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Drought Fact Check: Teed Off About Golf Courses?

Golf course in Palm Springs | Photo: Joe Wolf/Flickr/Creative Commons License

This is one in a series of posts examining the accuracy of popular notions about California's ongoing drought.

When it comes to looking for drought villains, golf courses seem like they're nearly begging to be singled out. It's not hard to see why. News reports on California's drought show photos of broad expanses of manicured, well-watered golf links in the desert, stunning visuals that reduce the issues surrounding California's water wastage to a level you could call call black and white if it wasn't actually more like green and brown.

That's at least as much due to golf courses' conspicuous consumption of water resources, and by who is perceived to make up the golfing demographic, as it is due to actual water use.

Golf courses do use a considerable amount of water; a bit more than one half of one percent of California's total consumption in 2010, the last kinda wet year we had, and likely more now, though data is thin on the ground.

There are lots of other pursuits that use a lot more water -- Fresno County crop irrigators use more than ten times as much fresh water per day as all the state's golf courses combined -- but few significant water uses are seen as so ostentatious and arguably unnecessary as golf. So it's not surprising that golf links are taking some heat. Is that heat deserved? It depends where in California you are.

Take for instance this strongly worded piece by Charles Davis in Vice, illustrated with a photo of sprinklers on a golf green in Palm Springs. Davis puts both the water use and class issues bluntly:

If California were serious about conservation, it wouldn't be cracking down on homeowners washing their stupid cars -- it would be closing down things like golf courses, of which there are nearly a thousand. When more than half the state is categorized as suffering the most severe form of drought, when groundwater reserves are being tapped to such an extent that it may actually cause earthquakes, old rich white men should not be driving little carts around on beautifully manicured green lawns in the middle of a fucking desert.

It's really hard to find a more concise summary of the burgeoning resentment of golf courses than that. (Though the number of California golf courses is actually 866, if you take Max Gomberg at the State Water Resources Control Board at his word.)

Class issues have come up hard in a number of reactions to the drought, with everyone from wealthy almond-eating elites in East Asia to the multibillionaire Resnicks of Beverly Hills coming under public scrutiny, so it's no surprise that a sport so thoroughly identified with the affluent would attract some populist ire for using water in a drought-stricken state.

Golfing supporters would hasten to point out that golf isn't exclusively the province of the affluent; about 70 percent of courses in the country are open to the public for a nominal fee, and while golf clubs, shoes, and ugly plaid shorts do require cash up front, the entry level cost for beginning golfers isn't more than for some more working-class-identified pastimes such as fishing or off-roading.

That said, the golf courses that consume the most water in California aren't the municipal courses where you and your pal can play a round for $20. They're the resort golf clubs in the Coachella Valley, where an average round will set you back a hundred bucks.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which releases water consumption figures for every county in the U.S. every five years, golf courses in the Coachella Valley's Riverside County consumed 39,000 acre-feet of water in 2010, or about 46 million gallons per day, 11 million of which was reclaimed water. Of the rest, just under 24 million gallons a day came from the county's groundwater, and the remaining 11 million gallons came from surface water -- aqueducts and the like.

For a bit of perspective compared to our previous Drought Fact Check story, that means that in a typical two day period in 2010, Riverside County golf courses used more water than fracking did in all of California in 2014.

There's more to Riverside County than just the Coachella Valley; there are RivCo golf courses well outside the Palm Springs area. But the fact remains that in 2010, 16 percent of the freshwater used to irrigate golf courses in California was used in Riverside County alone.

By comparison, golf-mad Los Angeles and San Diego counties each accounted for 14 percent of the state's total golf water, with Orange County at 9 percent and Kern at 6 percent.

And of Riverside's neighbors in the desert, gigantic San Bernardino County, the largest county in land area in the lower 48 and possessed of a climate only slightly cooler than the Coachella Valley's, accounted for just five percent of the state's total water spent keeping golf greens alive. That's despite having a couple of golf courses that might make an even better visual symbol of water wastage, like the Primm Valley Golf Course in the Ivanpah Valley. Riverside County's even warmer southern neighbor, Imperial County, didn't even use a single percent of the state's water budget, spending 1,120 acre-feet of freshwater to water golf links in 2010. Riverside County used 35 times as much.

What about the rest of the state? Suburban, affluent, golfer-heavy Contra Costa County east of San Francisco Bay, ninth county in the state in terms of total golf course acreage, used less than 4,500 acre-feet of fresh water on its golf courses in 2010. Sacramento County, with more golf-courses than Contra Costa, used only about 4,200 acre-feet. Alpine and Sierra counties are entirely off the hook, having used no water at all on golf courses in the USGS's reckoning, likely due to having no golf courses. Monterey County, home to Pebble Beach, uses less than 3,100 acre-feet per year on its golf courses, less than a tenth Riverside County's total.

More recent stats are harder to come by, but there are a number of factors that are likely to have changed in the five years since 2010. In the Coachella Valley, temperatures have been warmer, which means each acre of turf grass will be needing more water. Public attention has been focused on the drought for a few years, so there's been talk about replacing irrigated rough landscaping with more drought-tolerant options. Courses irrigated by the Coachella Valley Water District have been working with the district to cut their water use 20 percent by 2020. (That goal is almost certain to be superseded by the governor's April 1 mandate that golf courses cut their water use statewide by about 25 percent.)

But even in 2014, golf trade journals were reporting that the Coachella Valley's 124 golf courses accounted for 24 percent of the area's water consumption. And that's in a part of the state where people use a lot of water for their own lawns.

It's not that Riverside County, or the Coachella Valley, are necessarily the worst place in the state for golf courses. I crunched the numbers in the USGS's 2010 stats for golf course water consumption, and 17 other counties' golf courses turn out to be a lot thirstier per acre. Riverside County golf courses as a whole drank 2.7 acre-feet per acre of turf in 2010, while Kern County -- with the thirstiest courses on a per-acre basis -- used up 4.2 acre-feet per acre.

It's just that there are a lot of golf courses in the Coachella Valley. Golf experts call it the densest concentration of golf courses on the planet, with more than 14 percent of the golf courses in the entire state wedged into one 20-mile strip of desert.

And that basically means that when it comes to golf's impacts on the drought in California, you can't just generalize statewide. There's golf in California, and then there's golf in Southern California, and then there's golf in that stretch along I-10 between Desert Hot Springs and Indio.

The question is, who benefits from the water use? A relatively modest municipal golf course in the north part of the state might offer much-needed green open space to non-golfing neighbors, as well as transient foraging habitat for wildlife. That might be a harder case to make about a SoCal course inside a gated resort community catering to tourists from out of state.

Golf isn't a crucial activity. Though it does employ a significant number of people in places like the Coachella Valley, it's a game rather than a vital economic activity. Arguments over golf courses using water during the drought are necessarily going to reflect the arguer's subjective point of view. People to whom golf is important will argue in favor of golf courses, and others might take the opposite tack.

That's as it should be. Life isn't just all about work, and it's not a bad thing to consider using a reasonable amount of water to make life more pleasant in the state.

But as with all things Californian, it's important not to oversimplify. Golf isn't in the top ten water users statewide -- and we'll get to some of those larger users in the next few days -- but it certainly is in the Coachella Valley. Even if it's not true to say that 11 of those Coachella Valley courses are "sucking California dry," the industry can be a major consumer of local water supplies, especially in places like the Coachella Valley.

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