From Crisis to Confidence: The Southern California Golf & Water Summit
Water has been the subject of myriad forums and symposiums over the years. It is a staple of Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) Chapter meetings. It is the subject of multiple research and academic studies. University and college “field days” are dedicated to it. Magazine articles about it abound. And all of it is for good reason: Mother Nature may provide enough water in much of the United States, but irrigation is the lifeblood of the game in California and the Southwest.
For much of the region, irrigation is dependent upon imports; local supplies don’t suffice. And with both main sources of those imports — California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack and the Colorado River Basin — producing less precipitation, which comes more often in the form of rain than snow, and which therefore yields less runoff than can be transported to the population centers, it’s clear that instead of dealing with periodic drought, we may well be dealing with permanent drought.
With all of that in mind, the game’s alphabet soup of leadership organizations determined that the time had come to combine forces to produce something more comprehensive than another focused forum or symposium. We/they decided to produce something genuinely meriting the appellation “summit” — less an educational conference than a blueprint for taking the actions required to keep golf a robust part of California’s recreational future.
Thus was born the “Southern California Golf & Water Summit” at Los Serranos GC in Chino Hills — an ambitious effort to get beyond talking to ourselves and instead speak to the greater world, where the game’s fate regarding water (and everything else) has always been determined.
Did golf hit its marks? I’m not talking about the information part; golf has always been adept at that. Rather, did golf hit its marks in drawing in the greater audience that constitutes that “greater world” — that audience of water districts, elected officials and academics where golf intersects every day with the laws, regulations and policies that govern the game’s use of water? The consensus of the golf community was a decided yes. Much more importantly, the consensus of the water officials and policymakers in the room was also a decided yes.
A SURVIVAL PROPOSITION
The Southern California Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which imports water from the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River Basin for 19 million Southern Californians, was not just “in the audience;” it provided the summit’s keynote speaker in Chief Operating Officer and Assistant General Manager Deven Upadhyay and the summit’s closing panel of senior staffers who oversee rebate programs, recycling strategies and public/private partnerships.
In the audience were conservation managers and water officials from districts and utilities throughout the region, including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena and the Inland Empire. Also in the audience were much more than the usual golf course superintendents and agronomists. There were general managers, golf professionals, management companies and leaders from golf associations (not just California), PGA Sections, GCSAA chapters, national organizations and the media.
According to the post-summit survey that SCGA performed, 60 percent of the audience of more than 220 identified themselves as “non-golf.” And the message they heard from golf was the following, in a nutshell: As much as the game has done over the last 20 years to significantly reduce its water consumption, it does not plan to rest on that laurel, but to use that record of innovation and accomplishment to innovate and accomplish much more in the next 20 years to ensure that golf remains a large component of California’s recreational community. Not as a “do good” proposition, but as a survival proposition. Policymakers need to know that golf sees this challenge in such visceral terms.
A NEW NORMAL
The other message that came through loud and clear at the summit, and one that SCGA works with water providers every day to convey, is that golf seeks a collaborative partnership with its regulators to achieve goals that both hold in common, chief among them the steady reduction of the game’s water footprint over time.
Those messages are important as much as for policymakers as for the 3.5 million Californians who play golf. A moment that may seem parallel to 2016 is in fact much more dire. The reservoirs are much lower in late 2022 than they were at any time during the great 2014-2016 drought. The climatic conditions are demonstrably hotter and drier, which means that normal precipitation no longer yields what we long thought to be “normal” snowpack runoff. And it’s no secret that California is on the cusp of permanently reducing its annual allotment from the Colorado River before the year is out.
Put that all together and if Mother Nature doesn’t see fit to bail us out in 2023 as it did in 2017, things will become just that much more dire. And that’s the real worry for the Southern California golf community. Golf has been down this road many times before. Golf facilities have detailed drought contingency plans. Golfers have been conditioned to accept firm, fast, crunchy conditions. But if California has a fourth, or worse, a fifth year as dry as the previous three years, golf and much else are going to be in a world of hurt.
MWD General Manager Adel Hagekhalil is fond of telling audiences that Southern California cannot simply conserve its way out of what is increasingly looking like permanent drought. Conservation will always be a crucial tool to be sure, but it cannot be the only tool. An effective toolbox has to include 21st-century water-capture and conveyance technologies capable of supplementing the 20th-century infrastructure that no longer delivers enough water — e.g., stormwater capture, aquifer recharge, potable reuse and desalination.
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think both California in general and California’s golf community in specific are up to the task.