Brown Is the New Green

Making peace with nature on the golf courses of California’s High Desert

Transforming the sands of the Mojave into miles of evergreen grass has long been a point of pride for California’s High Desert communities, with seven golf courses serving a population of some 400,000. But lush fairways may soon go the way of the Hummer as efforts to conserve money and the environment are driving planners to embrace brown as the new green.

“I think everyone is having to do it because water is precious,” says Lindsay Woods, who oversees the Hesperia Golf & Country Club, a couple of hours south of Las Vegas off Interstate 15. Amid droughts, skyrocketing bills and a state mandate to reduce water use 20 percent by 2020, Woods has already narrowed the Hesperia course’s fairways and allowed unlined water hazards to go dry.

Management at the Apple Valley Country Club started letting the fairways become drier two years ago, as they reseeded the course and began watering less. Eric Fisher, general manager of the course, says the approach is sound because drier grass actually grows faster and is less susceptible to fungus and disease.

Golfers have been largely supportive of the move to more sustainable courses, Woods says, with industry leaders pushing it as a win-win since drier fairways make for firmer, faster playing surfaces. Many local players have also been exposed to courses that work with rather than against their hot and dry Southwestern climates. That’s thanks to “target golf” facilities in Las Vegas and Arizona, where golfers play off green tee boxes, over natural fairways and onto green landing pads.

With temperatures here also soaring past 100 degrees in the summer, Ricky Montanez, a 22-year-old professional golfer who grew up playing local courses, understands the need to let fairways get a bit more brown—and it doesn’t affect his playing one bit. “A lot of the courses up here are just older, so they’re more traditional-style,” Montanez says. “As long as the grass isn’t dying, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Golf pro Mark Johnson loves the desert look. But when his course of choice—Silver Lakes Country Club in Helendale, just south of Barstow—looked into the concept, two key obstacles emerged: upfront costs to re-landscape the property and opposition from those who paid more for homes that border the greens. “Property owners would be up in arms, and property values have already suffered big time in California,” Johnson says.

When Victorville narrowed fairways at its Green Tree Golf Course and xeriscaped three years ago, residents began showing up to City Council meetings complaining about the dirt that had begun blowing into their homes. But it was nothing compared to the ’70s, when the then-private course went into foreclosure, property values plummeted and tumbleweeds blew across the brown fairways.

That tale of woe has been dredged up often in recent years, in the face of increasing pressure from tea partyers and other small-government advocates for cities to cut their subsidies of the area’s three municipally owned courses. In response, Apple Valley successfully lobbied California’s Public Utility Commission for a discount from the local water company, allowing the town to irrigate its golf course at a 65 percent-off rate typically reserved for farmers. And both Apple Valley and Hesperia are launching efforts to build their own wastewater treatment plants, so they’ll have access to reclaimed water for irrigation.

There’s less public pressure at the private Spring Valley Lake Country Club in Victorville, where General Manager Steve Postma said his staff has made small changes to cut back on water use. They’ve let heat-tolerant Bermuda grass flourish and allowed outlying areas to return to their natural condition. That was enough for the course to be deemed a sanctuary by the National Audubon Society, which Postma sees as a good way to cut back on water use, provide a habitat for birds and other animals and add a natural aesthetic to the golf course.

“There’s no getting around the change,” he says. “Because if you continue to water and you continue to do what you’ve always done, like it is with any business, you’ll be out of business.”