Greenkeeper Miguel Paz hand waters the second hole at Meadow Club in Fairfax on Friday, August 20, 2021. The Meadow Club in Fairfax relies on untreated reservoir water from Marin Municipal Water District and has cut back watering certain areas of the golf course because of the drought. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
A golfer drives a cart past deer grazing at the Meadow Club in Fairfax on Friday, August 20, 2021. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
Kamran Ghiasi of Belvedere pushes his clubs over brown turf while golfing at Meadow Club in Fairfax on Friday, August 20, 2021. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
The clubhouse is seen in the background of this view of the Meadow Club in Fairfax on Friday, August 20, 2021. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
Irrigation tech Omar Urias measures the moisture content of the soil at the second hole at Meadow Club in Fairfax on Friday, August 20, 2021.(Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
Irrigation tech Omar Urias measures the moisture content of the soil at the second hole at Meadow Club in Fairfax on Friday, August 20, 2021. The Meadow Club in Fairfax relies on untreated reservoir water from Marin Municipal Water District and has cut back watering certain areas of the golf course because of the drought. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
As Marin residents are asked to watch their lawns dry out amid a historic drought, attention can naturally turn to the acres of turf at local golf courses.
It begs the question: how much water do they use?
Four of the seven golf courses in Marin rely on local reservoir supplies for irrigation and are required to cut their water use by as much as 40% compared to 2020 as the county faces what may become its worst drought on record. The courses have so far complied with or exceeded mandated conservation levels, according to local water districts.
“From my interpretation of what they’re doing and their conservation, they want to be part of the community and part of the solution,” said Carrie Pollard, Marin Municipal Water District water efficiency manager.
Three courses use recycled water for irrigation, meaning the watering restrictions do not apply to them.
The Marin Municipal Water District serves three golf courses that use reservoir supplies: Peacock Gap Golf Club in San Rafael, the Mill Valley Golf Course and Meadow Club in Fairfax. The McInnis Park Golf Center in San Rafael uses recycled water from Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District for irrigation.
The three reservoir-reliant golf courses used about 383 acre-feet of water in 2020, according to the district, with an acre-foot being the volume of water needed to cover an acre under 1 foot of water. That use is equivalent to about 1.4% of the total potable water demand by the district’s 191,000 residents that same year of about 28,200 acre-feet.
Under the district’s drought rules, these three courses would only be allowed to water greens and tees but could also apply for a variance to use other water-saving methods that equal a 40% water use reduction. All three have been granted a variance and are required to report their water use to the district on a monthly or bimonthly basis, Pollard said.
“It’s not that they’re off the hook,” Pollard said.
Peacock Gap has been the standout by conserving by about 61% compared to 2020 usage as of its latest report in June, with the next report expected this month, Pollard said. The city of Mill Valley has cut water use at all its parks and sports fields by 54% and by 46% at the golf course alone. The Meadow Club has cut back by 40% as of July.
The 191,000 residents in central and southern Marin served by the district have been required since late April to collectively cut back water use by 40%. So far, they have reduced their use by as much 28%.
Pollard said the district cannot release specific water use data for the privately owned Meadow Club and Peacock Gap courses.
The Mill Valley Golf Course is a public course owned by the city of Mill Valley and used about 12 million gallons, or about 37 acre-feet, of reservoir water in 2020. From January through July, the golf course used about 4 million gallons of water which is about 3.1 million gallons less than during the same period in 2020, according to Tony Boyd, a city public works official.
Located about 3 miles southwest of Fairfax, the Meadow Club has reduced its water use using a combination of techniques that were used in previous droughts as well as more modern technology, said Sean Tully, the club’s director of grounds.
“We pay a lot of attention to our water and it’s not something that we want to use a lot of,” Tully said. “As a golf course, we’re not trying to yield rice here.”
The club’s scenic 18-hole course is now “bone-dry” in some areas and has become a patchwork of brown and green, Tully said. A 40% reduction equates to more than half the golf course not being watered, Tully said. Tees, greens and landing areas are watered by hand and certain sprinkler heads are now dormant.
Tully said there have been some conversations about switching to recycled water, but the current system is limited in range and would cost millions of dollars to extend to Fairfax. The Marin Municipal Water District’s recycled water system is currently limited to the Terra Linda area with about 25 miles of pipeline serving 340 connections, according to Marin Municipal Water District Operations Paul Sellier
A nearly 11-mile extension to the golf course, in addition to the need to pump water up into the Mount Tamalpais watershed, would likely cost tens of millions of dollars, Tully said.
Sellier said the district has studied its service area for possible extensions, including into the Peacock Gap area, but “the demand for recycled water compared to the cost to install the pipe is very challenging.”
“All the golf courses you mention would indeed require significant pipeline projects,” Sellier said.
In the meantime, Meadow Club has been finding alternative ways of cutting back on water use such as removing 7 acres of turf; using specialized drone camera technology to use water more effectively in areas most needed; and researching low-water turf such as bermudagrass that could reduce water use by up to 40%, Tully said.
The Marin Municipal Water District faces the possibility of running out of reservoir water by next summer and could enact stricter conservation measures if the upcoming rainy season is as dry as the last. Fifty percent mandatory conservation could be required as of December, which could also lead to a ban on all turf watering, which has the potential to close the courses.
“Shutting us down completely would be pretty dramatic,” Tully said. “We have a large labor force here at the club.”
Corte Madera resident Beryn Hammil has repeatedly questioned the district on why it allows golf course watering given its dire supply projections.
“I wonder why the board is allowing this usage when there is such a great concern about Marin’s reservoirs being empty by this time next year,” Hammil told the district Board of Directors.
The North Marin Water District serves three golf courses in the Novato area. The Indian Valley Golf Club is the only one that uses raw water, or untreated reservoir water, for irrigation while the StoneTree Golf Club and Marin Country Club use recycled water from the Novato Sanitary District.
District General Manager Drew McIntyre said he cannot provide the water use data for Indian Valley Golf Club because it is proprietary information. However, he stated the total raw water use for the district in 2020 — which includes the golf course and the county’s Stafford Lake Park — was about 200 acre-feet or about 2.5% of the district’s total water demand from Stafford Lake that year.
The Indian Valley Golf Course has been complying with the district’s 25% conservation mandate.
“We’re really happy that two-thirds of our golf courses are on recycled water and the Indian Valley golf course is complying with our prohibitions,” McIntyre said.