Golf Courses Brace for Brown Greens

North County's golf courses are bracing for severe cuts in water, the lifeblood of their green acres.

"The city wants all the courses here in Oceanside to cut back their water use by at least 20%, and possibly up to 50%," said Bill Houlihan, golf course superintendent at Oceanside Municipal.

"I only have so much water to use, and I've got to use it sparingly, basically watering greens and tee surfaces. It's a big concern. Right now the course is in real good shape, but with the cutbacks, there will be less greenery on the golf course," he said.

Houlihan is hopeful that by July the course will have reclaimed water from the Oceanside sewage treatment plant.

"You're going to see some shabby golf courses," said Jim Gilbert of Meadow Lakes Country Club in Escondido. "For those who don't have secondary sources, it's a major concern. We're in the middle of trying to solve the problem, because as users of commercial water in the Valley Center Water District, we have to comply with the same ordinances that homeowners do--it's just like having a house."

A very, very big house.

"An average golf course can use up to 20-25 million gallons a month. You can use a million gallons in one night," said Gilbert. "It's 150 acres that you have to water."

If you think a million gallons in one night, even though representing an extremely high use period, is a staggering sum, consider this--that one-night soaking would fulfill all the needs of a family of four for more than six years.

Golf course irrigation water use is usually expressed in acre-feet, with one-acre-foot equal to 325,900 gallons of water.

La Costa's 300-acre, 36-hole course uses 850 acre-feet of potable water annually, or about 770,000 gallons a day, but is installing a system to bring in 750 acre-feet of substitute reclaimed water.

"We're in a very difficult situation as everyone is," said Maureen Carroll-Gonzalez, director of public relations at La Costa. "We're doing exactly what everyone else is--conserving as much as we can. I can assure you that we are highly conscious of water conservation."

About two years ago, when the drought was already in its third year, the San Diego Golf Course Water Conservation Group was formed.

The organization, which is made up mostly of course superintendents, project owners and planners, represents about half of the county's more than 70 golf courses, and is researching water use on the fairways as restrictions on potable water take effect.

The group advocates the switch to reclaimed water, the use of high-tech irrigation technology, and the concept that water should never be wasted.

"A lot of the old systems were not water effective," said group member Dave Fleming, who speaks to groups across the country on turf researching and enhancing the compatibility of golf courses with the environment. "We now have weather station-driven, computerized irrigation systems. The computer knows just how much water is taken out of the ground through evaporation each day and then can apply precisely that amount. There's no waste."

Fleming is owner and president of Golf Properties Management, which designs new courses and maintains existing ones. His current project, the Mt. Woodson Golf Club in Ramona, will have its own reclamation plant, and store the reclaimed water in man-made lakes before using it to irrigate the fairways. The course is scheduled to open in June.

Another course scheduled to open soon, the Arnold Palmer designed Aviara in Carlsbad, will have dual irrigation systems for both potable and reclaimed water.

Course managers stress that they still need good-quality potable water for their putting greens, which usually make up only about 2% of a course's total acreage. They say the salty reclaimed water would destroy the sensitive greens, each of which costs about $20,000 to $30,000 to build.

They are hopeful that the drought will not force fundamental changes in the way the game is played.

In some desert settings in Arizona, the course consists largely of a green tee-off area and a green putting area divided by an expanse of parched scrub, brush and cactus. For many, that landscape results in a less appealing version of the sport.

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