Sport: Arizona golf courses use more water than they're supposed to. Nothing is stopping them.

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The Scottsdale National Golf Club — an exclusive resort in the Sonoran Desert where 145 members pay $300,000 to join and $60,000 in annual fees — brags about wide open fairways, stunning vistas and “unexpected amenities.”

  Arizona golf courses use more water than they're supposed to. Nothing is stopping them. © Provided by Golfweek

One thing the club doesn’t like to talk about is how much water it uses to keep its 45 holes of golf emerald green.

According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Scottsdale National has expended more than twice as much water as allotted by the state since 2016, with every drop coming from the overextended Colorado River.

When asked for an explanation, a representative from the club declined to comment.

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“At this time, Scottsdale National is not interested in participating in your story,” the representative said.

With global warming and a historical megadrought combining to constrain Arizona’s water supply and triggering shortage declarations, golf courses in Arizona have long claimed that they’re part of the solution — often lauding themselves as national leaders in water conservation.

The Arizona Republic found otherwise.

Not only have Arizona golf courses collectively failed to reduce water consumption over the past 20 years, but a large number have repeatedly exceeded state assigned allotments and there have been no serious consequences for them in doing so.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources, still chronically understaffed and underfunded since the 2008 recession, tries to work with golf courses to save water rather than levying fines and fees, but its approach has failed to rein in usage. And thus far, its efforts to cut water allotments by 3.1 percent have been met with stiff golf industry resistance.

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The Republic spent two months investigating water consumption by Arizona’s golf courses. The research was based primarily on data provided by the Department of Water Resources that measured golf course water usage from 2002 through 2020. The Republic also questioned experts about the data and reviewed dozens of additional water reports to obtain information missing from the department’s datasets.

From this, The Republic found:

During the past two decades, 30 to 50 percent of Arizona golf courses have exceeded their water allotments each year. One-third have gone over their state-assigned allotments at least 10 times since 2002. One golf club in an Arizona retirement community, which exceeded its allotment for 16 consecutive years, used 157 percent more water than permitted. Its overconsumption could have supplied 39,000 single-family homes for a year.

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Despite repeated claims of progress and labeling itself as an innovative leader in sustainability, the golf industry in Arizona has made no progress in reducing its water usage over the past two decades. The share of golf courses relying on reclaimed or recycled water — as opposed to more precious groundwater or Colorado River water — is the same as it was in 2006.

The Republic reached out to 30 golf courses to explain their usage. That included 24 golf courses that are known to waste water as well as six golf courses that have indicated a reduction in water usage. The vast majority either failed to respond or said they didn’t want to participate in the story. Only five golf courses provided any answers.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has limited tools to reduce the water consumption of golf courses. Its authority to pursue enforcement is restricted to golf courses that use groundwater — slightly more than half of all golf courses in Arizona. That means many golf courses in Arizona can exceed their allotments without any legal consequence, while even those that use groundwater don’t face stiff punishments. The agency says it “views compliance as a tool to conserve water — not as a punitive process.” The Department of Water Resources has filed stipulation and consent orders against only two Arizona golf courses over the past 20 years.

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“ADWR has a lot on their plate and they are chronically underfunded,” explained Susan M. Craig, a water policy analyst for Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy who researches the water use of golf courses. “As far as I understand, very little happens with the golf courses that exceed their allotments. And ADWR definitely knows it’s a problem.”

To be sure, there are multiple golf courses in Arizona that have reduced water consumption. Some decreased turf area by desert-scaping or xeriscaping, while others modernized aging irrigation systems and removed leaking ponds. But there are not enough to tip the scale.

  Arizona golf courses use more water than they're supposed to. Nothing is stopping them. © Provided by Golfweek

Arizona Grand Golf Course in Phoenix. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic)

Representatives from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s office initially challenged The Republic’s findings, saying that only 11 percent of Arizona golf courses exceeded allotments and were out of compliance each year. But that number was derived by dividing golf courses that exceeded groundwater allotments by every golf course in Arizona no matter whether they used groundwater or water from the Colorado River, Arizona rivers or reclaimed sources.

