WatchSonoma Watch

Santa Rosa to pay for Oakmont golf club’s new water hazard

Dick Borsch of Agua Caliente practices his swing on the Oakmont Golf Club driving range Friday. Under a city proposal, a pond will be built in the middle of the driving range. (JOHN BURGESS / PD)


Soon there will be no shame in hitting a golf ball into the water at the Oakmont Golf Club.

In fact, that’ll be part of the fun.

The golf club at the heart of the eastern Santa Rosa retirement community is planning to construct a new 2.5-acre lake in the middle of its driving range as part of a major water conservation project.

The new 9-foot-deep lake, modern irrigation system and installation of drought-tolerant turf are expected to reduce the water demand of the semiprivate club’s two 18-hole courses by a third — 40 million gallons per year.

But it will be the city’s ratepayers, not the golfers, who will be picking up the $2.8 million tab for the project.

Under an agreement approved by the Board of Public Utilities on Thursday, the city would fund the conservation measures in exchange for the right to suspend operations of the aging Oakmont treatment plant, which has provided the course with a steady flow of recycled water for summer irrigation for more than 50 years.

City and golf course officials praised the deal as a responsible, collaborative solution to a complex problem with a long history.

“We’re all exceptionally proud of this outcome because we solved the problem in an environmentally responsible way as stewards of the land,” said Barbara Spangler, former president of the Oakmont Golf Club.

The agreement must still be approved by the City Council, but few see trouble ahead for a deal being praised as smart for golfers, Oakmont residents and ratepayers.

In essence, the city is buying its way out of a 1963 agreement it made with Fairfield Homes, the original developer of Oakmont. The contract called for the developer to build a treatment plant and turn it over to the city, which agreed to operate it.

In exchange, the city agreed to provide millions of gallons of free treated wastewater for summer irrigation. The courses are owned by members but are also open to the public.

Over time, the costs of operating the aging treatment plant — including salaries, electricity and chemicals — have soared. It costs the city $7.25 to treat a thousand gallons of wastewater at the Oakmont plant, six times the cost to treat water at the massive Laguna treatment plant, where Oakmont’s wastewater is piped during the winter.

In addition, the plant will need about $1 million in upgrades over the next decade, a cost the city is under significant pressure to avoid.

But simply abandoning the plant wasn’t an option, said David Guhin, deputy director of utility operations. The contract is ambiguous on the issue of the city’s long-term water supply obligations to Oakmont, he said.

“There is not a termination date in the contract. That’s the issue,” Guhin said.

Aware it needed a new deal, the city opened discussions in 2010 with representatives of the club and Oakmont Village Association, which represents the more than 4,500 residents in the over-55 community.

Both took the position that the city was obligated to find a solution that was “cost neutral” to the course and homeowners, who worried about what a brown golf course would do to property values.

“There is an argument that says the city is on the hook for it,” Spangler said.

But all sides committed not to let the process get adversarial or devolve into “legal wrangling,” instead staying focused on a solution, she said.

Over the course of 28 meetings, the negotiating team discussed a range of options, including running the plant more efficiently, building more storage and drilling irrigation wells. But it became clear that the best solution was to help the golf course need less water.

The courses were built in the ’60s and ’70s, and were designed to soak up as much recycled water as possible, meaning there is irrigated turf even in out-of-bounds areas, Guhin said.

“We realized that if we could eliminate that water need, and find a way to operate the golf course more efficiently, we would solve the problem in a much more environmentally friendly way,” Guhin told the board.

Overall, 32.5 acres of the nearly 180 acres of irrigated turf would be removed and replanted with drought-resistant varieties. New irrigation lines will be installed, as will more efficient sprinkler heads and control equipment.

The lake would take up a large portion of the existing driving range. The location was chosen mostly because of environmental concern about expanding existing ponds and the impacts that might have on resident species, included red-legged frogs, bats and raptors, Spangler said.

Golfers will hit balls designed to float and they will flow into a catch basin for retrieval and reuse, she said.

“We think it’s going to be a beautiful water feature,” she said.

The agreement is for three years. The city gives the club the $2.8 million now, plus a hookup allowing the course to use drinking water during the transition. The city can temporarily mothball the treatment plant beginning in May.

“By the end of the third year we shut the valve and they are totally cut off,” Guhin said.

The newly self-sufficient course will use less water and should be able to survive on water it gets from existing wells and natural drainage. The city will avoid more than $450,000 in costs per year, allowing the city to break even on its investment within six years, Guhin said.

What happens to the mothballed plant after three years is unclear. A clause in the 1963 contract calls for the six-acre site to revert to the developer if operations at the plant are discontinued. That’s why the city is calling the suspension of operations temporary.

This point generated the only criticism at Thursday’s meeting. Board member Michael Carney was the only one to vote against the settlement because he said the 1963 agreement was a “bad contract” for not more clearly outlining “what would happen in the end.”

He said he couldn’t support the deal because it didn’t have any information about the plans or costs involved for the plant after the three years.

But the city wanted to move forward with the water conservation plan now, separate from the closure issue, simply to allow it to save money sooner.

“Our number-one goal in all of this has been to save the city money,” Guhin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

8 Responses to “Santa Rosa to pay for Oakmont golf club’s new water hazard”

  1. Teresa says:

    I have an idea for saving money on water for this project.


  2. good one says:

    The city is lucky that they came to any agreement. The folks in Oakmont do not own the golf course. The Oakmont Homeowners Association does not have anything to do with the golf course.
    The City is obligated under a contract that is almost 50 years old to supply somekind of water to the golf course. This seems to be much more reasonable a solution vs. lawsuits that would go on for years with a cost that would be more than funding the water feature.

  3. John Bly says:

    The City is stuck with their agreement to furnish water. Now that the treatment costs too much, they have to fulfill their contract. For many years, we all have enjoyed what Oakmont was built for-additional property taxes, increased businesses to serve the homeowners, and a golf course that many of us have enjoyed for healthy recreation. It is not as if we Santa Rosa citizens got nothing out of the original deal. I say this is a creative fix to an unforeseen problem and we should applaud the “think outside the box” engineers that came up with it.

  4. Steve Klausner says:

    And floating golf balls. Has anyone ever heard of such nonsense?

  5. Steveguy says:

    It’s too bad the old treatment plant costs too much to run. I would prefer that they would use local recycled water, but if it costs so much to do that then piping it to the Laguna plant seems the best option. Though I do cringe a bit about pumping more groundwater.

    As for the 2.5 Million for conservation measures ? That helps some of the ” cringe factor” that I have. Over time it will help protect the aquifer from being over-tapped. Then there are the legal issues that seem to not have a definition of what happens when the treatment plant shut. Who knew back then that the Water and Sewer Agencies would be rife with overpaid administrators. Oakmont does lose ” free” expensive recycled water. The arrangement was a win-win back in the day.

    Therefore (pun intended) Oakmont planted water using plants in order to use the summer water from the treatment plant. They used recycled water in good faith and now that it has become too expensive for the ‘free’ water they are stuck with a system that is designed to be a water user, not saver. That is why the new planting and irrigation needs to happen.

    It is a city-caused reversal of a waste water system loss, and the burden of changing from water using to water conserving designs. My 2 cents.

    ( funny how the word ‘water’ is in the reCaptcha thing)

  6. Steve Klausner says:

    Oakmont has a special tax arrangement with the City of Santa Rosa, I’m not sure what it is called. Property taxes collected in Oakmont stay in Oakmont and do not go into to the do not go into the city’s general fund. Are city taxpayers going to be subsidizing Oakmont golfers?

    There are a lot of new deep wells getting drilled in this area. The county is trying to get a handle on monitoring the water table, sounds like Santa Rosa is going to become a big player.

    When they talk about natural runoff filling their pond, do they mean diversion from Santa Rosa Creek?

    And where will Oakmont waste water end up? Pumped to the geysers. At some point nothing makes sense anymore.

  7. Bailout says:

    Can anyone say mini bailout?

    “homeowners, who worried about what a brown golf course would do to property values.” So this is a problem for tax payers to resolve, huh?

    The homeowner are part of a HOA that can vote in a special assessment.

    “By the end of the third year we shut the valve and they are totally cut off,” Why don’t shut it off now and so the city saves the tax payers 2.8 million plus $450,000 per year on top of it? sighs!

  8. "City’s ratepayers picking up the $2.8 million tab for the project". says:

    What does this mean? People of Santa Rosa can Golf here for free or even at a discount?

    I’m wondering does this Constitute a “lack of Representation” of the community at large. Could have this money go to a more worthy cause?

    I would like to hear a reasonable explanation why the tax payer need to pick up the tab?