Two city advisory committees are divided over whether Tucson should give its five golf courses a big break on their reclaimed-water rates to cut into their budget deficits.
The Golf Operational Review Subcommittee wants the City Council to lower the rate golf courses pay for reclaimed water to what a Pima County-run golf course pays: almost nothing.
That will give a financial boost to the struggling city golf program, subcommittee members say. The program has run an accumulated deficit of $8.2 million since 2003 that has been covered by the city's general fund with money intended for public safety, street maintenance and parks, a city audit found.
But a city advisory group that handles water issues opposes lowering reclaimed-water rates, saying it would essentially replace one form of golf subsidy with another. The Citizens Water Advisory Committee says the proposal would transfer some of the burden of supporting city golf from general taxpayers to water ratepayers.
The council would have to decide who would make up the costs. "The difference would have to come from somewhere," either from other reclaimed water customers or from those using drinkable water, said Fernando Molina, a Tucson Water spokesman.
The water department offered no estimate of what it would cost to give golf courses a lower rate. But Councilwoman Regina Romero, a critic of the proposal, estimated it could cost city ratepayers or taxpayers nearly $1 million more yearly.
In an Aug. 1 memo, three members of the city golf subcommittee said the lower reclaimed-water rate would reduce the courses' water expenses from $1.072 million for the last fiscal year to about $81,973.
The golf subcommittee wants a rate of 14 cents per 100 cubic feet for the five city golf courses, the rate paid by the Crooked Tree golf course at the county's Arthur Pack Regional Park.
It's the lowest rate of any charged to the 18 municipal and private course customers of the Tucson Water system that use reclaimed water or less-treated sewage effluent instead of groundwater.
One hundred cubic feet is about 748 gallons, or about three days' worth of water consumption for the average Tucson household.
The majority of those 18 courses, including two of the city courses, pay $1.83 per 100 cubic feet.
"What we're seeking is the lowest fee charged by Tucson Water to the different golf courses throughout the community," said Jeff Farkas, the golf operations subcommittee chairman.
Water is one of a golf course's biggest costs, so any rate reduction would help the courses, said subcommittee member Chuck Cushman. But he acknowledged that if lowering water rates for city golf courses would raise residents' rates, there would be complaints. "That's a tough one," he said.
A question of subsidies
Arthur Pack's rate isn't a valid benchmark for the city courses, said Molina, the Tucson Water spokesman: It gets its effluent from the county for free and pays Tucson Water only for shipping it through the city's pipelines to the golf course.
Since the water advisory committee represents all Tucson Water ratepayers, the question is whether it should provide an extra subsidy for city golf courses, said Mark Taylor, the water advisory committee chair. "We thought the water rate is the wrong place to look for an additional subsidy."
Chuck Freitas, a water advisory committee member, said, "There's no reason for Tucson Water ratepayers to pay the expense of golf. They have too many golf courses, and they should take some of them and provide appropriate development for these lands, some kind of private or commercial development that would provide tax revenue for the city."
The golf subcommittee is considering other measures to trim the golf program deficit, but has rejected privatizing city golf courses. It has discussed but made no recommendations about closing, mothballing or reducing the size of courses.
The water rate recommendation will go before the city's Greens Committee Thursday and to the City Council on Oct. 23.
Rates paid by local golf courses vary widely.
The city's Silverbell golf course pays nothing for water, getting treated sewage effluent piped in from the county's Roger Road sewage plant. The free-effluent deal was struck in the 1970s.
Reid courses pay less
The other four city courses pay a nominal fee of $1.83 per 100 cubic feet. But the two Reid Park courses - Randolph North and Del Urich - actually pay much less because they get more than a 50 percent credit on their reclaimed-water bills. A 1979 agreement between Tucson and Pima County requires that the county provide them 740 acre-feet of reclaimed water annually from a nearby treatment plant.
Only Fred Enke and El Rio golf courses pay the full $1.83.
The rate picture is also mixed for private golf courses. Ventana Canyon, Starr Pass, La Paloma and Skyline get discounts of $1.53 per 100 cubic feet. In return, the courses gave up rights to pump groundwater or use well water, among other benefits, the city's Molina said.
Eight other private courses, including two at Dove Mountain, the Tucson Country Club and Arizona National, pay $1.83, as does the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base course.
Even the $1.83 rate doesn't cover all the city's cost of treating conventional sewage effluent to produce the reclaimed water. Tucson Water subsidizes their rates to the tune of $1.2 million a year to encourage them not to pump from the region's limited groundwater supply to irrigate fairways and greens.
One question that will go before the council is whether the city golf courses provide enough economic benefits to justify lowering their rates.
Farkas, the golf operations subcommittee chairman, cited a 2006 Arizona State University study - done before the recession began - that showed golf pumps $3.437 billion into the state's economy, compared with $696 million in operating expenses for 338 Arizona courses.
Its popularity has dipped, but "golf is a very germane, very relevant commodity to the city," Farkas said. "We are seeking to keep golf functional and viable in the city."
Water advisory committee member Mark Day agrees the city needs to consider golf's benefits for recreation, tourism and jobs. But if such benefits justify more city support of golf, the money should come from the general fund, he said: "Don't lay it on the water utility, which is trying to make money from water sales."
where the water goes
Golf courses are by far the biggest single user of the city's reclaimed water. About 15,670 acre-feet were distributed in 2011 by Tucson Water to about 900 customers.
The system's 18 golf course customers bought 54 percent of the water, compared to 16 percent each for parks and for municipal water providers, 8 percent for schools, 3 percent for parks with lakes, 3 percent for residential uses and 1 percent each for farming and commercial uses.
Tucson's five city golf courses used about 10 percent of the total reclaimed water supply.
Source: Tucson Water
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.