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The winter rains may have been a wet blanket for tee sheets to start 2017 in Southern California, but the weather windfall since is the end of the drought and summer-quality course conditions months early.
The lush landscapes golfers are enjoying are helping courses recover from the drought, and the wet winter, in more ways than just through increased rounds.
Torrey Pines Golf Operations Director Mark Marney said the course scored a fiscal birdie in Feb. via a water savings of $75,000.
“It’s definitely going to help us from a budget standpoint,” Marney said. “But overall the rains have been really beneficial. The course is looking much crisper than it normally would at this time of year.”
Other course general managers across Southern California are echoing similar sentiments, saying spring course conditions are the best they’ve seen in years if not unprecedented.
At Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo not only the course but the surrounding hillsides are so green one could almost confuse Orange County with Ireland. Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club Director of Golf Geoff Cram said the verdant coincidence is uncommon but very welcome.
“It never got cool this winter so our turf never really went dormant,” Cram said. “And then you had fresh water on top of it, so it’s incredibly green. Usually our turf ramps up slowly, but here it is the middle of March and it looks like the end of May.”
Colin Radchenko, General Manager at Steele Canyon Golf Club in Jamul, is witnessing similar surrounds at his course and is amazed by what he sees at courses throughout the county.
“It’s amazing what the water has done not just for us but for every golf course throughout San Diego,” he said. “It’s incredible, and our golfers are loving it.”
Radchenko reports strong play this spring after a winter that was solid as well despite the heavy rain events.
But the best news of all, of course, is that what’s largely regarded as the wettest winter in Southern California since 1983-84 busted the drought. Mike Huck, a water management in San Juan Capistrano who monitors usage by the state’s course, said he never expected a seven-year deficit to be caught up in one wet winter wallop, but it’s blessing that it did, especially for golf courses.
It’s assumed the state will lift some water restrictions of previous years, and if so, courses are indeed looking at a big boost to their budget for one of their largest expenses, Huck said. Various common sense restrictions will remain in place and become permanent such as bans on hosing off sidewalks, washing cars without a positive shutoff hose nozzle and irrigating narrow street medians with pop-up sprinklers.
“There’s probably a 10 percent savings or so that they can look forward to,” he said. “Courses may be able to prolong their savings when they begin heavily irrigating this spring due to the deeply wetted soils.”
There could be an additional savings through continued smart management practices that were born of the drought. While the drought was a painful maintenance circumstance, Huck said Southern California superintendents might now be better resource managers because of it.
“They learned they can live on a little less water than they had in the past and still have acceptable course conditions,” he said. “It forced them into using less, but it might not be a bad thing that it changed their approach a little bit.”
Some practices born of the drought, such as painting fairways and driving ranges, Huck expects to now be common practice regardless of future rains.
“I don’t think you’ll see people over seeding like you did in the past,” he said, “and that’s definitely a good thing.
“During the drought, they made great use of paints and dyes that helped them save on water. And it gives the course just enough color to keep it looking good. There’s no reason that shouldn’t continue.”
The upsides to the end of the drought are obvious for courses, but for some it came at a price. The sometimes severe storms of 2017 took down trees at some courses and caused other on-course damage through localized events, such as flooding.
Marney said course officials at Torrey in particular were holding their breath during storms after a re-designed North Course was still taking hold. It re-opened in Nov. and hosted the Farmers Insurance Open in Jan. Marney said Torrey’s courses mostly weathered the storms, but on occasion grounds crews were sent racing.
“We had some drains on the North that still need to be touched up and fixed, but it was a good test, and it passed,” he said.
Marney in particular noted the bunker maintenance disparity between the North and South Courses in preparation for the Farmers during the rains.
“It would take us two or three days to get the bunkers on the South back in play and on the North, we had no issues at all,” he said. “So in that respect, re-doing the North course really paid off in terms of reduction of time it took to get the course playable again.”
While Torrey was working feverishly last summer to get the project completed, it was also battling an infestation of bark beetles that were threatening its precious Torrey Pines. The lack of rains had sapped of the trees of their natural defense – sap – and the beetles were at one point killing four or five trees a month before Torrey’s maintenance crew introduced better methods to help the trees cope.
The beetles are always around, but Marney said the drought gave them the edge they needed to do great damage.
“You’d see a few trees in severe decline and then they’d quickly move onto another tree,” he said. “It was just moving much faster than it had in the past.”
Thanks to maintenance assist and the return of the rains, however, Marney said the remaining Torreys are recovering and the beetles are at bay for now.
“We’ve learned more and we’re in a different climate condition,” he said. “Both things are helping us out on this one.”
Huck said a handful of other courses faced beetles issues but for most the common fight is the toll years of continuous drought have taken on their trees, many of which Huck says won’t recover.
“Even with the rains, some of them are so far gone that they probably won’t come back,” he said. “It just depends how far into the cycle of death they are at this point.
“When you go through a dry spell like that, it puts real pressure on the trees.”
California’s groundwater reserves have been similarly stressed, which Huck said will be a decade-long recovery process because gains accrue so slowly. But he notes that, for some courses, the droughts did bring previously dry wells back into use.
One of other maintenance practices several courses in SoCal turned to during the drought was turf reduction. They removed turf to make the course more sustainable and replaced the turf with drought-tolerant plants.
Steele Canyon was one course that made a unique use of the reduced area by planting grapevines and establishing vineyards. This spring marks year two of the project and Radchenko is pleased to report buds forming on the still nearly virgin vines.
“It hasn’t really been warm yet, but when it heats up, we expect them to really take off,” he said. “But the water started things popping in the spring and definitely gave them a boost.”
The vines won’t produce a wine-grade grape until next year, but they did produce sporadic fruit a year ago that Radchenko hopes will be followed by lots of rain-fueled bunches and clusters this year.
“We won’t have our first real harvest until 2018, but it’s still great to see,” he said.
The drought ending is a happy ending for courses and hopefully the dawn of a new fruitful year after being hampered by a lack of water, and high water costs, for much of the decade.
The return of business as usual is certainly welcome by staffs at all California courses and Radchenko said golfers are celebrating it as well.
“Our rounds up and people are excited to get out and play,” he said. “But mostly it’s just nice to look at all the surrounding areas and see everything green after years of brown, brown, brown.”