From a dry spillway near the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area in Irwindale, Don Provine surveyed a most improbable site for an 18-hole, public golf course.
Before him lay a 250-acre rectangle of rocky, semi-desert terrain, filled with coastal sage scrub, clumps of bushes, a few trees and a string of power transmission lines. Traffic churned along the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway. Bisecting the scene was a concrete dam built to stem the tide of rainwaters, which on rare occasions cascade from the San Gabriel Mountains. The mountain range formed an impressive vista to the north.
"A golf course would dress up the area quite a bit," said the 51-year-old, gray-haired Provine, whose relaxed manner suits his title of assistant golf director for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.
But not everyone has the same view of what a $6-million golf course would mean for the Santa Fe Dam and Flood Control Basin, which sprawls alongside the 605 and Foothill Freeways.
Water officials say the site is the most valuable land in the San Gabriel Valley for use as "spreading grounds," where rain runoff is collected and pumped into the porous earth to replenish the water table that provides 90% of the water for 1 million people. The spreading grounds occupy not only the site of the proposed golf course, but also hundreds of acres in and around the county's Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area, east of the 605 Freeway.
"If this golf course goes through, we will lose half of our best spreading grounds," said Robert G. Berlien, general manager of the Upper San Gabriel Municipal Water District.
Donald Nichols, division chief of hydrology and water conservation in the county's Department of Public Works, conjured up another possible obstacle to the golf course: torrential rains. "I can just see guys with 8 o'clock starting times getting washed away one day."
Mainly, however, water agency officials fear that a golf course would reduce the amount of water that seeps into the water table and would limit authorities' ability to capture significant amounts of water during flood times. They say it also would preclude use of the land as a temporary storage place for surplus water.
"I'm prejudiced toward water and am not a golfer. But even if I was a golfer, I think I would understand. It's obvious that is not a good location for a golf course," said Al Wittig, board member of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District.
So far, the owner of the land, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has made no decision. The county Parks and Recreation Department first proposed the idea informally several years ago when the corps began to review its master plan for the area. The corps, having built the dam and flood control basin in 1948, issues permits for activities around the dam, including flood control, recreation and water conservation.
Mary A. O'Keeffe, a public affairs spokeswoman for the corps' Los Angeles office, said a golf course may be a suitable addition to the flood control basin. But, she said: "We wouldn't make any kind of comment until we have evaluated the proposal."
Despite opposition from local water officials and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, parks and recreation officials say they intend to submit a formal proposal in hopes that the project could be completed within the next few years. They have the backing of county Supervisor Pete Schabarum, whose district encompasses the recreation area.
Schabarum and parks and recreation officials maintain that a golf course would in no way jeopardize water conservation or flood control efforts. And they point out that a new course would supplement the shortage of available public links in the region.
The county's existing 20 courses, even those in the worst shape, get extensive use, Provine said. Nearly one-third of the courses are in the San Gabriel Valley, with facilities in Altadena, Pasadena, Diamond Bar, Pomona, La Verne, Arcadia and at Whittier Narrows. They are all operating at capacity, Provine said, noting that 250 to 300 golfers daily account for 100,000 rounds being played annually at most courses.
Bill Harvey, chief of contracts for the county's Parks and Recreation Department, added: "We're running out of land to put golf courses on." A regulation course requires a minimum of 140 acres. In Los Angeles County, where land prices and availability are at a premium, it is not easy to find desirable sites for new golf courses, he said.
Schabarum aide Judy Hammond said the county understands the importance of the spreading grounds. She pointed out that it made $3.5 million in improvements to expand the Santa Fe spreading grounds east of the proposed course site last year. "It's unfortunate that the (water officials) did not have the facts on this before taking a position against the golf course," she said.
Nonetheless, one local water official, H. William Robinson of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, calls the idea a potential environmental catastrophe.
The Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster, the agency which oversees water pumping rights, will file a lawsuit if the proposal isn't dropped, said watermaster board Chairman Linn Magoffin
Dick Wulfing, the county regional park superintendent at the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area, said he knows of no significant environmental reasons for which a golf course couldn't be built at the site. However, he said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that further studies of the site's biological resources be undertaken prior to a final decision.
But water conservation concerns are at the heart of the objections. "We're all quite concerned," said Nichols, of the county Department of Public Works. "We're in an era of ever-diminishing water supplies. This golf course would impinge on this."
The site proposed for the golf course normally is dry, even in the rainy season. But water officials said the area has flooded in extremely wet years.