University of New Mexico North Course: Doubling use in the desert

Water that keeps its campus buildings cool now also helps keep the University of New Mexico’s historic golf course quenched.


University of New Mexico North Course
The University of New Mexico North Course, pictured during Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta, is open year-round. Photo courtesy of Lucy Castaneda

In a location that logs a mere 8 inches of annual rainfall, an expanse of green, manicured grass is a rare sight. Yet for 75 years, the University of New Mexico’s North Course in Albuquerque has been just such a jewel, and has also shined as a stage for golf. In 1947, the course hosted the city’s first professional tournament, and three years later, a Wake Forest University golfer named Arnold Palmer played the William H. Tucker design in the 1950 NCAA Championships.

The property notched a new point of pride in April, when a $500,000 water conservation initiative born of a collaboration between the university, surrounding neighborhood, county and state came to fruition. The project gives water used in cooling campus buildings a second life as North Course irrigation — an upgrade to its former fate as sewer-bound following a single use. The arrangement is projected to save the university from pumping 14 million gallons of well water per year.

While that stat is impressive, the impetus behind the achievement shows a community with a similarly impressive fondness for its verdant oasis. “It’s never been looked at as only a golf course,” says Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, who helped facilitate the project. “People from throughout Bernalillo County come to use the space for walking, jogging, family outings. When we started pitching this, we heard lots of stories like, ‘I went there as a kid,’ or ‘I caddied there as a kid.’ The UNM North Course has really deep roots, and people really value it.”

Given such history, when the UNM Board of Regents was contemplating developing the land as a retirement community about a decade ago, Albuquerque residents rallied. “It generated a recognition in the community as a whole about how important that open space is,” says Hart Stebbins. The prospect of the recreational area disappearing sparked action, and in 2012, the county partnered with the university to preserve the public, nine-hole North Course (originally built as a 27-hole layout) as an urban open space. Through the agreement, $1.5 million of county funds went to replacing the course’s outdated irrigation system, restoring vegetation, and improving the 2-mile trail around its perimeter. The new irrigation system resulted in water savings of 20 to 25 million gallons per year.

Later on, an engineer with the university’s utilities department proposed that water discarded by the UNM Lomas chiller plant (which pipes chilled water to campus buildings to keep them cool) could be redirected to the North Course’s irrigation pond to supplement its well water supply. The county pursued financing for the infrastructure, state legislators committed funds, and the project broke ground in January 2016.

The water swap is a noteworthy stride in terms of sustainability, not only because it salvages otherwise scrapped water, but because it reduces the amount of potable water applied to the golf course. “Irrigation is a consumptive use of water — we don’t get that water back,” says Katherine Yuhas, water resources division manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, who notes that in Albuquerque’s desert climate, with the aquifer hundreds of feet down, irrigation that doesn’t go into the plants simply evaporates from the soil. (Non-consumptive uses of water — such as washing clothes or flushing a toilet — pass water on to a treatment plant, allowing for reuse.) “Anything we can do to maintain vegetation without having to use our drinking water is a great tool for resilience for the future,” Yuhas says.

Core to the North Course’s new irrigation setup is “blowdown,” which is water pulled from cooling equipment to remove mineral buildup caused by the cooling process. A conductivity meter at the Lomas plant monitors the content of the blowdown, and if it’s suitable for irrigation, it’s sent through 4,700 feet of underground pipe to the North Course pond, where it’s diluted with well water before hitting the turf.

For superintendent Lucy Castaneda, a 17-year GCSAA member who played golf for UNM and has been subcontracted to oversee the North Course for the past 10 years, the introduction of a new water source has involved critical considerations as a turf manager. “Water isn’t always just water when it comes to growing grass,” says Castaneda, emphasizing the need to have any recycled water tested beforehand to ensure the well-being of the turf and the irrigation system and thus avoid potentially costly damage down the road.

And while welcoming all of Albuquerque (and their canine companions) out to enjoy the property can present some course maintenance challenges (signage along the trail aims to curb dogs from getting on the course itself), the payoff has been the renewed viability of and excitement surrounding a long-beloved golf institution and precious green space. “We want the golfers to be happy, the walkers to be happy — even the dogs to be happy,” Castaneda says. “By keeping this course going, everybody benefits, and that’s what’s important.”

Megan Hirt is GCM’s managing editor.