How do Scottsdale golf courses stay green? It’s complex but also really clever

Over the next four days, tens of thousands of golf fans, some of them sober and fully clothed, will flood the grounds of TPC Scottsdale for a tournament known as “the greatest show on turf.”

The Waste Management Open is a spectacle, all right.

To watch it come together — the grandstands and pavilions, the dizzying logistics of seating and safety, foot traffic, food and beverage — is to marvel at the time and money involved. 

What’s easy to forget is the event’s most vital input.

The greatest show on turf takes place on, well, turf, which depends on many things but on one thing more than any other.

None of this happens without water.

“It’s our most precious resource,” says Brandon Reese, director of golf course operations for TPC Scottsdale.

Where that resource comes from and how it is managed — in an arid region, in a time of drought — is itself a story of sophisticated planning that touches on many of the tangled issues surrounding golf and water use in the West. In debates over those issues, golf’s critics and defenders tend to cast the industry in one of two ways: as an environmental blight that’s particularly egregious in the desert, or a robust economic engine that doesn’t get due credit for the sustainable strides that it has made. 

“The reality is that the issues are far more nuanced,” says Taylor Weiss, an assistant professor in the Environmental and Resource Management Program at Arizona State University. “You can’t just talk about golf and water use in a monolithic way.”

TPC Scottsdale relies on reclaimed water to irrigate its courses. getty images

POLICIES AND PRACTICES VARY from state to state, city to city, course to course. In Scottsdale, though, any understanding of golf and water starts at a low-slung, earth-toned complex, tucked into the desert-scape, three miles up the road from where the pros will tee it up this week.

This is the City of Scottsdale Water Campus, a hygienic name for what is, at heart, a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant. On any given day, the plant takes in reclaimed water from sinks, showers, sprinklers, tubs and other sources around Scottsdale, and puts it through a purification process that few other municipal water-treatment facilities in the country are equipped to carry out. The plant draws from homes and city buildings. It pulls from restaurants and luxury resorts like the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, which backs up onto TPC Scottsdale. 

Not all the influx is effluent. The plant also treats water from the Colorado River (also known as CAP water), but the river is overtaxed, and the city says it wants to wean itself entirely from it. As it stands, the CAP water Scottsdale uses goes primarily toward drinking. There’s a pecking order, and golf understands its place.

“We know that if you’re thirsty, we’re not going to get water for our courses,” says Gregg Tryhus, president of the Arizona Alliance for Golf, an industry advocacy group. 

Which is where the plant comes in. Fed by a network of pipelines and pump stations, it is part of a redistribution system that is capable of delivering 20 million gallons of non-potable water a day to 20 courses in North Scottsdale, TPC Scottsdale included. In cool or rainy periods, when the courses don’t need their full allotment, the system pumps the extra water back into the city’s aquifers. It’s a kind of closed loop, and it has been in place since the construction of the plant in 1998, though the impetus for it started well before.

“What Scottsdale has achieved is unusual in the country,” says Kelly Kopp, a turf-grass scientist and professor in the Plants, Soils and Climate department at Utah State University, who works with municipalities around the West on water-use efficiency. “One of the remarkable things about it is the amount of foresight and cooperation that went into it.”

What Scottsdale has achieved is unusual in the country. Kelly Kopp, Utah State turf-grass scientist

AS IN CHINATOWN, the politics of water in Arizona (who gets how much and at what cost) are endlessly complex. But a clarifying moment came in 1980 with the passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act, which set forth protections for groundwater supplies that the state was sucking up faster than nature could replenish them. 

Around the same time, Scottsdale was on the cusp of its own transformation from Western hitching-post town to high-end, second-home golf destination. Those courses-in-the-making, and the real estate around them, were going to need water, which could not be pumped exclusively from the ground or pulled from the Colorado River.

Recognizing the need for a more sustainable (and affordable) source, golf course owners and developers, led by Lyle Anderson, the driving force behind such prominent Scottsdale projects Desert Highlands and Desert Mountain, struck a deal with the city to create a reclaimed water distribution system. As part of this public-private partnership, a constellation of courses purchased shares in the system, paying $1 million each for the rights to reclaimed water, and another $1 million to construct a pipeline that would carry it. One of the early buyers was TPC Scottsdale, which opened in 1986 and hosted its first Phoenix Open the following year. Another was Desert Mountain, which cut the ribbon on the first of its six courses in 1988. Troon North came along three years later, and Grayhawk three years after that. The North Scottsdale golfers know today was taking shape.

