SCGA Public Affairs


Monday, July 12, 2021

Too much has been made of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1943 speech in which he coined the phrase repeated incessantly by historians and essayists ever since – “Dr. New Deal has given way to Dr. Win the War.” Too much because most have failed to listen or read the rest of the speech in which America’s longest serving President repeated that the Four Freedoms that Dr. Win the War was brought in to save for the United States and its democratic allies would again be front and center in the American body politic once the good Doctor had completed the job. Given that the author of the New Deal and the Four Freedoms were one in the same, it’s safe to assume that President Roosevelt was signaling plans to resurrect the New Deal once the Axis had been dispatched. Of course, the author didn’t see that day, other things came to the fore, and as historians of all stripes can tell you – nothing ends a reform era more effectively than war.

To those of you wondering what this has to do with the intersection of golf and public policy in mid- 2021, and that has to be most of you, it’s this. Circumstances that forced us to become Dr. COVID for the better part of 16 months have given way to getting back to the doctoring we were doing before March 2020 – back to tending to the multiple manifestations of what is really the game’s singular existential problem. Golf requires large tracts of land made up of something called turf that is biologically averse to retaining water, located in places where land is expensive, precious, and desperately needed for a whole host of other highly laudable societal purposes. Add to that the harsh realities of inputs, most notably water, whose prices continue to spiral at multiples of the Consumer Price Index, and these good doctors just need to declare victory over COVID, thank our lucky stars that golf emerged from that battle in far better shape than it was beforehand, and get about parlaying those advantages into not just tactics capable of coping with the game’s continuing problems, but strategies capable of solving a few of them to the degree to which challenges of that nature are indeed solvable.

COVID was a singular challenge. “Dr. COVID” was an appropriate appellation for the focused 16-month effort. The challenges back on golf’s agenda may emanate from the same set of realities about the game, and thus amenable to some sort of grand correlative strategy, but they are separate subjects. Perhaps some of the smarter minds reading this can come up with a singular title for our new doctorate, but for now, we’re going to go with two: Dr. Drought and Dr. Municipal Golf.

Everyone understands how Dr. Drought treats all golf patients. It matters not whether one’s golf club or favorite course is equity private club, non-equity private club, daily fee or municipal; water affects all, some more than others, but all, nonetheless. Not everyone understands how Dr. Municipal Golf treats all, but they should, because just as the Scots who invented this game are fond of saying, “nay wind, nay golf,” golfers need to start saying, “nay municipal golf, nay golf,” at least not golf as the massive multi-billion dollar undertaking as we’ve come to understand it in 2021.

More about Dr. Municipal Golf later – much more. Today, the focus is Dr. Drought.

Last week Governor Newsom added 9 counties to the 41 he had already declared to be in severe drought. For the first time 2 Southern California Counties in addition to Kern, which was already part of the original 41, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, made the list. The rest representing over 90% of the Southland’s population have yet to make the list and are not likely to do so unless Mother Nature yields the same or similar paltry water bounty next precipitation season. There are advantages to having invested billions in above surface storage, recycled capacity, and desalination. But that won’t keep the rest of Southern California out of severe drought if there’s one more dry year accompanied by what is shaping up to be a new normal in terms of yields from the Sierra snowpack, not just gross yields, but much more alarmingly, substantially reduced net yields from the same gross – a drought multiplier effect that has caught climatologists by surprise.

For those and other reasons the Governor has asked Californians to cut their water consumption back 15% in order to match the 25% reduction Californians achieved during the 2015-2016 crunch – the lower request this time due to the fact that post drought Californians did not revert to old consumption patterns, but rather kept conserving at 16% below 2013’s level.

