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Some Arizona golf courses are pushing back against state's plan to reduce water use

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PHOENIX — Managers of some Arizona golf courses are fighting a plan that would cut water use at a time when the state is being forced to confront shrinking water supplies.

A group representing golf courses has been pushing back against a proposal by state officials that would reduce overall water use on courses, instead offering a plan that would entail less conservation.

Opposition to the state’s proposal for golf courses has emerged over the past several months, aired in sometimes-tense virtual meetings where representatives of courses have said they understand the need to conserve but are concerned the proposed reductions in water allotments would damage their businesses.

The latest proposal by the Arizona Department of Water Resources would require Phoenix-area golf courses that use groundwater to reduce their total combined water use by 3.1 percent compared to current allotments under a previous plan.

Representatives of a newly formed group called the Arizona Alliance for Golf opposed those reductions and offered a counterproposal that, based on the state’s analysis, would decrease water use on courses that pump groundwater by 1.8 percent.

The group’s attempts to assert its position have included repeated meetings with state officials, the launch of a new website urging people to “speak up for Arizona golf,” and emails seeking to recruit more members to “have a united voice” and “protect our game.” The group also welcomed Gov. Doug Ducey as their featured speaker at a kick-off event in April.

The resistance from the golf industry has surfaced as Arizona’s water outlook has grown increasingly complicated, with a shortage looming on the Colorado River and groundwater declining in many areas beneath growing cities and suburbs.

The disagreement shows that even a modest plan for using less water can generate considerable opposition from some in the golf business, and it also indicates state water regulators may continue to grapple with resistance — even in the face of severe drought and the effects of climate change — as they seek to implement requirements of the 1980 law that regulates groundwater in parts of Arizona.

“I’m astounded that we are 40 years into the Groundwater Management Act and we are still arguing about whether the department can, in fact, impose minor conservation requirements on golf courses,” said Kathleen Ferris, a water researcher and lawyer who previously headed the state Department of Water Resources.

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Ferris said she understands that a number of golf courses aren’t fighting the water-saving proposal and are “really trying to figure out what it is DWR needs them to do and how they can comply with reductions in their water use.”

State records show there are 165 golf courses in the Phoenix area. They use various sources of water, including treated wastewater and Colorado River water. But more than half of the area’s courses rely at least partially on groundwater, together pumping roughly as much from wells as the average consumption of 130,000 single-family homes.

As state officials finish drafting their plan for reductions in water use on golf courses in the coming months, the allotments that are established will affect how much water is sprayed on courses in the desert for years to come.

“We need to increase our conservation and decrease our groundwater withdrawals,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, speaking at an April 28 online meeting attended by more than 400 people.

It was the latest public meeting between state water officials and golf course managers, and one in a series of state-convened work groups focused on developing updated groundwater plans — technically called the fifth management plans — for the five “active-management areas” where pumping is regulated around Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott as well as Santa Cruz and Pinal counties.

Shrinking supplies drive water-saving needs

Buschatzke began with an overview of Arizona’s worsening water challenges, including the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River, which store water that flows through the Central Arizona Project Canal to desert cities from Scottsdale to Tucson.

“I wanted to give you the context of what’s happening, challenges that are facing our state with the management of the Colorado River,” Buschatzke said.

He showed a chart tracing the declining water levels in Lake Mead since 2000, a blue line descending like a mountain slope toward a threshold that will soon trigger an official shortage declaration by the federal government.

“Unfortunately, Lake Mead and the Colorado River keep declining. We’re on the verge of taking very large reductions in our Colorado River water use starting in 2022,” Buschatzke said.

The watershed is trending, he said, and Lake Mead’s levels could continue to drop toward lower thresholds that would bring bigger cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico — and potentially for California if the reservoir keeps declining.

Other slides detailed the cutbacks that would be required if the reservoir falls toward critically low levels, something a 2019 deal among the states aimed to avert. Buschatzke also described a worst-case scenario.

“At dead pool, 890 feet elevation, no water moves past Hoover Dam. No water. The river will be dry and Arizona will not have any Colorado River water,” Buschatzke said. These larger challenges with the river, he said, relate to the conservation that’s needed under the new management plans in all sectors, including golf.

Other details about the water plans were explained by Natalie Mast, the department’s director of active-management areas, who said the guiding purpose in each successive plan is to achieve reductions in groundwater pumping. She gave a recap of previous meetings since 2019 and said time is tight to finish developing the plans.

“We’re kind of in a red zone here. We’re pushing the limits of our timeline in order to complete the drafting of those fifth management plans,” Mast said. “We do need to work through the finalization of these programs in a relatively quick manner.”

