Wastewater partnership keeps Scottsdale’s golf courses in the green

Every morning and every evening, the sound of sprinklers fills the air at Grayhawk Golf Club. It takes 2 million gallons of water daily during the summer to keep the Talon and Raptor courses green.

And all 2 million gallons of it comes from Scottsdale’s toilets and drains, reclaimed by a city wastewater treatment plant and delivery system that Grayhawk and 12 other golf clubs funded to ensure their survival. The partnership dates to Scottsdale’s decision in the late 1980s to ban the use of potable water on golf courses and parks.

“It would have been incredibly costly to try to do this alone,” said Gregg Tryhus, president and owner of Grayhawk Development. “If we hadn’t been able to share the costs we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

There wasn’t much of an option, though.

“If you wanted a golf course, you had to pay the fee to build the plant,” Tryhus said.

In the 1980s, pumping groundwater out of neighboring Carefree’s water basin was quickly becoming a problem for Scottsdale. Carefree threatened a lawsuit against the city as well as one of its largest golf clubs.

In 1989, Scottsdale mandated that all of its courses use reclaimed water. The city issued a $5 million bond, and the 13 golf clubs came up with the other $14 million needed for the treatment plant and distribution system.

With golf courses a big part of Scottsdale’s appeal to visitors and residents alike, it was important for the city and clubs to find a solution, said Tim Bray, president of Southwest Community Resources, the consulting firm that coordinated the partnership.

“Golf courses have a huge impact,” he said.

By 1996 all of the clubs and their 23 courses were on the system, and the clubs had paid back the $5 million from the city’s bond issue.

“The city being willing to work with us speaks volumes to how important golf is in the Valley,” said Jeff Plotts, director of golf course operations at TPC Scottsdale.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was a 13.5-mile pipeline to carry the treated water from Scottsdale’s water campus to the water features on the courses. Having the clubs along a south-north corridor around Pima Road helped.

Water scarcity forced Scottsdale to look at wastewater in a new light, said Annie DeChance, public outreach manager for the city’s Water Resources Department.

“It made us very innovative, and we were the first city in the Valley to come up with this concept,” DeChance said. “Wastewater is a continuous, reliable source.”

But Plotts said it’s not just about the mandate for many superintendents.

“We want to do the right thing environmentally. It doesn’t make sense to use potable water on a golf course,” he said.

The courses’ demand for water decreases significantly during the winter, a time when seasonal visitors increase the amount of wastewater. Scottsdale uses the plant’s excess capacity during those months for groundwater recharge.

“When you wash your hands in the sink or flush the toilet or take a shower, that water has to go somewhere and we have to do something with it,” DeChance said. “This is the way for us to make the most of it.”

Patrick Watson, conservation services administrator at the Southern Nevada Water Authority and former superintendent of Terravita Golf Club in north Scottsdale, sees the switch to reclaimed water becoming more common throughout the Southwest.

“The way golf courses are using water is evolving, and Arizona and other Southwest locations are the breeding ground for these changes,” Watson said.

Unlike parks and other large turf areas using reclaimed water, golf courses offer more of a return on the investment because golfers pay greens fees, according to David White, co-director of the Decision Center for a Desert City at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Golf courses are a great place to use reclaimed water,” White said. “It’s the best bang for the buck for each gallon of water.”

Scottsdale isn’t the only Arizona city using reclaimed water on golf courses. According to Fernando Molina, Tucson Water’s public information officer, that city has been using reclaimed water for 30 years.

“All but one course in Tucson uses reclaimed water, but there’s no collective investment,” Molina said. “They individually pay the city for extensions to their courses.”

Scottsdale’s partnership required a major upgrade as years passed. It turned out that the prevalence of salt-based water-softening systems was leading to salt levels high enough to kill grass, a problem that became apparent in the mid-2000s.

“All the superintendents came to me and said, within four or five years we’re going to lose all of these courses,” Bray said.

The solution: a $22 million expansion, funded by the golf clubs, that added a reverse-osmosis and micro-filtration system to Scottsdale’s water campus.

“You have to ask what your options are. Investing together in the advanced water treatment facility was the only option,” said Paul Skelton, director of golf at DC Ranch.

Losing golf courses wasn’t an option for Scottsdale. Winter visitors aren’t the only ones spending their money on golf — many residents also pay top dollar to play some of the best courses in the Southwest.

“We knew that we were going to have to do something in order to keep the quality of life that Scottsdale residents are accustomed to,” DeChance said.

Bill Kostes, superintendent at DC Ranch, said that the partnership has resulted not only in better conditions at his golf course but better conditions for Scottsdale golf overall.

“Big picture of the whole system is that it’s been 20 years with only minor flaws; it’s been awesome,” he added. “P.S., it’s good for everybody.”

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