The Department of Water Resources said that if only golf courses that use groundwater are considered in the equation, the percent that exceed their allotments and were out of compliance each year for the past 20 years would be 20 percent.

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That means those golf courses not only used more water than they were allowed, but they also fell out of compliance with the department’s flex balance accounts, which allow them to exceed their allotments by as much as 20 percent in one year as long as they make up for the excess usage the following year.

Meanwhile, industry representatives have defended themselves over and over against charges of excessive water usage by claiming that Arizona golf courses use only 2 percent of the state’s water, while contributing $4.6 billion to the economy.

But the data provided by the Department of Water Resources unequivocally shows that the industry is not using any less water than it did 20 years ago. And even the industry’s oft-repeated claims are misleading.

While Arizona golf courses only use 2 percent of the state’s water, they use 9 percent of water consumed in municipal areas. And though $4.6 billion is a lot of money, it represented just 1.2 percent of Arizona’s economy in 2019.

The Arizona Alliance for Golf and the Arizona Golf Association were silent when asked for a comment about these and other numbers. Neither organization replied to emails from The Republic.

‘Newly planted desert landscaping’

Sun City sits on the outskirts of Phoenix – a retirement community of 40,000.

Developed in the 1960s, it caters to active retirees. The focal point of the development is golf. Eight of the courses are run by the Recreation Centers of Sun City, and all but one have exceeded their water allotments at least six times since 2002.

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By far the worst offender is Lakes East Golf Course, an 18-hole executive course that used more water than it was allowed for 16 consecutive years between 2002 and 2017.

Contacted by The Republic, the communications coordinator for the Recreation Centers of Sun City declined to comment.

“We are not speaking to the press regarding this subject,” she said.

But the story of Lakes East Golf Course is not all about wasting water.

From 2008 through 2014, the course exceeded its allotment by almost 250 percent. The data shows it hosed down its fairways and greens with 9,000 acre-feet above its permitted amount — enough water to supply 27,000 single-family homes for a year.

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After 2014, however, Lakes East turned down the spigot. In recent years, it has been using less than its state allowance. The reduction, according to Lakes East’s website, was due to “newly planted desert landscaping that features many low-water-use plants”.

Despite this marked improvement at Lakes East, two of Sun City’s courses were still using more water than permitted, according to the most recent data available from 2020.

‘Innovative leader in sustainability’

The Arizona Alliance for Golf, which welcomed Gov. Ducey as its speaker at a kickoff event last April, states on its website that the golf industry “has long been an innovating leader in sustainability.” It also says the Arizona golf industry is known for “pioneering nationally recognized best practices for wise water management.”

But the Alliance for Golf, which did not return an email with questions from The Republic, provides little evidence on its website regarding what the Arizona golf industry has done over the years to conserve water, saying only that golf courses account for just 2 percent of Arizona’s total water usage.

Other articles on the site point to Arizona’s reservoirs and reclaimed water as potential sources that can make up for any reductions imposed due to declining levels of the Colorado River.

But data provided by the Department of Water Resources show there has been no collective conservation of water by Arizona golf courses between 2002 and 2020 despite repeated claims to the contrary from the industry.

According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Arizona golf courses consumed about 120,000 to 130,000 acre-feet almost every year during the period. The data is not complete, though. Each year, some golf courses did not report. About 7 percent of the golf courses’ water use is missing from the database.

In populated, mostly urban parts of Arizona — known as “active-management areas” — golf courses consumed around 3 percent of Arizona’s water in 2002.

While overall water consumption in Arizona’s active-management areas decreased slightly during the ensuing years, golf courses’ share of total consumption grew by roughly 10 percent.

By 2020, golf courses were using around 3.3 percent of all water in active management areas.

The golf industry’s water consumption has special relevance today because the Department of Water Resources is trying to set delayed allotment targets for 2020 through 2025.

