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Hey Caddyshack! Golf courses and cemeteries are not 'the two prime wasters' of water

One reason the United States has been perceived as a global water waster is suggested by a modern classic of film "Caddyshack."

“I tell ya, country clubs and cemeteries, the biggest wasters of prime real estate,” Rodney Dangerfield says, as Al Czervik. “Dead people, they don’t want to be buried nowadays. Ecology, right?”

Landscaping accounts for the biggest chunk of southern California’s water use – and properties like golf courses and cemeteries are among the region’s biggest users. In recent years these facilities have taken major steps to recycle and save water. But only some of their conservation tips will help in your backyard.

Oak Creek Golf Club, Irvine

California’s home to around a thousand golf courses, and they don’t call them greens for nothing. But Rob Tanaka says Al Czervik is wrong about courses wasting water.

“I don’t know that "Caddyshack" did a whole lot of good for golf maintenance,” says Tanaka, the director of operations at Oak Creek Golf Club, who puts his handicap at “around nine.” He says soaking the course would go against his professional and personal interests. “Cause that produces slow conditions; balls don’t roll on [wet turf],” he says.

“We want to take the turf to its breaking point of just being too dry then we add water,” he says. “Firm and fast playing conditions don’t allow us to overwater a golf course.”

Home landscapers might use some of Oak Creek’s conservation measures. Tanaka says the club has replaced half of its grassy rough with native and drought tolerant plants.

“Typically, [those plants], they’re a little bit thinner, and it’s easier to find the ball,” he says. “Native grasses, there’s a positive to that.”

But he’s also got a four person staff to watch over the course, responding quickly with targeted hand-watering on the greens. Oak Creek is a beta tester for a major sprinkler company, so it’s got soil moisture sensors and fancy timers; Tanaka says controls permit fine-tuning “pretty much down to the individual showerhead.” Those high tech solutions come with prices that can be too high for some homeowners.

Far and away the biggest conservation measure at Oak Creek is one that the Irvine Ranch Water District offers mostly to large-scale businesses: recycled wastewater. The district recycles treated wastewater through a system separate from drinking water; recycled water comes through pipe painted purple to signal it’s not for drinking.

Tanaka says purple pipe feeds a small water feature near the clubhouse, then percolates into the ground below the course, where soils purify the water one last time.

“From that point we’ll pump it out and down through our golf course and into the sprinkler heads that everyone tends to know,” he says.

In Irvine, recycled water used for irrigation is 10 percent cheaper.  A quarter of the district’s customers use purple pipe. A number of buildings in the city have dual plumbing, blue pipe for drinkable water, purple for recycled.

Mark Tettmer, a top engineer at Irvine Ranch, says recycling began in his water district 50 years ago.

“People started to realize that wait a minute, this is a local supply, which we completely control,” he says. “And so let’s put a separate distribution system in the ground so we can convey this resource. I applaud those who saw the value back in the day. “

Now a quarter of Irvine’s water is recycled. Irvine Ranch Water District board member Doug Reinhart says they’re looking to add more. That’s possible because planners built in separate systems for recycled and drinkable water from the start.

“If you don’t have the dual pipe system in place you have to dig up the streets and run pipes and it’s very difficult to do,” says Reinhart. “If you have onesie-twosies here it doesn’t make fiscal sense.”

Communities with century-old water systems, like Los Angeles, are in that spot. In the past, L.A. has been slow to boost recycling. Purple pipe delivers just around 1% of the city’s water. The L.A.Department of Water and Power has now set a goal of recycling 12% of its water within 20 years. 

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles

Hollywood Forever Cemetery has lush greens, peacocks and swans, but it, too, testifies to conservation practices beyond Rodney Dangerfield’s imagination.

Tyler Cassity is the owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In 16 years of running the place, he says he has fretted over water like a farmer.

“During the summer, well always, at this point, the water bill can range from 30,000 to 50,000 dollars [a month],” he says.

Cassity points out that he’s contractually bound maintain a lush paradise on earth.

"The people who chose to be buried here chose to be buried in a landscaped garden with green grass and trees. And so the aesthetic is set: we maintain an idea of beauty for those who are dead," he says. "We’re duty bound to fulfill that obligation."

The steep water bills associated with that obligation are why Hollywood Forever sells tickets for summertime movies shown on a mausoleum wall.

Hollywood Forever has brought in drought-tolerant grass varieties, like Marathon and St. Augustine. And has begun upgrading them.

“We have a grass called Kikuyu. That’s the grass that stays green the longest for the lowest amount of water,” Cassity says.

Cassity says the cemetery’s reflecting lake is just 18 inches deep; plans are to shrink it further.

With nearly all the burial plots full, Hollywood Forever focuses on selling spots in the mausoleum. A fraction of each sale now goes to an endowment meant to maintain Hollywood Forever in perpetuity.

“We’ve taken what was a million dollar endowment care fund and we’ve made it into 8.5 million,” he says. “So our endowment care fund can now pay for water.”

Cassity reckons that in order to keep the sprinklers on forever at Hollywood Forever, that fund will have to at least double before he retires.

(Corrected 11:53 PM Monday to reflect more common spelling of Kikuyu, above.)