In the last week of October, almost exactly three months before the start of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Paul Cushing had no trouble picking a tournament favorite: El Nino.
Cushing, the maintenance manager for the City of San Diego’s golf courses, in fact had already effectively doubled down on El Nino by buying extra pumps and other heavy duty water removal equipment in advance to handle the deluge that could come with the type of potentially extreme weather event an El Nino portends.
A historic hurricane in Mexico the previous week had only further convinced Cushing of the forecast of a wet winter for San Diego and Southern California. A warm Pacific Ocean mixed with late-summer heat and humidity had cooked up the proverbial perfect storm for a perhaps record-setting El Nino.
“At this point, I’d be much more surprised if we don’t have a significant rain event than we do,” Cushing said of tournament week (Jan. 28-31.).
Raining on the Tour’s annual parade through SoCal would put a damper on the professional season but likely be welcome news to the rest of the region’s golf course community, as long as extreme events, such as flooding and mudslides, don’t coincide.
Four years of drought have drained the reserves of the state and pushed courses to their liquid limit through water restrictions. The latest data, Cushing said, showed the state needing 75 inches of rain to recover.
“We’re not going to get that all back in one swoop,” he said, “but we could put a pretty good dent it, maybe at least get us through another year or two by restoring some of the ground reserves.”
Mike Huck, a water management consultant in San Juan Capistrano who monitors usage by the state’s courses, said California’s courses caught a break in 2015 between timely rains and late-arriving heat. Despite mandated water restrictions, courses kept their conditions up and in some cases saved more water than the mandate.
“The rain fall came with perfect timing,” Huck said. “Some courses had just started to go yellow after the cuts and it’s like they were given a breath of fresh air. Some courses you couldn’t even tell where the water had been shut off.
“I had one (Orange County) super tell me, ‘We’re as green as we’ve ever been.’”
But the superintendents are now ready for nature to really open the hose. And past experience and current conditions lead Huck to believe that relief is coming. Huck is more concerned with how the rains will come.
“How much will we capture?” he asks. “These storms can be really intense. If that’s the case, we won’t capture as much as if it was a nice, slow rain that drizzled for 10 days.”
Like Cushing, Huck believes a best-case scenarios buys courses a couple years of supply and could even result in the lifting of water restrictions, which are due to be re-evaluated in the new year.
Or, Huck said, water boards could look at how courses got by on less in 2015 and stay conservative.
“It all depends on capture,” he said. “In the spring, they could say we’re comfortable with where we’re at, or they could press on restricting consumption.”
Huck said 2015 proved to be a huge learning year about conversation and resources for those in charge of course maintenance.
“Absolutely. It’s just like when we had the big drought in the late 70s. It really opened people’s eyes and made them take a different course and use less water. They realized you can maintain good course conditions with a lot less water.”
Huck would bet Southern California sees significant relief, but says there’s no guarantee Northern California would see the same. There can be regional differences, but Huck says the storms need to make an impact beyond the coast to really bail out California.
“What’s the snow pack is the big question,” he said, knowing the last two were the lowest in recorded California history. “Will the cold air mass come down to the Sierras or will it go to the Rockies? The experts seem split 50-50 about whether there will be a big snow event in the Sierras.”
Both ranges contribute to California’s supply and the snowmelt holds the potential for a more long-lasting impact than the storms themselves.
A worst-case scenario for courses, Huck said, is a winter that under delivers on El Nino’s potential. That downside is one Huck believes could be dire, not just drier, in 2016, meaning restrictions could increase.
“It could mean no water at all for some courses, or just water for tees and small percentage of greens,” he said.
The other downside is potential natural disaster conditions.
“Southern California could get flooding and mud slides. That could be almost as bad,” he said, noting courses that undertook turf reduction could be especially vulnerable to erosion.
Art Miller, a 30-year Research Oceanographer in Climate Sciences at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, said unprecedented ocean climate conditions make an extreme event more likely.
“The northern Pacific Ocean has (abnormally) warm ocean temperatures all the way up to Alaska,” he said. “Once it gets set up like that, it takes a long time to fade away.”
Miller said some models show it could take ocean temperatures as long as six months to normalize, which provides a longer window of opportunity for rain or severe weather beyond December to February, which is viewed as the peak window for El Nino.
Cushing has seen El Nino at its most destructive extreme. When the last one came in 2005, he was working on building Vellano Country Club in Chino Hills. The rains made the project work impossible until spring, when El Nino had subsided.
“We’d work and then get 10 inches of rain that would wash out the entire project,” he said. “We’d pick up the pieces and it would happen again. And we were a course with 600 feet of elevation change. Water was pooled everywhere.”
That El Nine brought a hefty 44 inches of rain to the region. That same soaking wouldn’t erase the drought but it’d certainly make a dramatic impact.
California’s reservoirs wouldn’t be overflowing, but its bunkers would be. That’s the scenario Cushing is already planning for.
Of his 2005 El Nino experience, Cushing said, “I think we’re in for that again.”