Meadow Lakes GC
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Meadow Lakes GC: Civic Chip-In From an Unplayable Environmental and Financial Lie

by Douglas PageŠ1998

It's not so much that the tiny central Oregon town of Prineville has a municipal golf course, although few hamlets of less than 7,000 people do. After all, Prineville sits on the tee box of the Great Basin, the largest sand trap in North America - a desert stretching from the middle of Oregon to the Mexican border and beyond, a wasteland known to the locals as the Great Sandy Desert. Los Angeles gets more rain than this part of Oregon. What's unlikely about the arid community of Prineville is that its golf course has more water hazards than a nautical theme park. Meadow Lakes Golf Course doubles as Prineville's wastewater treatment plant.

Meadow Lakes is inlayed with 10 evaporation ponds, surface drainage collectors and irrigation pools designed to treat community wastewater before it finds its way into the local river. "You can potentially find water on every hole," says Prineville city manager Henry Hartley, with just a hint of mischief in his voice. Hartley is responsible for the idea of upgrading the city's archaic wastewater treatment facility by converting it into a golf course - a civic chip-in from a seemingly unplayable environmental and financial lie.

It started a few years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed its teeth to the State of Oregon, threatening to cut off federal money unless Oregon began enforcing the Clean Water Act, meaning the state had to clean up 30 of its 50 rivers. Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency responsible for protecting the rivers, in turn began nipping at certain municipalities. The DEQ focused on 260 river segments representing 7,000 miles of Oregon's 114,000 mile vascular river system. One of the segments was the portion of the Crooked River flowing through Prineville.

This tiny timber town sitting almost exactly at the geographic center of Oregon, 35 miles northeast of Bend and 18 miles from the nearest freeway, was guilty of dumping inadequately treated wastewater into the river. Their antiquated wastewater treatment lagoon was operating over capacity, discharging toxic waste including pesticides, organic solids and nitrates. Nitrates, originating in fertilizers and animal and human waste, can be harmful to humans and livestock once it leeches into drinking water supplies. Groundwater reconnaissance surveys found high nitrate levels in many of Prineville's 20 wells. One gallon of contaminate can pollute nearly 300 million gallons of water.

Prineville, a village with 6,230 mostly blue-collar citizens, no local tv station and rent that averages $322 a month was suddenly faced with fines up to $25,000 per day if it did not find a way to treat and dispose of about a million gallons of wastewater a day - at a cost of several million dollars. The EPA suggested treating the wastewater by spraying it over a to-be-created 400 acre alfalfa field. City manager Hartley had another idea. "Why don't we build a golf course," he remembers wondering aloud.

The state made a nose-noise suggesting disgust, but the EPA was intrigued by the idea that a golf course, requiring only 150 acres, would cost about $100,000 less than the alfalfa field. Looking at Hartley over their glasses the EPA consented, then seeded the project with about one-fourth of the $9.5 million needed to purchase the land, engineer and construct a new sediment lagoon, contour the excavated soil into the shape of a golf course and build a clubhouse. Portions of the remaining money came from municipal bonds, a state loan and free drops from Housing and Urban Development and the Oregon Economic Development Department sewer improvement fund.

Hartley says the smartest thing the city did then was "hire good professionals and stay out of their way".

A Bend, Oregon, engineering firm found a way to clean the wastewater and distribute it over the golf course, preventing effluent from seeping into the river. Another firm designed an underground drainage system to intercept the flow of uncontaminated water rising with the water table and divert it to the river. Thus, effluent sprayed the golf course does not mix with the water table, nor does any 'outside' water penetrate the system to leave evaporated salts on the surface. The wastewater that reaches Meadow Lakes stays at Meadow Lakes. The water's only way out is through evaporation. Each acre of pond surface evaporates a million gallons of water annually. With 16 acre-feet of water exposed, Meadow Lakes looks more like a map of Minnesota than a golf course. There are suggestions the pro shop should rent life rafts instead of golf carts.

Architect Bill Robinson designed Meadow Lakes to drain entirely by surface runoff. Every fairway is sloped just enough to drain into one of the 10 evaporation ponds, all of which have impermeable linings. Because of the aqueous nature of Meadow Lakes, grass specialist Bill Meier recommended moisture-tolerant fescues, bluegrass and ryes rather than drought-tolerant breeds, opposite what might be expected in a region with as little as 10 to 12 inches of rain per year.

The project produced Meadow Lakes, a green par 72 layout on the edge of a desert playing 6,731 yards from the back tees. The Crooked River runs through it. Green fees are $29 on weekends and $18 weekdays, revenues that directly offset the costs of operating the water treatment plant. "The way we're budgeting right now," said Hartley, "the golf course will pay off the $2.5 million lease-purchase of the land in seven years."

The unique course averages close to 25,000 rounds of golf annually, losing only about two weeks a year to bad weather. "I don't know of another golf course built from the ground up as a wastewater treatment facility," says Hartley. "There are a lot of courses in Central Oregon that don't have much water. If you get off the fairway you're in rocks or sage or trees. You can spend a lot of time looking for your ball. Because of all our water, Meadow Lakes plays fairly quickly. You know right away your ball is lost."

They may lose a lot of golf balls, but they found something else. The familiar 'plunk' of another ball plopping in the water is the Crooked River saying "Thanks".


Versions of this article appeared in Golf Course Management (June, 1998) and Public Management (December, 1997)   

Comments? Questions? Assignments? douglaspage@earthlink.net
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