California’s drought creates an unexpected casualty: sports

As a result of the recent drought ravaging California, high schools and universities struggle to provide outdoor sports for students

A year ago, Lauren Porter worked out twice a week at dawn with a women’s soccer club on the main recreational field at the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC). The field commands a view of scenic Monterey Bay. “Every morning, it was so great,” says 21-year-old Porter, a fourth-year environmental studies major.

But this academic year there will be no workouts on that field for Porter or anybody else, thanks to the California drought. Under a sharp cutback in irrigation to meet tough city water-rationing rules imposed last spring, the 10-acre grass turf became too dry and brittle for safe play.

UCSC closed the field last month until June 2015. While a smaller grass field remains open for varsity soccer and some non-varsity sports, Porter’s group has been left scrambling to find another home.

School and college sports are one of the latest casualties of a relentless drought that has left 95% of the state suffering severe to exceptional drought conditions. State and federal water-delivery systems have drastically cut supplies to agriculture, which typically consumes 80% of California’s water supply. That’s spurred food growers in the Central Valley into an unregulated frenzy of drilling private wells to tap into groundwater aquifers, even as some small communities are running out of drinking water.

Just a couple hours’ drive from the Central Valley – and 35 miles from the Salinas Valley, the “Salad Bowl of America” – the city of Santa Cruz has responded more aggressively to the drought than most California cities because, isolated by a coastal mountain range, it gets all its water from a local reservoir and river that are running low.

The town declared a water emergency in early 2014 and imposed mandatory restrictions on all residents and businesses in May in order to cut overall consumption by 25%. Since then, average daily water usage has been reduced from roughly 10m gallons to 7m gallons, says Toby Goddard of the city water agency. “But it’s not without pain and consequence.”

Take outdoor irrigation, a major water guzzler. The agency required customers with large landscaped sites, including schools and city parks, to limit themselves to just one-third of the water budget that their gardens, lawns or fields need.

Like UCSC, Santa Cruz High School no longer has enough water to keep all its grass athletic fields going. “It just shows how far reaching the drought has gone,” says football coach Jesse Trumbull. “There is nowhere that’s not affected.” His team was displaced from its home field after it turned into “a desert,” he says, and physical education classes normally held on it were canceled.

A dying sports field isn’t just brown and ugly; it’s also a safety concern. “Without proper irrigation, the ground gets really hard,” says Kevin “Skippy” Givens, a supervisor in the physical education, recreation and sports office at UCSC. “You’re playing on something almost as hard as concrete.” When players get tackled or go down, they’re more likely to suffer a concussion or shoulder or knee injuries, he says.

At UCSC, cutting back on all irrigation uses, including a 45% reduction on the main athletic field, was key to meeting the college’s water conservation goal, says water and energy manager, Patrick Testoni. The downside of the field closure is that intramural softball is canceled. And five competitive sports clubs that were also displaced, including men’s soccer and women’s rugby, are now being squeezed onto the remaining, smaller athletic field – or shifted off-campus to the city’s already crowded playing fields, which are also being watered less than usual and may not stand up to the added wear and tear.

While some California cities and school districts have converted their irrigation systems to tap into a recycled water source, others have put in artificial turf fields to save on maintenance and water costs. UCSC is considering synthetic turf, but it’s much hotter to play on and requires careful cleaning to prevent infections from skin abrasions, Givens says.

At Santa Cruz High, plans for artificial turf in 2009 foundered when private funding fell through. Earlier this year, the school decided to focus its outdoor irrigation on its spring baseball and softball fields and skip watering the football field, which died. After it was deemed unsafe for play in August, the school obtained a waiver from the city to increase its outdoor water allotment, and then put all of it into reviving the parched field. But the turf still needs a lot of work before it’s fully restored, says athletic director Erik Redding. He doubts it will be ready before January, when soccer starts.

The football team has meanwhile been practicing on the baseball field, and playing “home” games on a rival school’s artificial turf. “They’re not necessarily always lovin’ it, but they’ve kind of troopered through it,” Trumbull says of the boys.

With the California drought now entering its fourth year, school and college athletes in Santa Cruz are not the only ones taking a hit. At the end of September the city of Pleasanton, 60 miles to the north, shut down its two dried-out football fields in Ken Mercer Park, moving its youth football program elsewhere. In nearby Tracy, on the western edge of the Central Valley, the baseball and softball fields at Kimball High School died in early 2014 due to scarce rainfall during a routine seasonal cutoff of water deliveries from November through March by the local irrigation district. To avoid the same predicament next year, the school district is negotiating to secure water supplies through this winter – and plans to drill its own well on the Kimball property in the spring.

Drought-stricken, football-crazed Texas has faced similar struggles, with the city of Dallas closing more than 20 of its athletic fields in 2011. Some towns did everything they could to keep their dying school football fields alive, such as trucking in treated wastewater for irrigation, says Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator at the Texas Water Development Board in Austin. “If we hear that a community has stopped watering their football field, then we know it’s a pretty serious development with their water supply,” he says.

Back at UCSC, a disappointed Lauren Porter had been hoping that this would be the year when her women’s soccer group would finally be recognized as a university-sanctioned competitive sport. Instead, with the main athletic field closed, her team is reduced to holding practices on a lawn outside one of the dormitories as it searches for a field where it can run tryouts and hold matches. “We’re not really sure what we’re going to do,” she says in frustration. “I never really imagined it would get to this point.”

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