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Cost for effluent lands local golf course in the rough

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Sierra Sage faces skyrocketing water bills from City of Reno 

Last year Washoe’s Board of County Commissioners gave a $30,000 discount on effluent water charges to Cal-Mazz Golf Management to help the operator cover the skyrocketing cost of keeping the Sierra Sage Golf Course running. At the time, Commissioner Mike Clark said the decision was just kicking the can to the next year. 

“I think that in this time hopefully, we can put some pressure on Reno,” Commissioner Alexis Hill said during that same May 2023 meeting. “Hopefully, we can do a long-term agreement with Reno putting in their equal share.”

That hasn’t happened, and now it’s next year. 

Cal-Mazz, which operates the golf course through a contract with Washoe County, is facing the same challenge it has for the past six years: Effluent rates charged by the City of Reno are topping more than $200,000 a year. 

Mike Mazzaferri, owner of Cal-Mazz, said even with the county’s discount and a 10% cut in water usage, the course still spent $190,000 on effluent water in 2023.

“We hoped to negotiate a better deal with the City of Reno, and they didn’t come to the table,” Mazzaferri said. “We’re going to try and cut back more this year.” 

Mazzaferri said already this year the course superintendent has taken areas of the course not integral to golf play off of irrigation. Some of the practice areas used by the First Tee youth golf program and PGA Hope veterans golf program are no longer being watered. 

He said he is also hoping that hearing from community members will encourage the city to work with him and the county on reducing the rate. Mazzaferri recently sent an email to golf club members asking them to provide public comment at the May 8 Reno City Council meeting, urging city officials to renegotiate the effluent water contract with the county. 

“Many of you are aware that a 25-year-old City of Reno/Washoe County agreement is threatening the viability of Sierra Sage Golf Course’s ability to provide affordable golf, or worse, stay in business,” Mazzaferri wrote. “Sierra Sage is the ONLY golf course paying for reclaimed water.” 

He said without a reduction in effluent costs, the county will have to accept one of two options: end its management contract with Cal-Mazz or charge higher fees at the course. Mazzaferri said increasing fees will put the recreation resource out of reach for many juniors, older adults and golfing families who use the facility now.

Sierra Sage Golf hosts classes for youth.
Sierra Sage Golf hosts classes for youth. Image courtesy of Sierra Sage and used with permission.

County officials said if Cal-Mazz were to end the contract, a request for proposals would be launched to find a new management company.

City staff shared the email with Reno City Council members in a memo alerting them to the planned public comment. The memo also outlines what city staff said is the issue: Washoe County’s rate structure for effluent reuse water. 

It’s not that cut and dry.  

‘Caught in this city-county agreement from 1999’

“MAYORS PARK, A CITY OF RENO FACILITY, IS NOT PAYING FOR THE RECLAIMED WATER FROM THE STEAD PLANT, SO THERE’S THAT AS AN EQUITY ISSUE.”

Cal-Mazz has operated the county-owned Sierra Sage course since 2009 when it signed a management contract with Washoe County. Part of the deal was that Cal-Mazz would cover water costs, which the company agreed to. That was when the city was billing the county $40,000 a year for the effluent from the city-owned Reno-Stead Water Reclamation Facility to irrigate the course. 

Cal-Mazz expected the rate to be the same every year, as it had been since the agreement between the city and county was struck in 1999. But that wasn’t the case. 

City staff in 2017 realized they’d been billing the wrong rate since 2000. It was supposed to have shifted from the $40,000-a-year flat rate to an irrigation rate of 50% to 70% of the potable water rate. Since that discovery and subsequent billing adjustment, Cal-Mazz has been billed anywhere from $184,000 to more than $200,000 a year for water to irrigate the course and landscaping. 

The city is charging Cal-Mazz “the lowest rate possible per the agreement,” according to the memo, at 50% of the metered irrigation “off-peak” rate of $1.66 per 1,000 gallons of water.

Meanwhile, there’s no charge to parks and golf courses for effluent from the Washoe County-owned South Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility, which Mazzafarri said makes it hard to compete. Neither the private Arrowcreek golf course nor Wildcreek golf course, which both receive irrigation water from STMWRF, are charged for effluent.  

South Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility
South Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility

“This agreement that Silver Sage is beholden to puts Mazzaferri at a distinct competitive disadvantage in the marketplace,” said Don Vetter, speaking on behalf of Cal-Mazz. “Arrowcreek and Hidden Valley, both private courses, and public courses like Wolf Run, can spend money on course maintenance, player programs and facility improvements instead of paying for water.”

City of Reno’s John Flansberg and Trina Magoon said it’s not the city’s issue. 

“Washoe County made the decision not to charge customers (parks and golf courses) for effluent reuse water at the South Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility (STMWRF) by shifting those costs to the sewer user fee paid by the sewer utility customers,” the two wrote in the memo to Reno council members. “This decision was made because Washoe County has a surplus of effluent water and needs customers to use the water.”

Flansberg, the city’s infrastructure administrator, and Magoon, utility services director, said the City of Reno charges for effluent so it can construct and maintain reclamation facilities. 

“THIS DECISION WAS MADE BECAUSE WASHOE COUNTY HAS A SURPLUS OF EFFLUENT WATER AND NEEDS CUSTOMERS TO USE THE WATER.”

“Washoe County’s decisions around its rate structure and billing practices to the Sierra Sage Golf Course are not within the City of Reno’s control,” they wrote. “The City of Reno charges the agreed-upon rate to Washoe County. If the City of Reno were to reduce the rate charged to Washoe County, the City of Reno would be subsidizing Sierra Sage Golf Course users at the expense of the City of Reno sewer ratepayers.”

Vetter said he was bothered by the mention of “ratepayer subsidies.”

“Mayors Park, a City of Reno facility, is not paying for the reclaimed water from the Stead Plant, so there’s that as an equity issue,” Vetter said. 

Capacity and infrastructure

Why is effluent from one treatment facility given away for free while effluent from another incurs a bill? Part of the reason is capacity and infrastructure. 

The Washoe County-owned STMWRF is a zero-discharge facility, which means the reclaimed water isn’t put back into the Steamboat Ditch or Truckee River. Instead, the more than 6 million gallons of reclaimed water it can produce each day must be sent somewhere. 

Washoe County’s Director of Engineering Dwayne Smith said STMWRF water goes to parks, schools, recreation fields and street landscaping in the South Meadows area.

“Some of the parks are owned by the City of Reno, some are [homeowners association owned],” Smith said. “The school district, Washoe County as well as several HOAs use recycled water. Recycled water is also used for dust control and other construction activities.”

Washoe County uses wastewater fees to pay for the operation and expansion of the STMWRF and gives away the effluent for free. Smith said a comprehensive financial study of the county’s utilities in 2023 found that existing wastewater fees could be maintained and the county should maximize the use of recycled water and minimize the use of potable water for irrigation purposes.

Meanwhile, the City of Reno-owned Reno-Stead Water Reclamation Facility can produce about 4 million gallons of effluent per day. During the warmer months, some of the water is used for irrigation at the North Valleys Regional Park/Sports Complex, Mayor’s Park, The Lakes Apartments, O’Brien Middle School and Silver Sage. The rest goes into Swan Lake. 

Homeowners near Swan Lake have complained in recent years that effluent pumped into the lake is creating noxious odors in the area. Flooding has also been an issue.

According to the city’s website, alternatives to discharging the water into Swan Lake are being sought so that during wet years the risk of flooding is reduced. The city has been criticized in the past—and sued by Lemmon Valley residents—for mismanagement of Swan Lake water levels.  Washoe County has also spent more than $14 million since 2017 for flood response in Lemmon Valley to protect area homes. 

Vetter and Mazzaferri said that if flooding at Swan Lake is a concern, the Sierra Sage course can help by taking more water, but not at the cost it’s being billed by the city. This would reduce the gallons of effluent flowing back to Swan Lake, eliminate the need for the development of more planned wastewater infrastructure at American Flat, and, Vetter said, create greater passive aquifer recharge in the north valleys. 

Instead, the cost of effluent has led Sierra Sage to cut back its water usage, first in 2023 and again this year, “which means more water being pumped into Swan Lake,” Vetter said.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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