In the mid-1990s, the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., faced a dilemma. Although the base had just completed a renovation of its wastewater treatment plant that met the state’s quality standard, it was being prodded to not release the resulting effluent water into the St. Johns River that runs for 4 miles along its boundary.
The base owns a golf course, but the effluent water could not be brought to its own course at the time, because a major jet runway separated its course from the plant. The high cost of building a pipeline, along with the potential disruption to base operations, made the idea a non-starter.
“There was no way for them to disperse it on their golf course, and the heat was on them environmentally to avoid the river,” said John “Jack” Moriarty, a retired two-star rear admiral and a longtime member at neighboring Timuquana Country Club, host of this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship.
Timuquana was founded in 1923, 17 years before the adjacent base was commissioned in October 1940. A little over a year later, the United States would become embroiled in World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By the late 1940s, “NAS Jax,” as the base is known locally, held 60 percent of the Navy’s air-strike forces on the East Coast.
For more than 50 years, the Navy and Timuquana had been good neighbors, and as the Navy mulled its water dilemma, the club was also being prodded by the state to reduce its use of groundwater for irrigation purposes. The twin dilemmas led to the club making an offer to the base that would benefit the region as well as both parties: divert the effluent water to Timuquana, which would use it to irrigate the course, solving the Navy’s effluent-water surplus, while keeping water from being pumped into the river or drawn from the overtaxed Florida aquifer.
“The impetus really came from the club,” said Moriarty, 80, who had retired from the Navy brass in 1993 and aided the club’s effort at the time. “I knew how the base command operated, both from an operational and administrative basis.”
The club worked with the base’s then-commanding officer, Stephen Turcotte, and in 1998, the parties signed an agreement for the club to connect to NAS Jax’s dichlorination system and divert water to the course. The club paid for all associated costs of design, permitting and construction of the pipeline, in exchange for receiving the water in perpetuity at no cost.
“You have to realize that the Navy pumped outfall into the river every day at the time,” said Michael Lanahan, then the club’s green committee chairman. “The solution was a win-win for us and them, but a key factor was that the Navy could not spend any money on the project. If they had paid for it or given us something, it would have nixed the deal. It was critical to establish that precedent for other bases around the country.”
Another important aspect from the club side was the ability to decline the use of the water. Often, a water resource supplier will mandate that its customer take the water, even in times of heavy rainfall. Timuquana received nearly 80 inches of rainfall in 2018, well above its typical 50-55-inch annual average, and it sometimes doesn’t require the Navy’s water. Nor does it need the Florida aquifer water traditionally supplied by the St. Johns River Water Management District, a state regulatory agency primarily focused on water quality and water supply.
“We paid for valves, pipes and construction,” said Lenahan, “and because of the admiral, we were able to create an agreement whereby we get their wastewater forever without any charge – as long as the base is there. We can take what we need, and they can still discharge the effluent into the river.”
Fast-forward to 2015, when an important milestone was reached, as the Navy base became the first major utility in northeast Florida to achieve zero discharge of water into the St. Johns River, which runs for 310 miles, the longest river in the state. This was achieved by directing any water not needed by Timuquana and other entities toward a new pond and spray fields, which provide a method for distributing water not needed by the golf courses while avoiding discharge into the river.
Alan Brown, Timuquana’s director of golf course and grounds, checks the quality of the water he receives two or three times a year.
“Effluent water is a very broad category,” said Chris Hartwiger, the director of the USGA’s Course Consulting Service. “You have to test it to know what’s in it. The things you normally look for are sodium, high-soluble salts, bicarbonates… You need to know what’s in it so you can structure your management to avoid long-term accumulation problems that are unfriendly to the grass.”
“Any time you have issues on the golf course, one thing you’re going to do is test your water,” said Brown, who has worked at Timuquana since 2015. “At the end of the day, I’ll take the water and learn to manage any issues that come around. Because there are so many people tapping into the Florida aquifer, the St. Johns River Water Management District is always looking for us to reduce our usage, so this is a great option for us.”
As Brown noted, “It all goes back to Mr. Lanahan, Mr. Moriarty and others initiating the talks and doing the right thing for the Navy, the environment and the golf club. The benefits extend to all parties.”
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.