

Another important takeaway from the summit: keeping up with water use management technology. USGA West region senior consulting agronomist Brian Whitlark offered numerous strategies, including updating irrigation systems; replacing nozzles; eliminating overseeding; using in-ground soil moisture sensors; and turf reduction. USGA Director of Turfgrass and Environmental Research Cole Thompson, Ph.D., welcomed superintendents interested in implementing water conservation projects at their courses to contact him.

GCSAA Class A superintendent Justin Mandon at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif., urged superintendents to consider creating a water portfolio for their facility. In 2017, under Mandon’s leadership, Pasatiempo successfully introduced a tertiary water treatment plant that allows Mandon and his crew to use recycled water at the course. For superintendents pondering water-related projects, his message is to “get on it.” Mandon added, “There’s never going to be a time water is cheaper than it is today.”

Published in the August issue of GCM, “Water Use and Management Practices” from Travis Shaddox, Ph.D., and J. Bryan Unruh, Ph.D., is the first report of the third iteration of GCSAA’s Golf Course Environmental Profile Survey Series. The series serves as the industry’s benchmark, providing comprehensive data on the management practices, property features and environmental stewardship of U.S. golf courses. The report’s conclusion stated water applied to U.S. golf courses has declined by 29% since 2005 to 1.68 million acre-feet per year. Of that amount, approximately one-third was likely due to course closures.

Nobody at the Summit, however, seemed willing to accept that positive percentage as being nearly enough. Work remains to be done. Sooner rather than later.

“As much as we’ve done in water reduction the last 20 years, we have got to do it much more better and even faster,” said Craig Kessler, SCGA’s director of public affairs.

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.