The presenters from the state water agency went over their proposal, an earlier iteration of which they floated in February. The compared their proposal with the different plan presented by the Arizona Alliance for Golf.

The Central Arizona Project canal winds through the city of Phoenix. Photo by David Wallace/The Arizona Republic

They also delved into complex details about how the plan would work. For one thing, the changes in water allocations wouldn’t be the same for all golf courses. Under the state’s proposal, the changes in allocations would vary widely depending on the course. Examples listed in the proposal show that some large courses might face a reduction of as much as 24 percent in their allotment, while other courses would have smaller reductions, such as 8 percent or 11 percent, and some courses would actually see their allotments increased.

State officials said their goals, in addition to reducing the amount of groundwater pumped, include improving the “simplicity” of the system of water allotments and achieving “equity” among golf courses, recognizing that some have made more progress than others in becoming more efficient.

The reductions in allotments apply to all courses that use groundwater, some of which also use water from other sources. The analysis by the Department of Water Resources showed its proposal would mean an overall decrease of 1.3 percent in the aggregate water allotments of all golf courses in the Phoenix area. In contrast, state officials found that the alliance’s proposal would slightly increase the combined water allotments of all courses by 0.1 percent compared to the last management plan.

Buschatzke said representatives of the Arizona Alliance for Golf asked to meet with his department in November, and they’ve had 11 meetings, five of which he attended.

However, Buschatzke said, the golf alliance’s latest proposal wouldn’t satisfy the goal of reducing water use and “is not something that meets our requirements.”

He said the state is proposing “small reductions,” and added that he thinks “it should be as much as we can achieve under the golf program given all that is happening with our water supplies.”

‘Fundamental disagreements’

Then representatives of the Arizona Alliance for Golf spoke.

The group was formed “to bring unity and cohesion to these really important conversations,” said Katie Prendergast of the public relations firm Horizon Strategies. The meetings between the group and the department in recent months have aimed at finding a “workable proposal,” she said, “one that provides the water necessary for courses to remain economically viable while enabling the department to meet its statutory requirement.”

“Based on today’s presentation, we don’t have the same perspective as the department and there are clearly gaps we need to work through,” Prendergast said.

Also speaking for the alliance, Rob Collins of Paradise Valley Country Club touted the golf industry’s efforts to conserve.

“Water is expensive, so it’s critical to our businesses and it’s a major expense,” Collins said. “We are naturally water-savers.”

Collins said he thinks it would be better to “look at real-use numbers rather than being focused on plan-to-plan reductions,” as the state agency is doing.

Bri Kenny of the Scottsdale-based golf management company Troon said she thinks “it’s super necessary that we have another meeting.”

“We do have fundamental disagreements on these plans,” Kenny said. “And it actually stems back to the approach in calculating reductions and the quality of the data that exist, that you’re calculating the reductions from.”

Buschatzke said he and his staff are open to having another meeting.

“Remember, when you talk about the data that we’re using, this is data that is reported by the golf courses, by the golf industry to us, as is required under the law,” Buschatzke said. “We’re relying on the accuracy of the data you’re providing to us in your annual reports. So if there are ways you can make that data more accurate, we would encourage you to do so.”

Buschatzke reiterated that his agency is required to calculate these allotments to achieve reductions in groundwater use.

The Arizona Alliance for Golf says on its website that golf “is a driving force behind the state’s real estate and tourism industries, accounting for thousands of jobs and at least $4.6 billion in direct economic impact each year.” The group also says Arizona’s golf industry is a national leader in water conservation and “must be part of both the conversation and the solution” as state officials debate the future of water use.

Mark Woodward raised those points during the meeting. Woodward, president of Arizona’s Cactus and Pine Golf Course Superintendents Association, said he’s been in the business 52 years and the groundwater management plan that’s being discussed is “the biggest issue we’ve ever faced.”

“Rushing any decisions related to the plan would not be good for the industry. It would not be good for the department or anything. It’s critical that we get these decisions right,” Woodward said. “Because potentially any decisions you guys make are going to be impactful to the golf industry for the next 10 years or more.”

Woodward said more time is needed to “clean up the data” and the department should consider “the big picture, to look at the return on investment that golf brings for the small amount of water that we use — less than 2 percent of the state’s water supply.”

He also urged state officials to consider the progress golf courses have already made over the past 30 to 40 years in reducing water use.

“In many cases, there’s not a lot of room for improvement. We’ve already done more than most industries have already done. So we’re way ahead of the curve,” Woodward said.