And there’s the rub. Just as the golf industry’s deck of conservation cards keeps getting slimmer and slimmer over time, not to mention more expensive to play, so too are the cards available to other sectors. The low hanging fruit was picked long ago; indeed, the middle hanging fruit is pretty much gone as well. And yet as a warming, drying climate promises to produce smaller Sierra snowpacks, lessened runoff rates, declining aquifers, and a Colorado Basin that is on course to trigger reductions in California’s long held allocation in 2022, it may well be that the sacrifices that got the state through the great drought of 2014-2016 won’t be nearly enough to get the state through the next one, whether that next one is imminent or a few years down the line.

Southern California Golf has played a lot of cards the last 20 years and shouldn’t be shy about trumpeting the water savings those cards have wrought – maximally efficient irrigation controls, turf removal, warm season grasses, California friendly drought tolerant species, soil moisture metering, reduced overseeding, collaborative partnerships with water providers/public utilities, legally formalized alternative means of drought compliance, and the promulgation of statewide Rules conducive of steady reductions of the California golf community’s water footprint.

There are more cards to play, particularly in the Coachella Valley, but the cards are getting scarcer and more expensive to play with each spike in what is increasingly looking like a state of almost permanent drought. One need look no further than our counterparts over the border in Arizona to discover that at some point the deck can run out, not for all but certainly for those golf facilities that have reduced their irrigated acreage to 65 acres and begun irrigating it per an ET factor fractions above death. That is precisely what is happening right now as the situation in the Colorado Basin upon which Arizona is disproportionately dependent worsens more rapidly than predicted. Our Arizona friends may not have initially handled the situation with the deftest of public relations touches, but before we criticize let’s recognize that there are courses in that state that will simply be driven out of business, not because the business isn’t there, but rather because the water isn’t.

But again, with few exceptions all regions of California have cards they can play to muddle through whatever Mother Nature brings. And let’s not forget those cards already in play that will continue to offer relief from the worst of outcomes. There are benefits to having been vigilant here in Southern California the last 20 years.

There is no reason to panic. Prepare yes, panic no.

But given what we know now that we didn’t know the last time (2014-2016) – that a warmer, drier climate produces worse results from the same precipitation – there is strong reason to do more than prepare for the next drought spike. Managing a problem for which temporary salves are becoming scarcer and more expensive requires more than muddling forth from one crisis to the next without surcease. This is not the job of individual facilities or clubs; it’s the job of the game’s allied leadership organizations. They are the only institutions guaranteed to be around for the long run and thus the only ones in position to take actions conducive of long-term stability – or as much stability as possible given the challenges.

What might those “actions” be?

Golf would be wise to invest more than the paltry few dollars it does now to tackle manifestations of a cultural anti-golf animus that is sure to put it at severe disadvantage as a warming, drying climate bears down on every aspect of the lives of California’s 40 million residents – a three-pronged strategy involving the creation and wide dissemination of a story capable of buttressing the game’s societal value proposition for and to the 93% of the population that doesn’t play golf, the funding of the basic research necessary to further reduce water and pesticide use, and the creation of advocacy organs capable of defending the game’s interests in the halls of legislatures, regulatory agencies, and editorial boards.

If that sounds like collective action, that’s exactly what it is. Golf has never warmed to the notion in the same way that most other sectors have, probably because for so much of the game’s history it had no need to do so. It was able to luxuriate in silos and fiefdoms and prosper. That day is over, and while the industry has been warming to that conclusion for some time, the time has come to get downright hot about it.

The California Alliance for Golf (CAG) is about to embark upon a major strategic planning exercise. With any luck the group will heed the wise words in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times from CBRE Division President Lew Horne about the difference between business thinking regarding long-term strategy and government thinking, which is often the way mega-groups or alliances like CAG think: “In business we look for the outcome and work backward. We work toward a ‘solve’ and not toward management or maintenance of a problem.”

CAG tried that approach once, and it foundered for reasons best left unsaid as the Alliance takes up the task again. What is it that wise persons say about failure – it’s the best teaching tool? With lesson learned and the need for effective collective never greater, we can hope for a better outcome this time.

Archived Updates

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