SCGA Public Affairs


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Virtually every major newspaper in California carried a front-page story last week about Californians having responded to Governor Newsom’s call for 15% voluntary water cutbacks by cutting back a paltry 1.8%.

Northern California media pointed out that the number would have been much higher were the average not dragged down by Los Angeles and San Diego County, whose residents responded by using more water in July 2021 than July 2020. Southern California media made the same point, none more emphatically than last Wednesday’s lead story in the Los Angeles Times, which elicited a bevy of letters the following day, a number of them directing their ire at the region’s golf courses.

From one of them: “You want to get serious about conserving water? First, stop watering golf courses. Sorry golfers, we need that water for food.”

From another: “My lawn is gone, and only drought-tolerant natives live in our garden. On the other hand, dozens of green golf courses, several water parks, and countless seldom-used swimming pools dot our neighborhood. It’s time to make the fat cats pay the price of recreational water use. Commercial use of water for profit, particularly recreation like golf and water parks, should be priced at high rates that better motivate conservation.”

To the Los Angeles Times’ credit, their front-page story was careful to point out whether July 2020 or July 2021, the residents of Los Angeles County use 16% less water today than they did prior to the last drought. LA County residents may not have maintained the 25% cutbacks they achieved in 2016 at the height of the drought, but they have incorporated more than 60% of those savings in lifestyles permanently changed thereby. To the Los Angeles Times’ even greater credit, the newspaper’s Thursday editorial, “It’s time, again, to save water,” was a measured one that preached prudence, not alarm, focused response, not panic, and closed with the following counsel: “We can live well on the water we’ve got, if only we respect its scarcity and value.”

That closing line could have been written by the golf industry, or for that matter any industry disproportionately dependent upon water for its sustenance. It could have been written by the region’s water providers, water districts, and public utilities. It could have been written by many of the region’s smartest hydrologic and environmental academics.

But we forget at our great peril that laws, regulations, and public policies are written as much if not more by public opinion than by expert opinion and fact-guided editorial boards. And letters like the ones we’ve highlighted above contain judgments about golf and its place in communities that are hardly outliers; they are widely held, and as much as golf would prefer to preach the virtues of its irrigation efficiency and water conservation to those experts and rationally minded editorial boards, it is going to have to figure out ways to speak to those whose views align with the letter writers who responded to the Los Angeles Times’ balanced story with unsubstantiated attacks.

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If that sounds a lot like our AB 672 entreaty to pay almost all heed to the 91% who don’t play golf as opposed to the 9% who do, that’s because the strategies are parallel. Just as the key to prevailing re AB 672 is the degree to which all other recreational activities view AB 672’s assault on golf as an assault on their particular activity, the key to ensuring that educated opinion prevails over irrational prejudice in the coming drought crunch is the degree to which golf is able to broaden its message beyond the cozy confines of experts and editorial boards. If they view our fight as their fight, golf wins. If they don’t then the fight becomes one between golf and housing. And in this moment housing wins.

Of course, a loud, clear, and concise response from the state’s rank-and-file golfers wouldn’t hurt in both broadening that message and making clear that golfers too have opinions on the matter. And if last week’s “SCGA News” is any indication, the rank-and-file in the Southern part of the state is prepared to do just that.

The AB 672 item was “clicked” many multiples of all the other news briefs combined – more than 24,000 opens in the first few hours. If those “opens” can be translated into thousands of E-mails to legislators between now and January, the game will have something capable of countering those whose minds were long ago made up when it comes to fair treatment for golf. If we can get more E-mails north of Santa Barbara and Kern Counties this time, all the better.

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As much as the game needs to remain cognizant of the kinds of opinions represented by those letter writers who view golf, particularly public golf, as nothing more than serving “fat cats” luxuriating on “playgrounds for the privileged” while the common folk are forced to rip out lawns and ration their water use, the game also needs to start taking advantage of those in the environmental community who preach messages about carbon sequestration, heat sinks, and biodiversity that provide the kind of justification for golf acreage in dense urban areas having nothing to do with the benefits they offer for the 9% of the population that plays golf and everything to do with the environmental benefits they offer for the 91% who don’t.

To wit, from Melanie Winter, founder of the nonprofit River Project, quoted in the Los Angeles Times yesterday in a story about Southern California’s acute need to replace imported water sources with groundwater: “We have not allowed for the preservation of adequate open space, which reduces temperatures, sequesters carbon, provides and habitat and biodiversity [and] allows rainwater to get into the groundwater basin.”

That’s a powerful rejoinder to AB 672 and those who would solve one problem by tripling down on what is really the same problem – how to accommodate Californians’ need of more affordable housing while at the same time providing them with enough water, quality ambient air, and open space/recreation to make life in densely packed urban spaces a healthy and quality one.

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Golf is going to need a lot of “powerful rejoinder(s)” to defeat AB 672 and thrive during what is shaping up to be a drought more severe than the last one – or the last spike in the current megadrought if you prefer. Those “powerful rejoinders” are going to have to come from a lot more quarters than just golf’s quarters. And that will only be possible to the extent to which golf can conflate its interests with the interests of other recreational communities, open space advocates, and environmental organizations.

There is much common ground to till, but only if the game understands the need to find it and then form strategic alliances in pursuit of it – for golf AND for putative allies.

SCGA will be engaging as many of its allied golf organizations/associations as well as its own stakeholders (e.g., clubs and individual members) in the effort. Stay tuned. AB 672 and drought are on our doorstep.

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