First, the course saw a sharp decline in its primary water source—reclaimed water from the California Men’s Colony—which meant reduced irrigation and declining playing conditions. That brought decreased play, and now the course is seeing its revenue-dependent operating budget dry up and head into a deficit.
The SLO County Board of Supervisors is now tasked with a set of hard choices to move the course out of the sand and back onto the green. The board discussed preliminary options to remedy the situation at its May 17 meeting.
“We’ve got about 12 months before we’re off the cliff,” said Nick Franco, SLO County’s director of parks and recreation. “We’re not off the cliff yet, we’re not in crisis yet, but we see a crisis coming.”
The situation started after the California Men’s Colony (CMC) inmate population dropped by about 60 percent following prison realignment brought by the 2011 passage of Assembly Bill 109. The prison also cut back on its water use in response to state-mandated water conservation measures.
In turn, the prison is pumping out less reclaimed water, and Dairy Creek has seen the amount of water from that source cut in half. The course does have water captured in three on-site retention ponds, but that supply is limited. In the past, the course has used additional water from Whale Rock Reservoir near Cayucos, but that water is not currently available due to drought-related supply limitations and increased demand from its main users.
Now the budget is seeing a deficit that’s about equal to the annual debt payment the county is still paying off for the bond taken out to build the course 20 years ago.
To save the course—should that be the route the board decides to take—will require finding more water to improve the course’s conditions, spending more money to keep the course afloat, or a combination of the two.
“I don’t have a good solution for you. I only have bad solutions,” Franco said. “I’m going to give you a series of bad options, and we have to select the least bad one.”
Those options include increasing supplemental water by purchasing potable water or building an additional storage pond; changing the structure of how the county’s public golf courses are operated and funded within the parks and rec department; converting it into a campground or event facility; or contracting its operations out to a management company, which Franco described as “the worst worst [option], not the least worst.”
Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who’s district includes the course, led the board to take two of those options off the table—nixing the drought-time use of potable water and contracting management out to a third party. Gibson expressed concern that the latter option would mean current employees would lose their jobs and the three county-run golf courses would see a decrease in quality and only lead Dairy Creek further into the rough.
In the end, the board unanimously voted to direct staff to find short-term financial options to keep the course operating while also assessing long-term options for generating additional funds and finding an alternative water source, including the possible construction of a storage pond, estimated to cost approximately $1.2 million.
That had 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton a bit bothered, because it would mean investing funds toward water delivery to a golf course, while there currently are “so many other places that need a pond for people to drink, not to recreate.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay