Longtime area water watchers like Joe Bernier claim the dramatic drop in subterranean water levels can be traced to one major cause: water use by local golf courses.

"We started seeing big drops about the time those courses started pumping," Bernier says. "Things had been more or less stable before that. The drop just accelerated immensely."
Demand for groundwater by golf courses in the area is staggering. In 1992, the last year for which groundwater numbers are readily available, courses used 700 million gallons of water from the basin. That's more than seven times the amount of water taken from the next largest source, the Central Arizona Project. And Bernier says golf-course pumping is a big part of the reason residents and newcomers are being forced to dig deeper and deeper wells under their homes.

In fact, Bernier says the courses' demands for water have been so overwhelming that a "cone" has started to develop in the basin. Resembling an inverted traffic pylon hundreds of feet deep, the cone is a spot inside the sediment basin where water has been withdrawn so rapidly that no more has had time to seep in its place. Residents of this area are especially worried that one day soon they'll turn on their taps and nothing will happen.

Local courses have worked with the City of Scottsdale and the Arizona Department of Water Resources to find new sources of water and stop the rapid depletion of the basin--with some progress. One step has been to gradually increase the use of CAP water as pipes and hookups to the canal have become available. Unfortunately, even as some area courses have hooked into the CAP, the dramatic water drop in the basin has continued. No one knows whether the area groundwater will last long enough to get all the nearby golf courses onto CAP water.

Valley golf courses have also begun to use effluent--wastewater taken from city sewer lines and treated to the standards necessary for agricultural or industrial use--for irrigation.

Municipalities all over Arizona support the use of effluent on golf courses, and many golf-course developers claim that effluent from homes surrounding their courses will eventually be sufficient to keep their golf grass green.

Unfortunately, some basic math shows that effluent is unlikely to be the silver bullet that can kill the Carefree-Cave Creek water problem.

The foothills surrounding the two towns are expected to have 20 golf courses at the turn of the century. Each one will use, according to state water guidelines, about 450,000 gallons of water per day. In order to support all those courses, it will be necessary to collect nine million gallons of effluent per day, all year round. The population necessary to keep the courses watered would, therefore, be somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000.

That is more than twice the number of people the cities' own long-range plans show living there once they are fully built out--in 30 years. Those people would all need to live in the area east of Cave Creek Road and north of the CAP canal. Such population density is not likely to be achieved, according to local planners. For a good reason.

Too much land in that area has already been set aside for golf courses. Planners say there won't be enough room to put all the houses needed to shelter all the people whose effluent would be needed, just to water golf courses already on the planning books.

The antigolf lobby would contain fewer environmentalists if all golf-course architects were as sensitive as those in Scotland. In the ancestral home of golf, the aim has always been to design courses that use the existing contours of the land, rather than move thousands of tons of earth, as American designers do.

Currently, America's golf-course architects, who set the standard for course design around the world, are divided generally into two camps. On one side are traditional, "lay of the land" architects, who like gentle contours and designs that offer players strategic choices. At the other end are the modernists, or "constructionists," who sculpt the earth dramatically to create courses that exact harsh penalties for missing the target.

Led by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, the modernists reigned during the 1980s, when more golf courses were built in America than in any decade since the 1920s. Armed with modern construction techniques, they turned out one stunning creation after another--courses that seem chiseled out of the land. They moved earth on a massive scale, creating artificial lakes, enormous hazards and conical mounds. Many of these courses were built to have an immediate visual impact, so they could be used to sell real estate. That may explain why such striking yet artificial course layouts became so common in Arizona, where courses seem to be built less to be played upon than to be lived near.

Incidentally, the new wave of design not only altered the landscape, it altered the game. Many of the strategic decisions that came into play on older courses--choices between direct but risky routes to the green or safer, more conservative approaches--went by the wayside. Strategy golf was replaced by target golf, played to greens ringed by sand and water, as exemplified by the "stadium" courses on the PGA Tour. This trend clearly influenced Jack Nicklaus, whose courses show the yawning hazards and sharp edges that demand aerial accuracy from the golfer--the strength of Nicklaus' own game. His hyper-pricey, perfectly manicured courses have also proved expensive to maintain because of their steep grades.

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