California is facing its worst drought in decades, so why is anyone playing golf in a desert?
The Seven Lakes Country Club in Palm Springs, via Joe Wolf
My neighbor should not have a lush green lawn. I should not have to walk in the street to avoid sprinklers that primarily serve to water the cement sidewalk next to the lawn my neighbor shouldn't have. And I shouldn't have to wake up at dawn on a Saturday morning to the sound of that lawn being mowed. I believe this because I live in Los Angeles, which is a semi-arid city in Southern California experiencing its worst drought in a century.
I feel strongly about this—I want that lawn dead, salted, and replaced with rocks—so I was excited when the State of California announced this summer that it would finally begin cracking down on wasteful uses of water.
“With this regulation,” declared the State Water Resources Control Board, “all Californians are expected to stop: washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle; and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated.”
First-time violators of this emergency measure will be given a warning, followed by a fine up to $500, and I think that's just great. But there's a problem here, at least if one's seeking to save meaningful amounts of water and not just get a few more hours of sleep on the weekend. It's good and just to get upset when one sees a neighbor wasting water, and I stand in solidarity with those annoyed that a private company is installing a giant water slide in downtown Los Angeles, but let's be clear: In terms of saving significant amounts of water, shutting down that slide or my neighbor's sprinklers isn't going to do a damn bit of good.
If California were serious about conservation, it wouldn't be cracking down on homeowners washing their stupid cars—it would be closing down things like golf courses, of which there are nearly a thousand. When more than half the state is categorized as suffering the most severe form of drought, when groundwater reserves are being tapped to such an extent that it may actually cause earthquakes, old rich white men should not be driving little carts around on beautifully manicured green lawns in the middle of a fucking desert.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “[T]he average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day.” The average golf course uses 312,000 gallons of water, according to Audobon International, meaning each one uses as much water as 780 families of four. In Palm Springs—immediately adjacent to a place called Palm Desert—NPR reported that each of the city's 57 courses use about a million gallons a day, or about the same as 2,500 families of four.
Looking statewide, the numbers really get fun. California is second only to Florida in the number of golf courses it has: 921. Together, those courses use as much water as 2.8 million people, or about 7 percent of the state's population. While middle-class homeowners risk fines for watering their lawns, millions upon millions of gallons of water are wasted every day on a boring leisure sport for the wealthy.
“Golf courses are a huge problem,” said Adam Keats of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. And part of that huge problem is the people who play it. “They're a wealthy elite that have no connection to want or lack,” Keats, head of the center's California Water Law Project, told me over the phone. “Golfers live in a world of excess.”
Even amid a record drought, the affluent expect their world to persist as it always did. Cutting back is for the poor, just as “austerity” meant slashing social programs, not CEO salaries. But compared to me, Keats is a moderate: he thinks California can keep its golf courses, but only if they start looking like they are actually in California.
“It's irresponsible for golf courses to be as green as they are in California,” said Keats. Instead of dark green fairways, “we could have California brownways, with rock and with dirt and with scrub—the kind of vegetation that naturally grows here. We're not in Scotland. Why are we pretending that we are?”
But Keats told me that while I was absolutely right to criticize California's conservation measures to-date as misguided and generally aimed at the wrong people, he pointed out that I too was obsessing over a relatively small part of the picture. The water golf courses use is considered part of “urban” use, which collectively accounts for just two out of every ten gallons of water used in the state. If California wants to address the drought, it needs to address agriculture and take on the “very large multinational corporations that are sucking up water with abandon.”
But isn't watering plants that people eat better than watering lawns or golf courses? Sure, but Keats pointed out that the type of plants corporate agriculture grows these days are big moneymakers that aren't well suited to California's erratic climate, where a drought is often followed by a downpour followed by another drought. If a farmer is planting grains—or marijuana, as many do in the north of the state—that farmer will not usually be bankrupted by one bad year; he can just plant his crops again and hope it rains next season. But corporate agriculture, the state's largest water user, prefers to grow things like almonds and pistachios, which come from trees that require around seven years to mature. One year without water and seven years of investment goes down the drain, so the companies investing in those crops see to it that the state gives them their water.
Satisfying corporate greed is why the state's response to a drought is handing a fine to a guy washing a 2003 Toyota Corolla with a hose, not reforming a sector of the economy that sucks up 80 percent of the state's water and counting. Sure, fine the bourgeois for all I care. Take shorter showers and don't run the water when you brush your teeth. But the individuals the state ought to be cracking down all have “LLC” after their name.
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