In parts of northern Arizona, golf courses over the past decade have stopped using drinking water to keep their greens vibrant. Instead, they use effluent or recycled water.
However, in Phoenix, less than a quarter of the water used on golf courses is reclaimed wastewater. According to a 2014 University of Arizona study, 75 percent of the water used to irrigate courses in the Prescott active management area is effluent, compared with only 21 percent in the Phoenix active management area.
Club West Golf Course for two years has been a troubled site because two owners, Wilson Gee and now Richard Brueninger of Inter Tribal Golf Association, have found the cost of city water too high.
Gee curtailed irrigation the last two summers, causing the course to turn brown and triggering a 2016 lawsuit by the Club West HOA that was dismissed after Brueninger bought the course last December.
But city Water Serices Department turned off the tap when the management company Breuninger hired to take care of day-to-day operations rang up $213,000 in unpaid bills.
One local official says it’s critical to rethink the use of water – especially given Arizona’s $3.9 billion golf industry.
“It’s important just from a perspective of living in the desert that we really value our water, and we use it for the correct purposes,” said Phoenix Councilwoman Debra Stark, who has worked to get golf courses to stop using drinking water.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency placed 70 percent of Arizona under moderate to severe drought conditions, and the state is in its 21st year of long-term drought, according to the Arizona State Climate Office.
Yet nearly three-quarters of the water used for all Arizona golf courses is pumped from the same sources as drinking water, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ most recent reports from 2016.
Arizona as a whole still relies heavily on groundwater needed for drinking and other uses by residents, state officials said.
“Groundwater is about 48 percent,” said Jeff Tannler, active management director for the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “Central Arizona Project water, which comes from the Colorado River, is 14 percent, and then surface water is 10 percent. … Of the total golf course use, 28 percent of that is effluent.”
For example, Moon Valley Country Club and Pointe Tapatio Lookout Mountain Golf Club have been using drinking water since their respective openings: Moon Valley in the early 1960s and Lookout Mountain in 1989.
But a few years ago, Moon Valley found itself on the verge of bankruptcy because of the cost of watering its golf courses.
After new owners took control of the club, they reached out to Phoenix officials and private construction management firms for a way to keep the course going without diverting drinking water needed by Phoenix residents.
“From a cost perspective, water was one of their biggest costs that they had as a golf course operator,” said Ron Hilgart, managing principal of HilgartWilson, a land-planning, engineering, construction management and surveying firm working with Moon Valley. “As we tried to evaluate different options, Lookout Mountain Golf Club came along and said that they would also have interest in finding a solution.”
With two privately owned Phoenix courses on board, the group went to the city to propose a development agreement, deferring the cost of water bills while constructing a pipeline to pull raw water from the Arizona Canal.
Superintendents from both Moon Valley and Lookout Mountain clubs said they could not discuss the construction plans for the pipeline or water use issues.
Stark proposed granting rights for the publicly owned Cave Creek Golf Course, watered by mostly well water, to use the pipeline as a backup source.
The development agreement included a cost-sharing plan for the three golf courses. Tom McDonald, an attorney at Gammage & Burnham working with Moon Valley, said the two private courses will pay the majority of the costs because both are farther away from the pipeline’s source.
Cave Creek and Phoenix will shoulder a smaller amount. No exact dollar amounts have been set, but Hilgart estimated the construction costs at $9.5 million.
“There’s an allocation between the three parties based upon usage by the courses and the length of line to their course,” McDonald said. “(Phoenix) is paying about one-third of the cost to get the line to Cave Creek.”
Non-potable water costs 40 percent less than drinkable water, so the courses stand to benefit over time.
“But a big part of that (other) 60 percent is initially offset by construction cost, until that construction cost is paid off,” Hilgart said.
The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Code created five active management areas (AMAs) across the state, with five specific plans featuring water management requirements for agricultural, municipal and industrial water users.
The five AMAs are Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz. All rely heavily on groundwater overseen by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
By state law, Hilgart said, golf courses are limited to about 90 acres of turf if they rely on groundwater, but “during peak hot weather months, (a course) could be using a million gallons a day.”
“The effluent use has increased over the years as more golf courses have the infrastructure available to them for effluent or reclaimed use,” said Tannler. “We do realize that not all golf courses have access to reclaimed or effluent water supplies.”
Tannler said the department’s management plans contain incentives for using effluent, either partially or fully. The department conducts audits and field inspections if merited following a course’s report, Tannler said.
Still, the Arizona Department of Water Resources receives only reported figures from those 240 golf courses within the five active management areas. The rest of Arizona imposes no measuring and reporting requirements.
And there’s a grandfather clause. Stark said golf courses operating before the 90-acre turf limit was imposed don’t have to comply with statewide requirements.
Those involved in the public/private partnership between Moon Valley, Lookout Mountain and Phoenix believe the agreement could be a blueprint for changing the industry’s water use in Phoenix.
“Finding the solution can be difficult depending on the location, but that’s definitely what the trend is,” said McDonald.