“Let’s work together to ensure that decisions are well thought out and they accomplish all the goals of the department,” Woodward said. “You have goals. We understand that. But we also have an industry to run and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize that industry, and I don’t think the governor or anybody wants to do that, frankly.”

Woodward said he and others in the golf industry also have questions about how the department is developing its proposals.

“It is the most critical thing that has happened in the last 50 years in this industry,” Woodward said. “We fully understand the need to operate efficiently and effectively, and use water wisely. We’ve been doing that for years. This is nothing new to us. We have a shared goal with you all: savings of groundwater. We understand that you have a goal to reach. We get that. But not at the expense of damaging an industry.”

Many golf courses use groundwater

Buschatzke replied that he and his staff “recognize the need to have a program that allows the golf industry to continue to move forward.” He said they’ll continue to accept comments about any of the proposals.

“But everyone needs to understand as well that we are under a deadline,” Buschatzke said. “We need to move forward and come to some closure very soon.”

More than two years ago, he noted, the state’s Auditor General pointed out the department was behind schedule on the groundwater management plans and said it needed to catch up. The agency’s regulators are now trying to wrap up a draft proposal for golf water allotments this year.

To examine water consumption on golf courses, The Arizona Republic requested data from the Department of Water Resources under the state’s public records law. The records show 219 golf courses across Arizona used a total of 119,478 acre-feet of water in 2019. The average amount of water used per course was 504 acre-feet during the year, or about 450,000 gallons a day.

More than half of the golf courses pump groundwater, which accounted for about 46 percent of all golf water use in 2019. Treated effluent from wastewater plants accounted for 27 percent of water use, while about 15 percent was Colorado River water from the CAP Canal. The remainder came from other sources.

A majority of the courses, 165 in all, are located in the Phoenix active-management area. The state data shows 89 of these courses rely at least partially on groundwater. During 2019, the records show, they pumped 44,354 acre-feet of groundwater, or 14.4 billion gallons, about as much water as 130,000 typical single-family households.

During the meeting, Buschatzke said his department is proposing a small overall reduction in groundwater use “because we do recognize much of what’s already been done in the golf industry with efficiencies, with how well the water is managed, and that some turf has already been reduced.”

Courses that are entirely reliant on surface water or recycled water don’t fall under the requirements of the groundwater law. “But if you have one molecule of groundwater in what you put on the golf course, you then are subject to penalty if you exceed your allotment,” Buschatzke said.

And while some courses face larger reductions than others, Buschatzke said, the overarching goal is to reduce water use industry-wide.

Some golf managers asked whether there will be a grace period to take out grass on portions of their courses. Others voiced specific concerns about how their courses and country clubs will fare.

Jan Ek, general manager of the Recreation Centers of Sun City, said she oversees seven large 18-hole courses that were built in the 1960s and ’70s, plus one 9-hole course.

“In most cases, we are over allocations on every golf course. It was built with wall-to-wall green,” Ek said.

She said they’ve been switching to more efficient irrigation systems and converting some areas to desert landscaping, and have also asked their board to approve spending more on grass removal. Ek said they have removed turf on about 60 acres so far, but “we’ve got a long ways to go.”

The new management plan is “beyond scary, because I don’t even know how we could possibly get there,” Ek said. She said she’s also looking at the expense of fixing a leaking lake, making for a list of projects that need to be addressed. And reducing water use on the scale proposed, she said, will be a “huge undertaking.”

And then there’s the size of the golf courses, she said, “because I have courses that are so large they could be two golf courses.”

Ek said she wants to get her courses into compliance with the water allotments. She asked Buschatzke if they could meet with him or his staff to go over a plan that would move toward the goal and still be affordable.

“Absolutely, we would be willing to sit down and work with you on a plan. I can’t guarantee what the result would be,” Buschatzke said. “And if there’s a mechanism to come to a legally binding agreement in that regard, we’re willing to talk about that with you as well.”

“That would be excellent,” Ek said. “We would very much appreciate that opportunity and, you know, ability to negotiate if we need to, to get ourselves to that point.”

Grappling with a ‘drier future’

One subject that came up only once during the meeting was climate change, when Buschatzke briefly uttered the words and referred to the “long-term effects finally hitting us from the drier future.”

But no one mentioned the fact that when it’s hotter and drier, as it has been recently, plants consume more water through evapotranspiration — something golf specialists track on their computer screens with sophisticated systems that pinpoint the irrigation demands on their greens and fairways.

