Submitted by John Moutes
Coronado is taking steps to help ensure the long-term viability of one of our most treasured assets — the municipal golf course. Opened in 1957, it is considered as one of the best public golf courses in the nation. Golfers queue up daily at 5:00 am at the starter’s window for an opportunity to book a tee time. Golfers of all skills and ages appreciate the course’s challenges, walk-ability, excellent condition and unrivaled scenery. 85,000-90,000 rounds are played annually — a utilization that is the envy of many other golf course owner/operators. Despite this heavy play, the City maintains the course in top condition year-round by a team of talented and dedicated workers who have the support of the City’s management and elected officials. The City operates the golf course as an enterprise operation meaning that its sustaining financial support comes from the golfers and other patrons who utilize the course, the pro shop and driving range operated by head pro Brian Smock, and the Feast & Fareway restaurant.
A recent article (ref: Luan Troxel) in the Eagle & Journal opined on several aspects of Coronado’s Golf Course Modernization Project (GCMP). The comments herein expand on several of the issues she raised.
SEWAGE is more commonly known today in technical circles as “wastewater.” Reuse of wastewater is referred to as “recycled water” and has been practiced in various parts of the world going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Such reuse is a practice that continues to be refined to this day through advances in technology, evolving regulations to protect the public, and actual operational experience. In San Diego County, the owner/operator of the Santee Lakes project (Padre Dam Municipal Water District) has provided recycled water for boating, fishing and landscape irrigation since the 1960s. Some of its recycled water is used downstream by the Carlton Oaks golf course. There are many other ongoing examples of the safe and successful use of recycled water in San Diego County, elsewhere in California, and across the USA.
The proposed Coronado Satellite Water Recycling Facility (a component of the GCMP) will be operated in compliance with the state of California’s Water Recycling Criteria (Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations). In short, this means the recycled water will be safe for surface irrigation at the golf course. The water will not be used for swimming, but it will nevertheless be safe for “unrestricted body contact.”
CAPITAL COST. In the wake of the recent drought, dwindling imported water supplies from the State Water Project and the Colorado River, and double-digit water rate increases, the Council authorized a study in 2010 to investigate using recycled water at the golf course. The study (ref: RBF Consulting, 2011), presented three recycled water treatment options whose initial capital costs ranged from $12.3 to $21.0 million. A fourth option (purchasing recycled water from the Otay Water District) was eliminated during alternatives analysis due to lack of overall feasibility. Of note, the capital costs in the RBF study did not include several key elements of the subsequent GCMP. More on this follows.
In 2017, Coronado engaged a consultant (ref: Brezack & Assoc.) to prepare a feasibility study for the GCMP. Some of the project’s boundary conditions had changed from that studied previously by RBF. For example, the salinity of the City’s wastewater had increased due, in part, to seawater infiltrating some of the sewers along the coast. Thus, the project studied by Brezack concluded an additional treatment process (reverse osmosis/RO) would be necessary to reduce some of the salts that could otherwise harm the greens and certain vegetation in the City’s parks and medians.
Brezack recommended a $28.2 million GCMP comprised of a membrane bioreactor treatment plant (MBR) costing $16.0 million, plus three additional elements that were not part of RBF’s 2011 study scope — side stream RO @ $1.6 million, a renovation of the golf course irrigation system @ $6.5 million, and a new turf care facility @ $4.1 million.
The two studies evaluated in detail a total of six treatment alternatives. Based on Brezack’s findings, the City staff recommended to Council the MBR treatment technology followed by side stream RO. Council concurred. Both processes are mature in their respective technical development and are proven treatments for recycled water.
The MBR evaluated by RBF in 2011 (capital cost $12.3 million) compared favorably with the same process recommended by Brezack in 2018 with allowance for a 3.5%/year capital cost increase over the intervening years — not unreasonable.
The proposed golf course irrigation system renovation represents a much needed modernization of the original 1957 irrigation system. The existing turf care facility (i.e., maintenance building) on Glorietta Blvd has outlived its useful lifetime and has experienced a number of flooding events. It will be moved to a less prominent location on the golf course which should be welcome news to the neighbors on Glorietta Blvd.
PURCHASED WATER COST. The City’s cost of water from Cal-Am has risen from $1,378/acre-ft in 2009/2010 to $3,242/acre-ft in 2018/2019 — a compounded annual increase of 10%! [Note: An acre-ft of water is approximately 326,000 gallons.] Given this rate of increase and other factors, the City could have been viewed as derelict in its responsibilities had it not proactively decided to study alternatives for addressing the cost-effectiveness and reliability of water supplied to its golf course, parks, Orange Ave. median and green spaces.
Water rationing in California is not just a future possibility. It was part of our recent history when Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency on January 17, 2014. During the 4 fiscal years following the drought declaration, the City reduced its golf course water purchases by an average of 23 million gallons per year (a reduction of 20.4% compared with the 3 years that preceded the drought declaration. The Governor declared an end of the state of emergency on April 7, 2017.
Should a drought state of emergency be declared in the future, green spaces (including the golf course and all City-owned landscaped areas) would again be at the top of the list for water cutbacks. The GCMP represents a key element of the City’s risk management strategy that will enable the City to better deal with future drought conditions. Droughts cannot be predicted nor can they be dealt with successfully without years of advance risk management planning.
Over the last 3 years, the City has taken additional steps to reduce its water use at the golf course by curtailing irrigation and fallowing 22 acres along the course’s perimeter and within some wooded areas. This means that 17% of the golf course’s total of 130 acres now receives minimal or no applied irrigation other than when it rains. This has resulted in an estimated decrease of 10 million gallons per year of water purchased from Cal-Am.
The City’s financial model for the GCMP forecasts that the cost of purchased water from Cal-Am will exceed the cost of recycled water (on an annual basis) by year 19 of the project. Thereafter, the cost of Cal-Am water will exceed the cost of recycled water annually by an increasing margin. The model is based on an assumed 5% annual inflation of the cost of water purchased from Cal-Am. However, if the model were based on the actual experience of the last 8 years where the City’s cost of water from Cal-Am increased at a compounded annual rate of 10%, the break-even year would move forward to year 9. Municipal financial plans, however, are not based on “rosey” assumptions but are more conservative to protect the constituent ratepayers.
PLANT OPERATIONS. Recycled water treatment plants have been successfully operated for decades in California. In many instances, the plants are operated and maintained by the owner — be it a municipality, special district or private entity. The city of Coronado makes no representation that it currently possesses the requisite experience and personal to operate a recycled water treatment plant. Over the next 18 months, should the project move forward, the City will determine how the treatment plant can be best operated and maintained. A private operations contractor possessing the necessary experience and expertise is one such option versus municipal operations.
SUMMARY. The proposed GCMP is an integrated program of projects planned by the City with the input of outside experts. The program goes well beyond simply applying “gray water” to the golf course — a practice that would not be allowed by the state of California. The overall project will include a front-end investment by the City for a modern water recycling plant that will be paid over time by golf course revenues. The project will go a long way to ensuring the City is able to drought-proof one of its premier assets for the benefit of the greater community for decades to come. The Council voted earlier this year to raise the cost of a round of golf as a first step toward the ultimate retirement of the debt should it authorize the project’s construction. Future hikes in green fees will be necessary.
By way of disclosure, the writer is a golfer, a volunteer member of the City’s Golf Course Advisory Committee, and a retired Professional Engineer with years of experience in California with recycled water treatment plants. He is not now nor has ever been affiliated with the City’s outside consultants for the GCMP.