The Active Management Areas were created by Arizona’s landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980, which “recognized the need to aggressively manage the state’s finite groundwater resources.” It also established the Department of Water Resources, which developed management plans that regulate water consumption of golf courses by setting allotments.

The most current draft of the department’s allotment plan was published in January and officials expect to complete the process by the end of 2022.

As The Republic reported in summer 2021, managers of some Arizona golf courses were opposed to the Department of Water Resources’ proposal to cut combined water use for Phoenix-area golf courses by 3.1 percent.

In five public meetings between June 2020 and August 2021, golf course managers pushed back against the planned cuts, claiming that Arizona’s golf industry is a national leader in water conservation.

Golf courses “have already done more than most industries have already done,” argued Mark Woodward, president of Arizona’s Cactus and Pine Golf Course Superintendents Association. They are “way ahead of the curve.”

The pushback has been successful.

In the initial proposal, Arizona courses were expected to reduce water use by 3.1 percent, and by the final meeting in August, that number was cut to 1.3 percent.

But while golf courses negotiated successfully, their rhetoric failed to match reality.

Based on Arizona Department of Water Resources data, the average golf course in Arizona used more water in 2020 than in any year since 2003.

What’s more, at least 30 percent of golf courses have exceeded their water allotments every year since 2002. And in some years — including 2017 and 2020 — the share of courses overconsuming reached as high as 48 percent.

All told, 86 of Arizona’s more than 200 golf courses have exceeded their allotments at least ten times since 2002. In a typical year, the collective overconsumption has totaled around 15,000 acre-feet — enough to sustain 45,000 single-family homes for a year. That usage is five times greater than all the water in Tempe Town Lake.

‘Not a punitive process’

The Department of Water Resources sets water allotments for all golf courses, but it only has authority to take action against golf courses that use groundwater.

Consider the 36-hole Anthem Golf and Country Club about 30 miles north of Phoenix.

Anthem has exceeded its water allotment for the last four years, according to Department of Water Resources data. And in 2020, it exceeded its allotment by 30 percent. But since Anthem doesn’t use groundwater, it has faced no consequences.

“I’m not aware of any penalty that was issued to the club regarding this,” said Brad Harrington, Anthem’s general manager in his response to questions from The Republic.

According to Department of Water Resources, 41 percent of Arizona’s water is derived from groundwater which is declining in many areas beneath growing cities and suburbs. Another 36 percent comes from the Colorado River, whose reservoirs reached historical lows due to the ongoing megadrought.

The rest of Arizona’s water comes from instate rivers and from reclaimed water.

The department focuses on protecting groundwater because it is not a renewable resource.

“There is a vast amount of groundwater below us, but every drop of fossil groundwater that you pump out of a well, unless you replenish it through aquifer recharge, it’s gone forever and it won’t be available for future generations,” said Kathryn Sorensen, research director at ASU’s Kyl Center.

Golf courses that use no groundwater can exceed their allotments without any consequences, because “the idea was to create an incentive to use reclaimed water,” Sorensen explained.

But the supply of reclaimed water has been limited.

Though the share of golf courses using reclaimed wastewater increased through 2009, it has fluctuated since then. In 2020, the share of the golf courses using effluent water was 37 percent – the same as in 2006.

When the 1980 groundwater rules were created, golf courses were required to move toward using reclaimed water, according to Cynthia Campbell, water resource management adviser for the city of Phoenix.

“Many did and some of them have actually built some of the infrastructure for us and paid for it,” Campbell said. “However, at this point, based on what we have seen in Phoenix, there are limited reclaimed supplies available for golf course use.”

Meanwhile, golf courses that are dependent on groundwater have had trouble staying within their allotments.

Since 2002, at least 25 percent of groundwater users have exceeded their allotments every year.

Sixty-seven golf courses exceeded their groundwater allotments at least five times between 2002 and 2020.

And in 2020, 45 percent of golf courses that depend on groundwater exceeded their allotments.

As to the reasons: the biggest wasters aren’t talking.

