Oro Valley's decade-long effort to get the town's golf courses off drinking water and irrigated instead with reclaimed water is nearing fruition. But for one town course, that effort may carry a steep price.
On the surface, making the switch from potable to effluent water for Sun City Vistoso's golf course, 1495 E. Rancho Vistoso Blvd., appears to be the environmentally sound answer in an area where water is a valued commodity.
Underneath the surface, before the underground pipes and plumbing can be laid, rests a complex set of problems.
"This is one of those environmental issues that looks like a piece of cake; water is water, it ought to be a snap," said Bob Rubino, President of Sun City's Board of Directors. "But when you get into the details, the snaps get complicated."
Converting to effluent water as a means to irrigate its golf course is an issue that has left more questions unanswered than answered. Currently the private golf course, which sees roughly 50,000 rounds of golf played annually, uses potable ground water. All new golf courses in the Tucson metro-area built since 1983 that didn't have their own well have converted to effluent water unless it isn't made available by the city.
While many of Oro Valley's newer courses were constructed with the assumption they would eventually be irrigated with effluent, Sun City's course, one of the town's oldest, was not, which means the course is facing major renovations to accommodate effluent irrigation and various restrictions and regulations governing its use.
Despite a willingness to work together to bring the effluent water to Sun City, Scott Devereaux, the community's general manager, sees drawbacks with Oro Valley's plans.
"Their primary issue is getting the effluent system completed," said Devereaux. "They are really not too concerned about the end user and how we have to utilize the water."
Devereaux believes there hasn't been enough discussion with the end users and the impact the new system will have on them. With Oro Valley continually expanding, impact fees may not be enough to cover costs.
"I don't think that the impact fees that have been charged have been sufficient," said Devereaux. "So that's put the burden on the majority of the town's members to pay for this system. There's another system coming down the road someday that will add more costs. At what price do you make it unattractive for businesses to be in Oro Valley?"
Oro Valley's ground water aquifer has been dwindling drastically in the last five years, the result of intense ground water pumping due to an increased population, the town's many golf courses and its two parks. Each golf course in town uses hundreds of acre feet of ground water a year for irrigation. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, or what it would take to cover an acre with one foot of water.
The town began constructing a pipeline this year to bring effluent to the town from Pima County's Waste Water Treatment Plant at Ina Road and Interstate 10. The three golf courses north of Tangerine Road should start irrigating with effluent next year and those south of Tangerine, except for the Oro Valley Country Club and the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Resort, in 2007.
Effluent, or reclaim-ed water, is waste water partially treated by a nearby treatment plant. Although cleansed of major pollutants, effluent contains enough trace amounts of saline, bacteria and heavy metals such as zinc and cadmium to make it undrinkable. Effluent's major function is for use in irrigation and is used mostly by golf courses and by the Tucson parks and farmlands.
Adding the effluent to Sun City will cause the golf course to overhaul its plumbing system and force management to rethink its operational plans. In order to install an effluent and grass friendly system that will filter out some of the content found in effluent water, Sun City will need to install a brand new system, which will act as a subsystem to the existing system, around each of the course's 18 holes, two putting greens and chipping area.
One of the many questions facing management is how to overhaul the course without disturbing the lifeblood of Sun City, golfing.
"Our membership is predominantly retired people," Devereaux said. "They come to our community because they like to golf. They don't want any down time."
Shutting down the golf course for an undetermined amount of time is not an option for Sun City, which relies on the revenue produced from golfing fees, packages and sales. Course consultants, along with a handful of contractors currently are examining their options to keep the course operational and minimally affecting daily play.
Financing for a project of this magnitude creates another of Sun City's problems. Since taking over from the Del Webb Corporation in 1995, Sun City has built the original $300,000 in the Asset Reserve Account into $1.9 million. That money was set aside to rebuild not only the golf course but the infrastructure of Sun City, including the community buildings, swimming pool, tennis courts, vehicles and equipment, as well.
With the Sun City golf course forced to restructure its entire plumbing system, a plan that originally called for a 2008 target date, Sun City is beginning to feel the financial pinch of adding the effluent system. Officials now must address an issue that it thought it had four years to develop in less than a year.
The target date set by the town of Oro Valley to have the effluent system in place is June 2005.
