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California: How to reconcile a drought with 124 desert golf courses

By John Strege

The part of the Coachella Valley often referred to as the Palm Springs area, east of Los Angeles, is carpeted in green, 124 irrigated golf courses, many with lakes, in an otherwise parched landscape.

It is said to be the greatest concentration of golf courses in the world, situated in a desert, in a state besieged by what the National Weather Service describes as an exceptional drought, now in its third year (see Golf World’s story here). How does this square?

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(Getty Images photo)

“The drought has almost no impact on the Coachella Valley,” Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. “It doesn’t rain here anyway.”

Kessler was not being flip. The average rainfall there is three inches, a negligible amount. The valley, including its golf courses, receives its water from an aquifer. But here’s the rub: The water level in the aquifer is diminishing, and the State Water Project has cut the amount of imported water ordinarily used to replenish the aquifer to zero this year.

“Short term, unlike other places in California, there’s a negligible impact,” Kessler said. “However, there is a long-range concern.”

Here are a couple of statistics Kessler cited:

— The Coachella Valley has less than one percent of Southern California’s population, yet it has approximately 28 percent of its golf courses.

— The golf industry statewide uses less than one percent of the water, yet in the Coachella Valley, courses use 24 percent of the area water consumption.

Those who don’t play golf often see golf as exacerbating the problem. But the health of the economy in the Coachella Valley is inextricably tied to golf. “If you lose your water source, you lose the viability of life, the reason have to move here,” Dean Miller, president of the Hi-Lo Desert Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said.

So, what to do?

The courses are working closely with the Coachella Valley Water District on ways to conserve, its communications director Heather Engel said, including a goal of a 10 percent reduction in water use by 2020. "As a whole, the golf industry is very conscientious about water use in Coachella Valley," she said.

Moreover, you might begin to see native areas replacing irrigated rough on courses. “Instead of 140 irrigated acres, wall-to-wall green, you’ll start to see a little more of the desert look for the golf courses,” Kessler said. “I think you’re going to see that creep into the courses.”

“All of Southern California is trying to get a handle on water consumption. The golf industry is being pro-active.”

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