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California prison realignment has left Dairy Creek Golf Course thirsty for water 

For most people who watched the green grass at Dairy Creek Golf Course turn brown, it’s easy to blame the typical suspect—California’s drought.

And it’s true: Around the time the ongoing drought began, the course reduced irrigation. But while that played a minor role, it’s not the culprit. Instead, another ongoing California process was to blame: prison realignment. A declining population meant a reduction in water coming out of the neighboring California Men’s Colony (CMC), the course’s primary water source.

After Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 109 in 2011, California began reducing the state’s severely overcrowded prison population by sending low-level offenders to county jails and by implementing other diversion programs.

According to Lt. Monica Ayon, public information officer at CMC, the prison’s inmate population went from an average population of about 6,700 to 6,800 down to approximately 4,000 to 4,100. At the time of the interview, Ayon said the population was 4,149.

The prison also reduced water use by 20 percent to comply with state conservation mandates. That all meant the amount of water that made its way over to Dairy Creek was cut in half.

In turn, Dairy Creek was forced to severely limit irrigation because there was no other water to use. 

“The funny thing with this thing is the drought highlights it, but even if there wasn’t a drought, there would be a problem,” said Nick Franco, director of SLO County Parks and Recreation. “No one anticipated the prison population was ever going to drop. People anticipate droughts.”

Now, without a sufficient backup water source, the course lets the fairways turn brown. In turn, play has severely dropped, and so has revenue, leaving the course struggling to stay economically viable.

SLO County Golf Superintendent Josh Heptig estimated that Dairy Creek’s revenues are at about 45 percent of historical levels. County officials now have to make some hard decisions to figure out how to find more water and cut operational costs. The issue will be before the Board of Supervisors on May 17.

One likely solution could be the construction of another retention pond to capture rainwater runoff. The course currently uses what water it can capture to blend with the recycled water, but those ponds fill up quickly and can only hold so much water. Building another would cost money and require environmental review.

“That’s probably the best solution, but that’s not just ‘go grab a back hoe and dig a hole,’” Franco said. “It’s not a quick project but it’s something that needs to happen.”

In the short term, the county may consider tapping into existing delivery infrastructure and drawing water from Whale Rock Reservoir. 

That’s an option that Franco and Heptig said they’d prefer avoiding because they’d rather not use potable water.

“It’s a big policy decision when you’re talking about using potable water on a golf course during the current drought conditions,” said County Administrator Dan Buckshi, who oversees the parks department.

Heptig said pumping groundwater isn’t much of an option either. Before the course was built about 20 years ago, attempts to drill a productive well were unsuccessful, Heptig said, and hydrogeologists confirmed that there’s not much hope of finding water. In addition, deed restrictions may require the use of reclaimed water. 

The course is designed to minimize the use of inputs and resources and to use recycled and reclaimed water. That design departed from the standard lush green courses seen around the country, and created the course to be a little bit brown and to play faster, minimizing the use of water, chemicals, or fertilizers.

When asked if the course’s quality has declined, Heptig said that was “in the eye of the beholder.”

He then referenced a joke occasionally used by golfers: “Their perception of how good or poor the golf course is related to the score that they shoot,” he said.

He said the course mimics those found in Europe, where they aren’t as heavily irrigated, and the style of play fits the tendencies for the ball to move further and faster along the ground. In the United States, he said, it’s more common for players to use high arching shots and expect that the ball will land more predictably on the lush green grass. 

Heptig pointed to Yelp, where a handful of reviews commented on the course’s condition. Some were negative reviews; others complement the course, its natural setting and affordability, and the driving range. One review pre-dating the prison realignment-induced irrigation reductions complemented the course’s condition.

For now, however Heptig said the priority is figuring out how to keep the course afloat by bringing more golfers back to the course. 

“You’ve got to take care of the people, you’ve got to take care of the planet, but to be truly sustainable you’ve got to make a profit to support the business. And that’s where the rubber hit the road,” he said.

“I don’t know if we can wait for the culture of golf to come around.”  

Staff Writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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