By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.