With costs rising above the amount set aside, Sun City is forced to look for other options to finance the new irrigation system. Those options include raising fees, examining borrowing opportunities or looking at assessments. Sun City is limited to how much it can raise fees and assessments may be an option only if all else fails, Devereaux said.
The town of Oro Valley will cover the construction cost of delivering the reclaimed water to Sun City, a plan the town has been pondering for a long while.
"We've been trying to get this done for a number of years now," said public information officer Bob Kovitz of Oro Valley's plan to deliver effluent water to Sun City. Money to cover the cost of construction will come from the two-phase bond passed in December 2003.
Up to $12.2 million of the 25-year bond will go toward Oro Valley's reclaimed water projects. Customers are billed 21 cents for every 1,000 gallons of water used, while reclaimed water rates, impact fees and ground water preservation fees will go toward paying off the bond.
The rate for both reclaimed and potable water is equal, said Shirley Seng, water utility administrator for Oro Valley. According to Seng, the town will be going back to the town council in the spring to determine whether or not a discount can be offered to customers.
Another uphill battle facing the Sun City Vistoso Golf Course with the addition of effluent water is the need to re-line its pond in accordance with Arizona state policy. Construction on the pond, which sits to the side of a fairway, will not affect play but does raise some questions with Sun City officials.
"It's sort of a strange thing when you think about it," said Devereaux. "Because we are allowed to dump the water onto the golf course and what does it do? It drains into the ground. We can't understand why it can't seep out of the bottom of the pond."
Oro Valley officials say water sitting in a pond creates a driving force that pushes the water down into the soil, whereas when effluent water is sprayed on a lawn, none of it is absorbed into the soil.
Excess effluent water from the treatment plant on Ina Road and Interstate 10 that is not used by the golf courses, parks or farms is dumped into the Santa Cruz River. About 23,800 acre-feet of effluent a year flows into the river, according to the Regional Effluent Planning Partnership.
Oro Valley has agreed to aid the unique Sun City course for the relining of the pond, according to the Sun City Board of Directors.
"Sun City is the only golf course to which we are providing reclaimed water that didn't have a pond with the specifications necessary to hold reclaimed water," said Kovitz.
While the pond is adjusting to its new liner, the impact the effluent water will have on the remainder of the course remains to be seen. The major concerns among golfers are whether the effluent will carry an unpleasant odor.
"I remember we were once playing at a city park course, the sprinklers came on us, and we got soaked," said Clyde Cherry, a member of Sun City Vistoso for 11 years. "And boy did we stink."
Other than the potential smell, Sun City golfers' biggest concern with the change of water is the price.
"Sounds to me like it will be more expensive," said Jerry Ahern, a Sun City member for 15 years. "But we'll stumble through it. We'll keep playing no matter what kind of water is out there."
The quality of effluent promised to Sun City is supposed to be the highest quality and carry with it minimal odor. Reclaimed water is rated with letter grades and the effluent Sun City will receive will be either an A or A+, said Seng.
The true challenge facing course management will be the chemistry of the water with the grass. Effluent water is designed for the average household's front yard, which grows to about three inches in length. Greens on a golf course are often cut to about a quarter of an inch, said Rubino.
The key to healthy greens and fairways will be a timely flushing of the saline and other content that can build over time and destroy the grass. Periodic flushing will in turn raise the course's water bill.
Despite having the least amount of turf of any golf course in the metro area, Sun City may have the most concerns. With a summer of 2005 target date looming large, Sun City Vistoso wants to play the good neighbor and do the right thing environmentally. At what cost, remains to be seen.
GOLF COURSE WATER USAGE
Keeping Oro Valley's golf courses green is no easy task. In 2003 the town's six golf courses alone used a combined 2,964 acre-feet of groundwater to keep its fairways and greens lush and playable. A single acre-foot of water is equal to about 326,000 gallons of water. With the exception of the Oro Valley Country Club, which has its own well and grandfathered groundwater rights, the 2003 numbers according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources are:
- Hilton Tucson El Conquistador; Country Club: 827 acre-feet (a/f); Resort: 190 a/f
- Stone Canyon; 600 a/f
- Oro Valley Country Club; 474 a/f
- The Golf Club at Vistoso; 461 a/f
- Sun City Rancho Vistoso; 412 a/f