And climate data from the federal government shows the Southwest has grown significantly hotter over the past decade, experiencing more pronounced warming than other regions of the country, which affects the amount of water needed per acre of green grass in the desert. In other words, at a time when golf courses are being asked to conserve more, hotter average temperatures are gradually pushing per-acre water demands higher.

At the same time, scientists have found that the Colorado River watershed is sensitive to warming and that higher temperatures have contributed significantly to the severe drought over the past 22 years.

Scientists describe it as a “megadrought” in the West and one that, unlike the long droughts of the past, is being amplified by carbon pollution and the heating of the planet.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, declined last week to the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam. Some researchers have estimated the Colorado River could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise, and that for each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the average flow is likely to drop by about 9 percent.

Arizona gets an estimated 36 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and a large portion of it flows through the CAP Canal to cities, farms and tribal lands.

But with a first-ever shortage expected next year, mandatory cutbacks will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third. That will shrink the amount flowing through the CAP Canal to farmlands in Pinal County that produce cotton, hay and other crops.

In a first-level shortage, the water supplies of Arizona’s cities are protected from cuts under the state’s plan. That could change, though, if Lake Mead continues to drop and reaches lower thresholds that would trigger larger cuts.

While the water outlook in the Southwest has worsened over the past year, the organizers of the Arizona Alliance for Golf have sought to mobilize support.

At an event on April 27, members of the alliance welcomed Ducey, who gave opening remarks.

In a tweet, the governor shared a photo of the audience listening to his speech. Ducey tweeted: “The golf industry is critical to growing Arizona’s economy, job opportunities and tourism. Today, I’m proud to help kick off the Arizona Alliance of Golf and ensure our state remains the premier golf destination.” He also mentioned Grayhawk Golf Club.

C.J. Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesperson, said the governor “has been very focused on water issues and he has spoken about the need to prepare for a drier future in Arizona.”

The Department of Water Resources is working on the groundwater management plan through a transparent public process, Karamargin said, and “we’re going to wait and see what happens there, how that plays out.”

Repeated studies have examined golf’s contributions to Arizona’s economy. Four years ago, researchers at the University of Arizona found that the golf industry contributed $3.9 billion in sales to the state’s economy in 2014.

An economic study released in December by the Arizona Alliance for Golf said the industry supports about 50,000 jobs in the state and in 2019 generated an estimated $4.6 billion in economic activity and about $388 million in tax collections.

On National Golf Day several years ago, Ducey’s office said in a statement that “Arizona is a hole-in-one for golfers” and that it’s “a real boon for our economy.”

The membership of the Arizona Alliance for Golf also includes a public entity that manages Phoenix’s public courses. Gregg Bach, a spokesperson for the city of Phoenix’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the city’s Phoenix Golf section is a member of the alliance.

Not everyone in the golf industry opposes the state’s water conservation plan. Chip Howard, an agronomist and golf industry consultant, said that with a few exceptions, “I find this plan to be fair and equitable among golf courses.”

“That said, there will be a few already-small golf courses that will find the proposed plan to be challenging,” Howard said. “I hope that those golf courses can be accommodated in a way that will preserve their viability to contribute to the economy.”

While the debate continues over how much water golf courses should be allowed to use, Arizona is facing more and more warnings that the available water supplies appear insufficient to support all the new subdivisions that are springing up and planned in the state’s rapidly growing cities and suburbs.

Ferris, the former director of the Department of Water Resources, coauthored a report on the subject this year with Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. They warned that groundwater has been seriously overallocated in areas where aquifers are regulated, allowing for unsustainable pumping that they said threatens the state’s water future.

Ferris and Porter said the state’s leaders need to reform groundwater rules to safeguard desert aquifers and prevent water levels from continuing to decline in many areas.

Ferris helped draft the state’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act and later became director of the Department of Water Resources. Now a senior research fellow at ASU, Ferris said she thinks the department’s proposal makes sense, and she has followed the golf group’s opposition to it.

“I’m dismayed that we’re seeing this kind of pushback from a number of folks,” Ferris said. “It’s sort of indicative of a lack of understanding of how critical the water issues we face are, and that it’s going to take everybody doing their part to ensure that we have sustainable water supplies moving forward.”

Ferris pointed out that representatives of the agriculture industry, which accounts for a large portion of groundwater pumping in regulated areas, have also banded together to press their case as officials consider what allocations to adopt in the groundwater plans.

“There just seems to be a lack of understanding among a number of different groups that we are facing a very difficult time in Arizona’s history, and we can’t go on with business as usual,” she said. “You know, everybody thinks they’re special. But nobody is going to be very special when we run out of water.”

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/06/14/some-arizona-golf-courses-pushing-back-plan-reduce-water/

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