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Drought challenges Ashland golf course

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneOak Knoll Golf Course in Ashland.

Ashland’s Oak Knoll Golf Course is struggling to survive.

The prolonged drought shows no sign of relenting, requiring the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission and a golf course subcommittee to ready Oak Knoll for a new reality — the golf course must change to survive, although how it will change is the question.

The subcommittee held a study session last Thursday in order to create a recommendation to take to the APRC, which will have a study session of its own Wednesday. Anyone wishing to have a say in the future of the golf course can request to speak at the meeting by emailing sean.sullivan@ashland.or.us.

At the meeting last Thursday, commissioners, speakers and Ashland Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black focused on two main points: affirming their dedication to the course and discussing how to keep it alive.

“We do not know that the golf course has to close, what we know is that we cannot afford to water the golf course with city water,” Black said.

Oak Knoll was once able to rely on Talent Irrigation Water, but dry winters and even drier summers have made the water more expensive. In 2020, the course spent $26,247 on water. In 2021, the cost rose to $49,046.

The projected cost for 2022 was $96,377. But to date the course has already consumed $78,377 worth of water. While watering with TID water is no longer possible, a viable alternative remains elusive.

Trucking water in from the Medford water supply would be expensive. Drilling a well for the golf course would also be expensive and might not be able to provide enough water.

The committee discussed using treated wastewater, but that water moves from the wastewater treatment plant into Bear Creek. Redirecting any of that water would require permits, would take time, and the cost of installing the infrastructure needed to redirect water would be another major expense.

The drought presents a problem that is difficult enough for household gardens, farms and orchards, but it’s starker still for a golf course.

There are some who would rather see Oak Knoll Golf Course become a small housing development, or for the course to simply disappear and the land go to something else.

“I can’t tell you how many people say this is an elitist sport,” said APRC Commissioner Jim Lewis. “No, you have to look at it as an amenity for the community.”

Lewis listed several ways Oak Knoll has tried to become something everyone can enjoy in some way. The course has begun offering itself as a wedding venue, it has monthly Audubon bird walks, it will soon be allowing foot golf, and people are encouraged to take walks on the course, Lewis said.

Black reminded everyone that Oak Knoll is an APRC property, and golf course or not it will remain an APRC property. Property ownership means maintenance, especially for Oak Knoll.

“Closing it doesn’t solve the water problem,” Black said. “We have to be sure there isn’t fire danger for the neighbors of the golf course. It would still need to be useful for walking, it can’t be overgrown with blackberries.”

Closing the course was not considered at the meeting, but keeping the course open requires more than fighting through one more dry season. The golf course must adapt to a changing environment, which is complicated by the city’s budget shortfall.

“We’re not just in a drought of water, we’re in a drought of funding as well,” Black said. “We’re working on making budget cuts up to $500,000, that’s up to 10% of our budget.”

All city departments have been directed to cut 5% to 10% of their budgets. How the cuts will be absorbed by the departments is currently under consideration.

The cost to redesign a golf course, much like the cost to change how the golf course obtains its water, is daunting.

“Go get a golf course designer, and you’re going to have to kick your checkbook over to him,” Lewis said.

Committee members acknowledged at the meeting that while the funds remain to be found, the golf course must be redesigned somehow. Ideas discussed including relandscaping and planting drought-tolerant plants, watering some parts of the course more than others, or incorporating different kinds of ground into the course rather than the typical lush green.

“We’re kinda used to hitting off of dirt, when it’s late in the summer,” said Brett Deforest, APRC administration analyst, who suggested using the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort as a model.

Black stressed that going over budget was not an option, and the course is already creeping toward it. To fund the proposed projects, grants and public donations were discussed, along with raising user fees.

Black said he wouldn’t recommend taking funding from another part of APRC operations, such as the senior center or the North Mountain Park Nature Center. But, he said, APRC commissioners do take public comments.

The meeting closed with a motion to keep the public aware and prepared for the reality that the course may close, while doing everything in the committee’s power to keep it open. And if it must close, to try partial closures first, such as keeping open only the driving range or the practice putting and chipping areas.

The committee's motion — and the next round of discussion about the golf course’s future, will go before APRC Wednesday.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne