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Dairy Creek Golf Course is low on water, but SLO County says let it go brown

The 11th green at Dairy Creek Golf Course at El Chorro Regional Park surrounded by browning grass. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reject a proposal for the course to purchase potential drinking water to irrigate the 18-hole facility.
The 11th green at Dairy Creek Golf Course at El Chorro Regional Park surrounded by browning grass. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reject a proposal for the course to purchase potential drinking water to irrigate the 18-hole facility. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County will not use potential drinking water to supplement Dairy Creek Golf Course’s low water supply, despite passionate pleas from dozens of golf enthusiasts to keep the 18 holes at the public facility a lush green through the summer.

“It is hard for me to justify taking water for drinking and using it for pleasure when people have wells that go dry,” said Supervisor Lynn Compton, who voted alongside supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill against using potable water to supplement irrigation at the 20-year-old course in El Chorro Regional Park.

The golf course is operating with limited water and isn’t due additional deliveries until Dec. 1. Without a supplemental source, water will run dry in 60 days if parks staff continue to irrigate all 18 holes and in 90 days if nine holes are irrigated, according to a county staff report given at a Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting.

Parks and Recreation Director Nick Franco said for now he will continue to water all 18 holes, at a limited capacity, as he attempts to negotiate with the state to gain access to water that is currently promised to the California Men’s Colony, a state prison.

The Board also approved a long-term vision for El Chorro Regional Park. Existing facilities include a dog park, trails, a botanical garden, campground and ball fields, in addition to the golf course. The programming plan, which was developed through several meetings over the last year, is flexible based on available water and funding. It includes potential added activities, such as a mountain bike skills course and disc golf area.

Until a few years ago, the golf course was fully irrigated with recycled water from the nearby Men’s Colony. After prison realignment, which transferred the responsibility of housing some inmates from state prisons to county jails, the prison’s population decreased, resulting in 60 percent less water available for the golf course.

Faced with a decreasing water supply and steadily declining revenues, the board hired a consultant to develop a long-term plan for the park that would help pay off the bond debt for the golf course, which remains around $5 million.

The consultant, Andy Staples, said in a California publication about water that survival of Dairy Creek, just like the entire golf industry, depends on using less water by reducing its overall footprint and diversifying use of the entire grounds.

Local golfers from Atascadero to Shell Beach, members of the Cal Poly golf team, as well as industry representatives, lobbied the board Tuesday to pay for supplemental water use the golf course as it was designed: as an 18-hole course. They called the course a “jewel” and touted its environmental stewardship as a zero-waste operation.

Their comments were countered by residents of Cayucos, distraught that their conservation measures throughout the drought would be in vain if water from Whale Rock Reservoir — their single source of drinking water — was diverted to the park.

Supervisors Debbie Arnold and John Peschong both voted to use potable water from either Cal Poly or Whale Rock at costs that ranged between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre-foot, arguing that the course will generate more revenue with an irrigated 18 holes.

“I believe this is the time we can find 150 acre-feet to pay down the debt,” Peschong said.

If the parks director is able to negotiate additional water from the state from a nearby well, he will take the decision to the board to make a final decision about how much of the course will go brown this year.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

Declining business at Dairy Creek

At Dairy Creek Golf Course’s high point, there were 62,000 rounds of golf played in one year. In 2013, 43,000 rounds were played; about 38,000 rounds were played in 2014; 31,000 were played in 2015; and 27,500 were played last year, according to to golf course superintendent Josh Heptig.

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