Sept. 29, 2004 - The near tripling of costs facing Rancho Vistoso golf courses as they switch from ground water to effluent to water their courses next summer could have a major effect not only on the price of playing but on plans for the construction of future courses.

Beginning in June, the cost of the reclaimed water to be used on Vistoso's golf courses will climb from $194 an acre foot (an acre foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough to fill an acre to a depth of one foot) to about $647 an acre foot with the arrival of treated effluent from Pima County's Roger Road treatment plant.

The acre-foot price is equal to an increase from about 60 cents per 1,000 gallons to $1.98 per thousand gallons.

The dramatic increase is a result of an agreement stemming back to 1996 when Oro Valley purchased Rancho Vistoso's water company. Under the agreement, potable water rates were subsidized by the town until the day when effluent could be delivered to the development's golf courses. That day is scheduled to arrive in June.

For the Golf Club at Vistoso, the increase will add between $300,000 and $500,000 annually for the cost of the effluent, the addition of a new pumping station and maintenance costs, including further treatment of the effluent, said Mark Oswald, manager of the Golf Club at Vistoso.

"We obviously need to increase rates to cover costs, but there's only so much you can do. It's a question of supply and demand and when there's more supply than demand in terms of golf courses, it's hard to raise your prices.

"Obviously it's going to affect our profitability on the course," Oswald said. "It's been very hard to make a profit since the 9/11 incident in 2001 and golfing has been down since in Tucson and across the country."

As an alternative, the club plans to begin offering memberships at a facility that has always operated on a strictly daily fee basis.

The goal is to sell 100 memberships that will generate at least $500,000 a year "just to stay where we're at right now," Oswald said.

Three classes of membership are planned. The first, called Eagle, is a daily pass for a single person or family and covers all associated costs, including cart and practice fees. The cost for a family would be $6,500 a year and $5,000 for a couple. A five-day pass, called a Birdie membership, offers play Sunday through Thursday with all fees included at $4,000 for a single person and $5,500 for a family. A corporate membership allowing up to four people to play would cost $12,500 a year.

Between 35 and 50 percent of the increased costs would be recouped through the memberships, Oswald said.

The memberships are aimed at filling empty tee times, he said. "They will provide some upfront income, but at the same time it's taking away from the public time we sell and the rate you get per round for the public time is much more than you would get on a membership round. We'll limit the memberships to 100 because more than that, and we'd have to restrict outside play. We want to remain a primarily public facility."

Some courses face tougher times than others.

At Sun City Vistoso's golf course, a private club in a retirement community, as an example, residents living on basically fixed incomes make it difficult for managers to raise fees in order to make up the costs. Sun City's problem is exaggerated because the golf course, one of the oldest, wasn't constructed with the idea of eventually switching to effluent as the town's newer courses were. Now it finds itself limited to how much it can raise fees. It is examining borrowing opportunities with the idea of assessments as an option if all else fails, Scott Devereuax, the community's general manager, told the EXPLORER in July.

Another cost factor of concern to golf course managers has been the quality and consistency of effluent being delivered, said Dick Maes, Vistoso Partners general manager and Terry Todd, director of golf operations at the Stone Canyon course in Rancho Vistoso.

At some courses, such as Heritage Highlands and the Gallery at Dove Mountain in Marana, problems have arisen as a result of saline, algae and other products in the effluent that have plugged up lines, forcing workers to pull out all their sprinkler heads and flush the lines, measures that raise a course's water bill even more.

Although cleansed of major pollutants, effluent contains enough trace amounts of saline, bacteria and heavy metals such as zinc and cadmium to make it undrinkable.

Oro Valley acknowledges that, because of the difference in quality between potable water and effluent, and the fact that the courses will be using more water to leech their greens, there should be a lower price for the effluent, said Shirley Seng, the town's water utility administrator. Course managers assert they'll be using as much as 30 percent more water, while town water officials estimate it may be as much as 20 percent.

How much of a discount will be provided when the council reviews rates in the spring will be based on recommendations from the town's Water Utilities Commission. Water Utility Director Alan Forrest estimated it would likely be in the 10 percent range.

Questions also have been raised as to why Oro Valley's effluent costs are nearly double those in Phoenix and surrounding areas.

Forrest explained it's because the effluent is being delivered over a longer distance from the treatment plant to Tucson Water and then back, uphill to a greater extent than in Maricopa County where there are satellite treatment centers closer to the delivery points.

Vistoso Partners' Maes also raised concerns about the cost of new meters for the golf courses.

Seng said no new meters will be required with the arrival of effluent since the courses can be fed effluent or potable water through the same distribution system.

Building a new course would be a different matter, Seng said. An eight-inch meter for a new course, which Maes said would be the norm, would cost $18,531 per acre of turf, or about $1 million for a golf course covering 54 acres.

At that price, "it just wouldn't make sense for us to build another golf course," Maes said. "And I don't know if we could build a course just because of the ongoing maintenance costs."

Both Seng and Forrest noted, however, that while the Vistoso courses were being subsizided for the potable water they were using until effluent was available, the non-Vistoso courses were paying the normal potable water rate and have remained solvent despite doing so.

"They (Vistoso Partners) agreed they would pay the prevailing water rate back in the 1996 agreement and we're not going to change it now," Seng said. The current effluent rate was adopted by the Oro Valley Town Council in 2002.

And as far as the $1 million Vistoso Partners would have to pay for a meter on a new golf course, "We feel that's a fair fee for the services we provide," Seng said. The meter charge was approved by the council in 2000.

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