California was in the middle of a drought when I arrived in 1975. I stayed in Berkeley for a few days at the home of friends that had two sons, ages 7 and 9. In the bathroom there was a drawing of a big, yellow sun that bore the legend, “in this land of drought and sun, we don’t flush for number one.” For the next few years it hardly rained at all. It all seemed normal to me, a newcomer. At that time, I don’t think the Dodgers had had a rained out home game in all of their time in L.A.
By the 1980s, the rains had returned with some strength. There were a few big El Nino years in a row. In 1982 the storms kept coming with ruthless regularity until May, so even the Dodgers had to deal with it. There was water aplenty.
Drought conditions returned in the 1990s. In the mid-1990s the city of Los Angeles, and maybe the entire county, resorted to water rationing to deal with it. It was announced that starting the following year, all water users would be limited to a certain percentage of the water that they had used in the previous year. There were abuses.
A couple of friends and I were weekend golfers at the time. We played the municipal courses, most of which were of the type that we called “goat paths.” Those were courses where the fairways were straight, flat and uncomplicated. There might be one hole with a water hazard that was used as a reservoir for the course, and the grass was pretty beaten down by all of the walkers. There are lots of golfers in Los Angeles. The best of the municipal courses was Rancho Park, which is really a very nice golf course, a different story altogether. Rancho is well forested and very green, with long water holes and many changes of grade. They even play a tournament there. Ranco had interesting ideas about water.
There was a friend of my son’s working in the cart shack at Rancho at the time. One day we stopped by after playing to say hello. While we were having a pleasant natter, I noticed that there were several large diameter hoses lying around, running full on and draining into a big sewer grate. I asked my young friend about it. “Oh,” he said, “they’re keeping all of the taps turned on so that next year we don’t have to worry about water.” They were artificially raising their baseline for the coming years of water rationing. Their solution to the drought problem was to waste vast amounts of potable water, just send it right down the drain. I’m sure that their explanation would have been that they were just protecting the integrity of their golf course, which was a public trust.
Southern California is lousy with golf courses, there must be hundreds of them. I’m sure that Rancho wasn’t the only one with this water wasting plan. The many big, beautiful private courses are capitalist institutions, so the managers there had directors and stockholders to answer to. It was more important for them to honor that more limited duty than to consider the public duty to save water. The number of acre-feet of water thus wasted must have been staggering.
The current water crisis in California dwarfs anything that came before during my time in California, maybe anything in history. The state’s reservoirs seem to be mostly empty. There are a vast number of man-made lakes in California that are used as reservoirs, and they are disappearing. The floor of the San Juaquin Valley is actually sinking, because almost all of the ground water has been pumped out of the aquafers. Somehow, though, in aerial photos the golf courses are all strangely green. Some other blessed locations are also very green. Lush, in fact. I’m very curious to see how long their luck can hold out.
Los Angeles is a desert, so maybe it’s time to go to the style of golf courses that one sees in places like Saudi Arabia. Courses with a small green tee box, nice green greens, and mostly sand in between. Or at least links style courses, like the ones found in Scotland. Those are mostly scrub grass that is comfortable in sandy soil and does not require a lot of watering. Those are “target shooting” courses. “See that little green patch out there? Now lay the ball on it.” (Or else it’s lost.) There’ll be a fuss, but you can get used to anything it you try a little bit.
Obviously, California is going to have to get used to being water poor. These days all of the geniuses in the world are devoting themselves to figuring out ways to make mischief with fiat money, or avoid paying taxes, or cheat working people out of benefits. If only a few of the geniuses would apply their talents to problems of water, or food production, or social progress, or peaceful coexistence, boy, that would be so fucking great that I would cry for happiness. I doubt if it will happen, though. So I guess we’ll have to settle for the desertification of golf.