Water, money shortages threaten Ashland golf course

A fairway at Oak Knoll Golf Course with Pilot Rock on the horizon. Drew Fleming photo
April 1, 2022

Oak Knoll Golf Course closure an option due to drought, budget cuts

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

Due to both financial and environmental drought, the future of Ashland’s city-owned Oak Knoll Golf Course hangs in the balance. Likely loss of access to irrigation district water, coupled with the prospect of voluntary or mandatory reductions in city water usage in the summer, put the course’s continued operation in a difficult situation, Ashland Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black explained at a golf course subcommittee meeting Tuesday, March 29.

The situation led to the departure of golf course manager Patrick Oropallo, whose last day at work after three and a half years was Thursday, March 31. Asked at the meeting why he was stepping down, Oropallo said, “I just felt like water was going to be so scarce financially that the course would be in really tough shape. That was the sole reason I chose to (leave). I just don’t see the course getting through this without being in really poor condition.”

No actions were taken at the Zoom meeting, but Black said the subcommittee members would be asked in the near future to make a recommendation for action by the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission. 

“We are in a drought and it’s not just the environmental drought, the water supply issue, but we’re also in a fiscal drought,” Black said. “Ashland’s Parks and Recreation is experiencing its lowest rate of funding for the last 100 years.”

Black, who has served in his position for eight years, said he has continually fielded questions at budget committee hearings about why the city needed a golf course. He said there have often been polarizing comments made about maintaining it, ranging from comments like, “We have to have it and we have to keep it at any cost” to comments like, “We shouldn’t be having a big open space like that  for one (type of) user.”

“This is not about whether we like the golf course or not,” Black said. “This is strictly about the situation that we’re in fiscally and environmentally.”

Closing the golf course temporarily, modifying it and reopening could be a positive move, according to Oropallo, who is taking a teaching and coaching position at Southern Oregon Golf Academy.

Black said closing the course during the summer might make it hard to resuscitate it. 

“Closing the course is more of a permanent option, unfortunately,” he said. Black other options could include outsourcing course operation or modifying the course to make it more attractive and sustainable.

  • A golfer walks off a green at Oak Knoll Golf Course. Drew Fleming photo

Black shares projections, ideas on moving forward

None of the options going forward involve use of water from Talent Irrigation District (TID), even though the district has not yet announced plans for the irrigation season. 

“On one side, the extreme is that we (only) water with city water … and it costs us more money than we could possibly come up with —  $179,000 — on the other hand, you cut everything, even water, down to half, and we still are about $20,000 over budget, which is getting closer to manageable but not quite there,” Black said.

Cutting water use by 50%, to a cost of $15,000 per month, in addition to cutting 50% of pro shop and grounds maintenance expenses in the second year of the biennial budget, would still leave the course over budget by $81,000, Black said.

Black said the golf course could remain open under these scenarios, but he wondered if reduced watering and grounds maintenance would cause usage and corresponding revenue to go down.

Black said he hears perspectives ranging from “the city must keep the course open at whatever cost” to “the space shouldn’t be used for just golfers.” Black emphasized he defends funding the golf course at budget committee meetings and sees the need for it.

“This isn’t about whether we like it or not,” he said. “This is strictly about the situation that we’re in fiscally and environmentally.”

Black said that more revenue has been brought in by the course in recent years but that it is still not meeting all expenses. He said that there are possibilities that could help move the course in a positive financial direction, such as modifying the course or outsourcing it so it would be owned and operated privately.

Black anticipates drought impacts will go well beyond the golf course

Black said he believes the impact of the drought could result in voluntary or mandatory water usage curtailment city-wide.

 “The city has gone to voluntary curtailment in the past of water use,” he said, “and (is) probably going to be going to voluntary curtailment and potentially even mandatory curtailment of water use throughout the city, the entire organization of the city and imposing those restrictions on all property owners within the city as well, because of the drought. … We can’t say that that’s going to happen for certain, but in my discussions with the public works director, it seems very likely that that is going to happen this summer.”

