California’s state water board on Saturday proposed new emergency drought rules that would require golf courses using private wells to make significant cutbacks in water use.
Under the draft regulations released by the State Water Resources Control Board, golf courses and other commercial properties that rely on an “independent source of water supply” would be required to limit irrigation to two days a week or achieve a 25 percent reduction in water use.
That could mean big changes for many of the Coachella Valley’s 122 golf courses, a majority of which rely on private wells.
Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a mandatory 25-percent statewide reduction in urban water use on April 1. But until Saturday, the state had not spelled out whether golf courses using their own wells would fall under the rules. The new draft regulations make clear that they will.
The Coachella Valley has one of the largest concentrations of golf courses in the country, and they use nearly one-fourth of the water that is pumped from the ground in the area.
According to a recent tally by the Coachella Valley Water District, 53 of the area’s golf courses have access to recycled water or water from the Colorado River. The other 69 golf courses rely on wells that pump groundwater.
“It appears the golf courses using well water will be required to participate in a measurable way in the state mandates. Exactly how will be determined by CVWD,” said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. “There’s still flexibility in this and quite honestly there’s ambiguity built into this.”
Officials of the Coachella Valley Water District had said initially that based on the wording of Brown’s order, all golf courses appeared to be exempt from the mandatory cutbacks. Heather Engel, the district’s director of communication and conservation, said the new measures appear to indicate that a 25-percent mandate applies to golf courses that use wells.
State officials are accepting public comments on the draft rules through Wednesday and then plan to release proposed regulations on April 28. The state water board will decide on the measures at a May 5-6 meeting.
Questions remain about how the rules would be enforced and what role, if any, local water districts would play in overseeing reductions in water use by golf courses.
“The big question is, are the water districts going to be required to enforce it and report it?” Engel said.
Caren Trgovcich, chief deputy director of the state water board, said golf courses fall into a category of “self-supplied commercial, industrial and institutional properties.”
“We’re basically telling them that they either have to limit outdoor irrigation to 2 days per week — so it’s the same standard for them as it is for the water suppliers — or meet 25 percent,” Trgovcich told reporters on a conference call. “We are not asking them to submit reports to us as we are of the small water suppliers, but we are telling them to keep information on hand so that if there are situations where local water suppliers identify water waste or we receive complaints and we follow up on them, that they have the information to back up that 25-percent or two-day-per-week requirement.”
The measures affect potable water but not the use of recycled water. As for water that arrives by canal from the Colorado River, that isn’t mentioned in the regulations. Because water districts classify the untreated water from the Colorado River as “non-potable,” it appears not to fall under the measures.
Unless the state specifies that canal water from the Colorado River will be subject to the drought measures, Engel said, “we’re going to assume that it does not apply under these rules.”
California has more than 800 golf courses, and state officials say that about two-thirds of them use potable water.
In the Coachella Valley, managers of golf courses last year announced a goal of voluntarily cutting water use by 10 percent from 2010 levels. Because their water use has risen a bit since 2010, reaching that goal would actually require a reduction of about 17 percent.
More aggressive cuts of 25 percent would likely require managers of country clubs to let the grass go brown in some areas around the edges of their courses. Meeting that goal also may require golf courses to invest more heavily in converting turf to desert landscaping.
Many of the golf courses in the Coachella Valley were designed decades ago and have more than 100 acres of grass, much more than in other areas such as Phoenix andLas Vegas, where tighter rules have led to the construction of courses with about 50 acres of turf or less.
The high costs of taking out grass and replacing it with desert plants have inhibited many golf courses from making those changes, particularly as their budgets have been squeezed by a trend of shrinking membership. This year, the Coachella Valley Water District began offering cash rebates to encourage golf courses to remove grass.
If the state adopts the measures as proposed, some golf courses likely would be pressed to make those changes more quickly. As the regulations take shape, Kessler said, “we have a whole number of questions we’re going to ask.”
The state’s latest draft of the drought measures builds on an initial “framework” for cuts in urban water use that was released earlier this month. The state water board has increased from four to eight the number of tiers into which cities and water agencies are divided, requiring reductions in water usage of between 8 percent and 36 percent.
Four Coachella Valley water suppliers fall in the highest tier for the most aggressive reductions of 36 percent: the Coachella Valley Water District, the city of Indio, Desert Water Agency and Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company.
Three of those water districts have recently topped the list of the state’s biggest per-capita water users, ranking No. 1, 5 and 7 in February. The Coachella Valley has long had relatively low water rates and some of the highest per-capita water use in the state.
Two other local water districts are being required to make somewhat smaller cutbacks: 32 percent for Mission Springs Water District in Desert Hot Springs and 24 percent for the city of Coachella. Both of those areas have had lower average water use.
With the drought in its fourth year, state officials said they’re looking to make sure that water-saving measures are in place by the summer, when Californians typically use the largest quantities outdoors.
“We’re in a drought like we’ve not seen before, just as Australia found themselves in the last decade. So all Californians need to step up more and prepare as if it won’t rain or snow much next year either, ’cause we know that we don’t know when it will end,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. As for the Australians, she added, “their advice has been to conserve early to avoid harsher and more expensive measures later on. It’s just the prudent thing to do. It is better to be safer than sorrier in the face of that uncertainty.”
The state water board will have the authority to issue fines against water suppliers that don’t meet their targets. But Marcus emphasized that the board aims to work with local agencies to help them reach their goals through changing their rates and other strategies.
“The point here is to get conservation, not fines. Fines are a tool,” Marcus said. “It is definitely achievable. We can do this.”
At the local level, the Desert Water Agency’s board will hold a public hearing on Tuesday in Palm Springs to consider additional drought measures, while Missions Springs Water District will hold a public hearing on April 27 to consider measures for its area in Desert Hot Springs.
The measures being considered by DWA include, among other things, restricting outdoor residential irrigation to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m. The agency also is proposing to shut off fountains and prohibit the watering of turf on street medians and roadsides.
“We’re going to have to cut back, so we need to work together to find the best way to do it,” said Katie Ruark, a spokeswoman for DWA. “We may have to take additional action in May depending on what the state board does.”