Ron Agostini: Water crisis looms for Modesto area golf courses

ragostini@modbee.comFebruary 4, 2014 

JBL Creekside Water

The pond at Creekside Golf Course in Modesto, Ca. is pictured on (02-04-14).


The ongoing drought, along with the red-flag warnings for upcoming water shortages this summer, soon will target golf courses.

Golf has been an easy hit for water-conservation critics for many years. The battle lines are well-entrenched. Golf courses are viewed either as picturesque playgrounds by proponents or water-wasting hideaways for a minority of clientele by critics.

Two things are true today: First, golf has addressed these concerns for many years, and second, serious cutbacks in water use probably will be the norm this summer.

Golf-wise, officials in the Valley already are addressing potential issues as California steams through one of the driest winters on record. The Sierra snowpack, the source for about a third of the state’s water supply each spring, is about 12 percent of average. It’s the lowest level since electronic record-keeping began in 1960.

Against such a dire prognosis, golfers brace for brown fairways, baked greens and more firm conditions.

Steve Lumpkin, the city of Modesto’s interim director of the Modesto Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department, will huddle today with former director Bob Quintella. The topic: How to deal with potential golf water shortages during the hot-weather months.

Lumpkin believes Dryden Park and Creekside, both irrigated through well water, should be OK. More problematic is Creekside, which leans hard on the ponds bordering the 18th fairway.

“We’ve already reduced parks water by 30 percent in recent years,” Lumpkin said. “We’re very concerned about Creekside. If we don’t have that water, we’ll have to subsidize with city water and we’ll no doubt incur additional costs.”

The average California golf course uses 250 to 450 acre feet of water per year, according to studies by the United States Golf Association. One acre foot – one acre of ground covered by water one foot deep – represents 326,000 gallons.

Many golf courses have been involved in water conservation for years and even decades. Recycling water, more prudent drainage, holding ponds, modernized irrigation systems and drought-tolerant grasses all have helped. One course in Santa Clara County saved more than $300,000 a year by cutting its water use by 20 percent, according to the USGA.

In 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that mandates a cutback of 20 percent of urban, per capita water use by 2020. Gov. Jerry Brown echoed that sentiment last month as he announced a state of emergency.

The USGA has worked since 1982 to develop new grasses that use less water and require less pesticide use. Growing more popular is the use of effluent, or treated wastewater. Castle Oaks in Ione has irrigated with wastewater since its opening in 1994. Pine Mountain Lake in Groveland supplements water from the nearby lake with wastewater.

Stevinson Ranch, arguably the area’s most environmentally sensitive golf-course property, will curtail its water use by at least 30 percent. Owner George Kelley believes it won’t be a bad thing.

“As I’ve told my superintendent many times, brown is beautiful. We’re a links a course, and I don’t mind some baked-out roughs,” Kelley said. “The grass is not going to die, it’s going to dry out and the course will play firm.”

Kelley also is the CEO and founder of Greenway Golf, a course maintenance company that tends to 18 properties nationally, including Turlock Country Club. President Marc Logan, a turf expert mentored at the famed Royal Melbourne Golf Club, oversees a major project at the 45-hole Chuck Corica Golf Complex in Alameda.

One of the 18-hole courses will be converted from rye grass to hybrid bermuda fairways, the greens to bent-grass and fescue roughs. Logan said that will reduce water consumption by 40 percent.

“We have products that will help water penetration and hold water within the root zone,” Logan said. “The general public doesn’t understand that just because turf is off-color, it is not dead. There is a big difference between surface quality and color. The idea is to produce the best playing surface.”

Opposite that school of thought are golfers who insist on lush green grass year-round. Unfortunately for them, we’re walking into an era where that might not be possible.

Spanish Bay, the oceanside course near Pebble Beach, which was inspired by Tom Watson and former USGA President Sandy Tatum in the 1980s, was envisioned as a pure links experience. They preferred the brownish and thirsty links look and didn’t mind some rugged edges. Instead, as the property was developed into a full-fledged resort with its five-star inn, it took on the full greenery. This worked fine for the pocketbook, but it wasn’t the original intent for Spanish Bay.

Closer to home, bermuda, which goes dormant during the winter, is the right choice for turfgrass that requires only minimal water.

“If I would build another course in the Valley, I would use bermuda rather than rye grass,” Kelley said.

Holes-in-one – Rod Van Pelt, Modesto, 175-yard 12th at Creekside, 3-wood. ... Mike Martinez, Modesto, 71-yard third at Escalon, pitching wedge. ... Andrew Barrios, Manteca, 123-yard third at Jack Tone Golf, Ripon, 9-iron.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at or (209) 578-2302. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeSports.

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