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins said she wasn’t aware of a planned timeline for authorizing conservation measures this spring or summer, and that that authority rests with City Manager Joe Lessard. 

“I feel quite certain that doing nothing is not on the table,” Akins told Ashland.news Thursday. “I’m certain the council will do something, I’m certain public works will do something.”

Akins said that typically, the city would authorize voluntary conservation measures and evaluate how those are going before issuing mandatory measures.

Black is planning for the worst-case scenario of not having any water from TID. The district’s directors next meet Tuesday, April 5, but will not be announcing this year’s water supply timing yet, according to TID staff.

When the golf course uses TID water, it amounts to 20% of costs, but when the course has to use city water, it is the highest percentage of course operational costs, Black said.

Black said APRC spent $34,000 for water in June 2021, more than double what it normally would pay, because it couldn’t use irrigation water from TID.

“That was to keep the greens playable, to keep everything open,” he said. “TID came on actually later on in the month, but to start out, we didn’t have TID.”

“TID last year only ran for a month,” Black said, “and we’re not even expecting for it to run at all this coming year and we’re not sure about the next year.”

Black said while APRC is able to cover overages during the last biennium, he doesn’t foresee them being able to spend $34,000 on water this time around.

“That’s more money in one month than we budget for the entire year for water,” Black said, “so that’s just not going to happen.”

“Unfortunately, the water supply situation is not looking very good at this time,” according to a statement on TID’s website at the end of March. “There is actually less water in the three district reservoirs of Howard Prairie, Hyatt Lake and Emigrant Lake, than there was this time last year. It is too early to make a determination on whether there will be enough water available to run the system this year.”

“Unfortunately, the past few years’ extreme droughts have taken their toll,” the website reads.  “Last year’s storage supply was the worst in our project’s history; and this year’s supply, at current levels, is about 3,000-acre feet lower than last year’s storage at this time.”

A screenshot shows six of the attendees at a Zoom meeting on Tuesday, March 29, of the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission golf course subcommittee. Clockwise from upper left are golf course manager Patrick Oropallo, Oak Knoll Men’s League President Bret Deforest, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jim Lewis, Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Rick Landt, public speaker John Maurer, and APRC Director Michael Black.

Golf community speaks out

Noah Horstman, owner of West Coast Golf Academy and incoming head men’s and women’s golf coach at Southern Oregon University, also spoke during the golf course subcommittee meeting.

“Oak Knoll Golf Course would definitely be the home of the Southern Oregon University golf teams,” Horstman said. SOU just announced in December it would add an intercollegiate golf team in the 2022-23 school year. “This is obviously super sad news to see some of the things that are happening.”

Dr. John Maurer, an avid golfer and resident of Ashland since 1975, also spoke during public comment.

“Crises in my mind are opportunities,” Maurer said. “Survivors are nothing more than  people who are paying attention to their changing environment and adapting to it.”

Maurer suggests that the 95-year-old golf course be modified to a smaller, links-style golf course, similar to Bandon Dunes.

“It is the only true, municipal golf course in the valley … and a treasure to be saved,” Maurer said.

Oropallo also suggests moving away from a long and wide, lush and green fairway, which he said is “probably not a viable design moving into the future.”

“I think Oak Knoll needs to be re-imagined with sustainability of all resources,” Oropallo said. “I’m of the opinion that we would close it, quickly, like July 1 and take the savings in the second half of the biennium and use that time to put into a course architect to redesign what Oak Knoll is; make it more (user-friendly) for more people … and change the routing so that it requires less water input and then it would reopen to rave reviews and people wanting to come out and support it and try the new layout. I just don’t see a future where Oak Knoll can stay in its current state … We all want to see it in better condition.”

Black said his goal is to keep the golf course open, but a solution needs to be found that wouldn’t cause the closure of other programs.

“We are already in this situation,” Black said. “It’s not something at the end of the road or that we’re looking forward to. We are already in it and we need to start making changes now so by the end of the biennium — June 30, 2023 — we’re under budget for the golf course.”

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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