Golf's Response to Drought– Something More than a Tin Ear Called For


By Craig Kessler, Director, Governmental Affairs, Southern California Golf Association 

Recently two of the world’s biggest oil companies suffered significant defeats on the same day.  Royal Dutch Shell was found by a Dutch Court to be partially responsible for the damage caused by “climate change” and ordered to sharply reduce its carbon emissions.  Hours later activist investors won at least two and likely three seats on Exxon Mobil Corporation’s Board of Directors, overcoming a fierce campaign by the company’s leadership to keep them off.  They carried the day specifically to force Exxon to abandon its fossil-fuel focused strategy, something the new Board has already begun to tackle.

The double blow to one of the world’s mightiest and seemingly immovable business sectors elicited the following comment on the front page of the Wall Street Journal from a respected academic who regularly advises energy companies:  “The events of today show definitively that many leaders in the oil-and-gas industry have a tin ear and do not understand that society’s views and the legal and political environment in which they operate are changing radically.”  [Wall Street Journal; May 27, 2021]  

I don’t write about the oil and gas industry nor do I write about proxy battles.  The point here is the universal one about the role public opinion plays in outcomes and the social/political milieu that shapes that public opinion – even for business colossi such as Exxon Mobil and Shell that may have fancied they were immune to such encumbrances.  

Even those whose ears are made of tin know that California has descended into yet another drought or maybe as many suggest, just emerging from a brief pause in a much longer mega-drought.  The facts of the matter are overwhelming:

  • The Governor has declared a drought emergency for 50 of the state’s 58 counties.
  • Marin and other Northern California counties have imposed 40 percent cutbacks on golf courses.
  • The State Water Project has cut allocations to Central Valley farmers and others to near zero.
  • The Northern and Central Sierra snowpack is at 9% of normal for this time of year.
  • The Southern Sierra snowpack is at 4%.
  • Because of permanently warmer, drier conditions the runoff generated by the Sierra snowpack isn’t as robust as it used to be.
  • 2020-2021 is shaping up to be the 3rd driest year on record.
  • The two driest years on record were in the previous 2012-2016 drought or the 2012-2016 spike in the mega-drought if you prefer.
  • The state’s reservoirs are at fractions of historical norms with the two largest, Shasta and Oroville, at 30 and 24 percent of normal for August.
  • Despite some welcome late snows, the Colorado Basin is over drafted, over allocated, and in the throes of an extended drought.
  • Southern California continues to depend upon imports to supply its full water needs, and the sources of those imports are the Sierra snowpack and the Colorado Basin.

Those reading this may not find the water used to irrigate golf courses as a “frivolous” use, but California law does, which means that when the spigot starts to run dry, golf courses are placed at the end of a very long line that puts uses ahead of it that even the most avid of golfers would consider much more important.  That’s the social, political, and legal environment in which golf will be struggling unless Mother Nature sees fit to bail us out with a robust precipitation runoff year starting October 2021.  

We can’t do anything about the weather, but that doesn’t mean we have to remain passive.  Golf is hardly the only “frivolous” use that will be competing for a share of the available water.  We have a better case than most, and we need to make that case loud, clear, and most importantly, make it to the 91 percent of the population that doesn’t share our passion for the game.  That’s where golf’s share will be determined.

Now, for the “case” in a nutshell.

Golf courses represent 3.5 percent of the turfgrass in California and use only 0.73 percent of the potable water consumed in the state.  As opposed to a national average of only 12 percent, more than 33 percent of California’s golf courses use recycled water, and all but one of the 121 golf courses in the Coachella Valley use something other than potable water to irrigate their courses.  The industry is practically unique among the state’s outdoor irrigators in using sophisticated moisture sensing computer technology to ensure that the absolute minimum required for turf viability is applied.  And when these minima are applied to courses where significant turf has been removed in favor of California friendly drought tolerant ground cover, the water savings are geometrically enhanced. 

Some detail about this “sophisticated moisture sensing computer technology” is helpful to anyone seeking to tell the game’s complete and accurate story.  Mobile sensing technology collects information on soil moisture, turf vigor, salinity, compaction, and elevation and then generates GIS-accurate maps that aid with the overall irrigation system design and management.  Upon installation, these systems provide real-time data (updated every 5 minutes) and allow superintendents to control individual sprinkler heads from a smartphone.  These central control systems feature a complete diagnostic component that alerts staff members to stations, holes, or areas that are not functioning properly.  Hardly the unsophisticated backyard irrigation system that many outside the golf industry often believe it to be.    

There is much more to the game’s “case,” but the 91 percent who don’t play golf, particularly those among them in policymaking positions, don’t have the interest or even the bandwidth to hear it.  Keep it simple, direct, and easy to digest.  And keep repeating it.  It takes a lot of repetitions to break through in a world overloaded with information.  




Craig Kessler is Director of Governmental Affairs for the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA) and Chair of the California Alliance for Golf’s (CAG) Legislative Committee.  He can be reached at
** The views and opinions featured in Golf Business WEEKLY are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the NGCOA.**