How Valley cities work to keep golf courses environmentally friendly

Updated: Feb. 11, 2022 at 3:58 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- What a unique spot we live in here in Phoenix, one of the fastest-growing cities, located right in the middle of a desert. Given that we’re in a drought, some might wonder how we have so many gorgeous, green golf courses when water is at a premium.

We talked to Cynthia Campbell, the Water Resource Management Advisor to the City of Phoenix, about this. She says they’ve been watching the Colorado River dwindle for years, and this year’s water cuts to parts of Arizona are not a huge surprise.

“I don’t think that anyone expected may be that the decline would go quite this quickly as it has,” said Campbell. “We really had to take some fairly extraordinary actions as a region to try to adapt.” Mainly dry winters and low snowpack in the Colorado Basin have shrunk Lake Power and Lake Mead. Under the Drought Contingency Plan, water from the Colorado River was cut to parts of Arizona starting this past January.

“It will take a lot of years to turn it around. If the definition of turning it around is getting it back to the way it used to be, I’m not sure it will ever come back,” Campbell explained. “I think we’re seeing the impacts of climate change as well.”

While farmers in Pinal County saw a sizable decline in their water supply with the recent cuts, there were no cuts to residents in Phoenix or parks or golf courses. Campbell says that’s because of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) contract, which delivers Colorado River Water to Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties.

Is reclaimed water the solution?

Campbell points out that many golf courses wouldn’t use that water anyhow. Instead, they’re using reclaimed water. The City of Scottsdale has an entire wastewater campus, paid for in part by golf courses. It’s a partnership that pumps reclaimed water to 23 courses in the city, including the TPC.

“To me, it’s proof that the industry is looking for ways to be more efficient and use less resources, " says Andy Staples, owner of Staples Golf Design. As an Arizona-based golf course architect, he not only builds new courses but renovates courses across the country to become more water and energy-efficient. “I will say one of the major changes within the golf industry is that it’s a topic of conversation across the country. So I will tell you, on all my courses, somebody has asked how to become more efficient with water use,” said Staples.

“I would say one of the biggest misperceptions with the golf industry in the desert is that that we’re just kind of willy-nilly watering golf courses to make it green to attract tourism, and that’s really not the case,” he added. “These are highly trained experts that are on the ground.”

Staples says courses don’t just need to use less water, but they actually want to conserve usage. “The best golf is is dry, firm, bouncy conditions. So we’re motivated to actually use less water because that’s really better for the golfer.”

What else are cities and golf courses working on?

Construction materials are also changing when it comes to courses, with recycled pipes underground and recycled rubber. Many new set-ups have a smaller footprint, less bunkering, smaller greens, and significantly fewer water features in Arizona.

“It’s important to make sure the golf industry sticks around because we see some value in the game,” says Staples. “We want to make sure that we’re falling in line to be as efficient and sustainable as possible. And quite simply, it’s the right thing to do.”

Staples says there’s still more work to be done in the industry, especially with turfgrass science. He says scientists are working hard to create a turf that stays green year-round, which would mean less water and no overseeding.