The Republic reached out to 16 golf courses that exceeded their groundwater allotments according to Department of Water Resources data. Only two responded.

McCormick Ranch, a golf club in Scottsdale, argued that Arizona Department of Water Resources’ data is misleading. A spokesperson for the club said it sells around 10 percent of its water to a homeowner’s association and thus stays within its allotments.

The other facility, Sun Lakes Country Club, located at a retirement community in the outskirts of Phoenix, stated in an email that “our records don’t match yours.” But the club didn’t share its numbers despite repeated requests. Sun Lakes added that it has an additional allocation that was missing from the database and was confirmed by the Department of Water Resources.

But even with the additional allocation, Sun Lakes has exceeded its allotment and been out of compliance in all but one year since 2002, according to Arizona Department of Water Resources. That means it could have been punished.

However, the golf course said it is “not aware of any penalties.”

Like Sun Lakes, almost all Arizona golf clubs that continuously exceeded their allotments have avoided any serious consequences.

The Department of Water Resources has only filed stipulation and consent orders against Arizona golf courses twice in the past 20 years, according to documents obtained by The Republic.

In December 2002, Gainey Ranch Golf Club agreed to pay $30,000 after withdrawing “groundwater in excess of its legal authority.”

Eleven years later, the Recreation Centers of Sun City agreed to replace irrigation systems and implement a water education program at Lakes East Golf Course.

The fact that the department has not resorted to more punishment is not surprising given that its stated goal is to collaborate with golf courses to save water rather than to levy fines. But that policy has not kept golf courses from exceeding their allotments.

“It is interesting that we are proud of how progressive we are with our legislation, but we don’t back that up with enforcement,” said Sorensen, the Kyl Center research director who spent years as director of Phoenix Water Services.

Experts suggested that golf courses may be getting away with overuse of water in Arizona because the Department of Water Resources doesn’t have the money and personnel to pursue them.

“ADWR is chronically understaffed,” said Campbell, the water resource management adviser for the Phoenix. “They have not kept up with water management plans and the adjudication of surface water rights has been slowed by the lack of staff support. There are probably about 5-6 other things that they are responsible for, but they are behind on doing, because they lack the staff to do it.”

According to Campbell, “the problem started” in the Great Recession in 2008 when “the state let go a whole lot of people.”

The department’s annual budgets and staff numbers confirm that the water authority has not regained its pre-2009 size despite rapid population growth and the nagging water crisis. Data show that the operating budgets were larger at the beginning of the 2000s even without considering inflation. And there are nearly 40 percent fewer people working for The water department now than at the peak year in 2009.

But both the department and Gov. Ducey’s office point out that the Department of Water Resources’ budget and the number of employees have climbed since 2015 and they insist the department is no longer understaffed.

“The Department will continue to do their due diligence in bringing golf courses to compliance with the staff they have,” said Morgan Carr, the deputy communications director for Gov. Ducey. She added that “from a water management perspective: It is more important to bring a water user into compliance than to collect fines.”

Meanwhile, some golf courses in Arizona are making conservation improvements without having to be forced.

Both Camelback Golf Club and Moon Valley Country Club fall into that category.

Other golf clubs just appear to have saved water.

Ahwatukee Country Club – located just minutes from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – has always operated within its allotment. But after 2013, its water usage declined by 45 percent and it has remained way below its allotment ever since.

The general manager of the golf course said the reduction has nothing to do with water conservation.

“We had two golf courses, but we closed one of them around eight years ago, but actually, we are about to reopen it,” explained Terry Duggan. “If you look at how much water usage we have, it looks like we are way down, but unfortunately, it’s gonna go back up quite a bit.”

Balint Fabok is a Fulbright Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow from Budapest, Hungary, who spent a year in the United States studying at the Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This story was reported with oversight by The Arizona Republic’s data & investigative team and edited by Republic Investigations Editor Michael Braga. The Arizona Republic and Golfweek are part of the USA TODAY Network.

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