MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

An Oxymoron:
Water Efficient Golf Courses in the Desert

Westland Development Inc.'s annexation of 1700 acres to the City of Albuquerque in September 1999 set the stage for controversy in water policy and management. On Thursday, October 5, a design proposal was approved by the Environmental Planning Commission (EPC) and City Council members to create a new, privately-owned 550-acre resort and golf course located along the southern boundary of Petroglyph National Monument. Westland and Mesa Gold Inc., a Dallas, Texas-based company that is owner and operator of the new golf course, intend to build in an area that contains no water and sewer services. This area is identified within a section of the Westland Master Plan, a plan and process that Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) staff have been monitoring and critiquing for more than five years.

The City annexed the land in 1999 and Westland sought for, and obtained Albuquerque infrastructure-water, sewer, and other services by way of a preannexation agreement in 1998. The City of Albuquerque agreed to provide services contingent upon the approval of the 27-hole golf course.

This approval is not without its critics; SRIC has participated in ongoing efforts that allege preferential treatment by city officials of private developers and speculative business ventures. City officials' approval for proposals by Westland and Mesa Gold contradict local policies and are an example of how the public's interest and input is ignored. One policy that failed to be considered in the approval of this new course is the Water Resources Management Strategy (WRMS). This strategy highlights the need for the City of Albuquerque to limit use of groundwater and prevent depletion of the aquifer by implementing conservation practices.

Currently, the Westland/Mesa Gold proposal points to municipal water as the sole source for the planned area. The project was accepted without identifying the location of source(s) and water rights transfers of a municipal well placed out of service due to elevated levels of arsenic.

The water rights/use questions were attached as conditions after the decision for approval. Due to the disregard of choices and tradeoffs proposed by using municipal water for a private golf course, the EPC's decision was appealed. SRIC assisted the Water Information Network (WIN) in filing and preparing the appeal. WIN, an Albuquerque-based organization that works on regional environmental issues, protested on the basis of contradictory application of policies like the WRMS.

The Albuquerque/Bernalillo Comprehensive Plan (or Comp Plan) is a resource in land use decisions and suggests the observation of natural environmental conditions such as drought and carrying capacities (the depletion of the aquifer at a rate faster than recharge) as a guide. The Comp Plan was used in one of the arguments that was heard before the Land Use Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) committee on September 27th. The five-member committee voted 4-1 in favor of upholding the EPC's decision. In a final City Council decision, members voted 7-2, in support of LUPZ and EPC. The two votes in opposition consisted of a LUPZ member who previously voted in support of EPC and who later changed his vote in the Council meeting that finalized the decision a week later.

Westland and agent Consensus Planning state they intend to abide by the City Water and Landscaping Ordinance. Since ratification of the ordinance, Westland/Mesa Gold was the first proposal before members of City Council requesting infrastructure for a privately owned golf course. However, there is no requirement to enforce reuse of water for new courses, encouragement to use native grasses or incentives for state-of-the-art golf course management techniques. The 1999 ordinance sets ceilings for amounts of water based on an a per acre use toward parks 22 inches yearly, turf 40 inches, and game fields 45 inches respectively. According to Richard Tye, Water Manager far Park Management Division of the City of Albuquerque, the current turf water use is in the 35 inches range and uses a mix of grasses that include ryegrass, kentucky blue, and fescue. The ordinance is a recent change in the City of Albuquerque water policy and a positive step, but is it enough?

In Scottsdale, Arizona, for example, city policy does not allow for use of groundwater, potable water, or existing water rights for new golf course construction. Golf courses are responsible for obtaining their own water supply so that existing water use customers are not negatively affected. Similar to Arizona, New Mexico courses offer greens juxtaposed with high desert mountains and blue skies. With its mild climate and ample sunshine, the Land of Enchantment is touted as golfdom's big secret (New Mexico Business Journal, October 2000). The difference between Phoenix and Albuquerque is price. Greens fees for a round of golf in the Phoenix area can cost $250. Affordability will attract outside players and tourist dollars to New Mexico, according to the optimistic business community. What will the real costs and benefits be for New Mexico and Albuquerque residents?

Consensus Planning representatives are touting the project as a "model of water efficiency" by outlining 37 inches of water per acre foot/year for 135 acres of turf. They purport to explore native grasses that consider "impacts to playability." According to a study that compares turf water needs, conducted in 1998 and 1999 by New Mexico State University in Farmington, New Mexico, blue grama and grama/buffalo were considered unacceptable for turf purposes and cannot be cut or driven over when stressed. The study showed that cool season park bluegrass, tall fescue and perennial ryegrass were infected with a fungus and used 30 percent more water than warm season grasses. Cool season grasses required up to 43.5 inches/acre to irrigate.

If playability is given a priority, what is the likelihood of native grass being used?

What are implications of using fungicide to overall water quality, particularly over large parcels of land? The need for a new, privately owned golf course can also be questioned given the underuse of the existing Westside public golf facilities. In addition, Marty Sanchez Golf Links, a course north of Santa Fe, is an example of a championship game course unable to sustain itself financially. Taxpayers are now asked to absorb costs for its upkeep and maintenance.

Approval of a new golf course construction outlined in the Westland case is part of an ongoing debate. Whether it is golf versus the range of turf grass use for recreation, use of drinking water for golf courses, water conservation measures that impact playability or financial responsibility by private developers, these concerns add to the discussion. It should be noted that while there is no policy for new construction of golf courses, the City Council recently passed an ordinance that customers who want water in restaurants will have to request it in an effort to conserve water.

What is the price for residents of Albuquerque when Councilors approve a new golf course and set policy for glasses of water? This question is raised as yet another "water efficient golf course" is in the works.

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"In Alice in Wonderland, poor Alice was plagued by the problem of regulating her own size. One side of the caterpillar's mushroom made her grow, and the other made her shrink, and Alice was hard put to consume the right stimulus at the right rate to achieve the right size. If she erred on one side, she would swoop into hugeness; if on the other, she would instantly dwindle. Twentieth-century efforts at the management of nature bring Alice's dilemma to mind. The goal is to get humanity's role in nature back to the right size, neither too big or too small, neither too powerful nor too powerless. Like Alice, the manager finds it difficult to regulate the rate of change; a seemingly subtle move will have enormous repercussions; causing humans abruptly to become huge again; and a seemingly forceful and direct move will meet implacable resistance from nature, causing them to appear as creatures of great self-importance and little actual stature. Swinging from huge to tiny, dominant to dominated, humanity's place in nature changes from day to day, hour to hour."
--Patricia Nelson Limerick
The Legacy of Conquest
W.W. Norton & Company
1987, New York, New York



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