In 1998, when the treatment plant was completed, those courses, which up until then had been relying on treated CAP water, started drawing reclaimed water through the pipeline they’d helped fund.

“It was a total game-changer,” Tryhus says. “Course owners went from complaining to have to pay to build the pipeline to fighting to get a place in line so they could be a part of it.”

RECLAIMED WATER IS WIDELY used in golf-course irrigation. But it has limits: It is high in salts, for instance, which are bad for grass. By the mid-aughts, course operators around Scottsdale noticed that those salts were doing a number on their turf. They needed cleaner reclaimed water, which meant ponying up in another partnership with a city that had growing water-treatment needs of its own. The result, completed in 2012, was a $70 million upgrade and expansion of the water campus, of which the courses paid $22.5 million. The deal also called for the courses to cover 100-percent of the system’s maintenance and operating costs — an arrangement that continues today.

From a construction standpoint, the project was pursued with three aesthetic goals. “We didn’t want you to be able see it or hear it,” says Brian Biesemeyer, executive director of Scottsdale Water, the city’s water department. “And we definitely didn’t want you do be able to smell it.”

The facility isn’t easy to spot when you drive past it on N. Pima Road. And there’s no sound or whiff of it when you pull close. Only when you join one of the guided tours (these are open to the public on a limited basis), which lead down glassed-in corridors and metal stairwells through a Willy Wonka-worthy labyrinth of pipes and pumps and tanks, do you get an inkling of what’s going on.

The cleaning of wastewater unfolds in phases, starting with a conventional biological treatment, followed by a series of purification steps — membrane filtration, which removes tiny particles; reverse osmosis, which eliminates chemical contaminants; and ultra-violet disinfection to deal with viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms — that bring the water to drinking-level standards exceeding that of bottled water. 

In 2012, Scottsdale completed a $70 million upgrade to its water campus. GOLF

You can chug a glass of it at the end of the tour, but you can’t sip it from taps in Scottsdale. For now, that water doesn’t go into the city’s drinking system (state permitting for that is still in the works). It is either stored in wells, which replenish groundwater supplies, or pumped to the courses in a roughly equal blend of CAP water and conventionally treated effluent. 

Not all courses are entitled to the same amount of water (this depends in part on how much they invested in the system, but also on their irrigation needs). TPC Scottsdale, which has two courses, is allotted 2 million gallons a day (slightly over the 1.11 gallons-per-day average for courses fed by the treatment plant), but for long stretches of the year, it uses less.

“There is absolutely no upside for us to use any more than we need,” director of grounds Brandon Reese says. For starters, along with labor, water is the biggest line item on the facility’s budget. What’s more, over-watering is bad for turf. The incentives are economic and agronomic. 

Over the years, TPC Scottsdale, like many courses, has taken extensive steps to reduce its water-dependency, implementing everything from turf-reduction programs and drought-tolerant grasses to more targeted irrigation technology. But outside of the golf industry, efforts of that kind go widely overlooked, golf advocates say. The game has what many call a “visibility problem.” According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, golf courses account for only three percent of water use in the state’s five Active Management Areas, or AMAs (areas where water use is subject to regulation under Arizona groundwater codes). But many of those courses lie in plain view, in densely populated areas. Agriculture, by contrast, which accounts for 44-percent of water use within the AMAs (and roughly 70 percent of total water use in the state), is often out of sight, and out of mind. Golf courses, on the other hand, are hard not to notice. And same green fairways that draw golfers to places like Scottsdale make easy targets for critics of the game.

“It has become something of a war for public opinion,” Kopp says. “And in that battle, golf often gets perceived unfairly as an environmental bogeyman.”

As many in the industry see it, golf isn’t just fighting for its image. The struggle is existential. The USGA is treating it that way. Having spent decades investing in sustainable practices, the governing body recently pledged $30 million over the next 15 years to help courses cut their water use by 45 percent. Nowhere is that campaign more urgent than in the Southwest, where the shriveling of the Colorado River, drawn down by population growth and climate change, has forced a spate of mandatory cutbacks, with expectations of more to come. The challenges that experts envision for the future extend to matters far more important than golf. But it is in the game’s interest to be part of the solution.

That’s something to consider as a tournament unlike any other plays out this week on turf that’s been given less to drink than some of the fans.

“We’re extremely careful with our water for a reason,” Reese says. “It’s not something we can afford to waste.”

This is the first in a series of reports that GOLF.com is publishing on sustainability in golf.

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