Phoenix Hotels Green Their Practices

Phoenix Hotels Green Their Practices

An over-developed metropolis that is exasperating the water resources of the local environment, Phoenix has traditionally been off-putting to the eco-minded tourist.

But all that is slowly changing. Several hotels and resorts are slashing their water use and employing innovative strategies to lessen the strain they put on Phoenix's over-taxed desert environment. And now the green traveler who also happens to enjoy golf can recreate with a less guilty conscious at some of the city's sustainably designed courses.

These efforts reflect a growing desire to decrease the negative toll on the desert ecosystem caused by Phoenix's massive tourist industry, which brings in 12 million visitors a year who spend an estimated $5 billion.

Before tourists — and even before Phoenix — the delicately balanced Sonoran desert ecosystem naturally meted out its scarce water supply to a surprising range of plant and animal species, from the javelina, a piglike desert native, to the prickly pear cactus with its magenta-colored, edible fruit.

And then came Scottsdale, an internationally recognized golf destination; Tempe, a 25,000-student university town; and downtown Phoenix, one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Together they comprise this mushrooming 1.2 million-resident area that has become a voracious consumer of regional water resources.

Today Arizona is a golfer's Mecca with 250 courses state-wide, most of these located in greater Phoenix. The city's golf courses have traditionally hogged a disproportionate amount of Phoenix's water resources.

The growth rate of golf courses is outpacing the overall population growth rate, said Gary Woodard, assistant director of the Center for Sustainability and Water Supply at the University of Arizona.

But slowly and surely, Arizona's courses are converting to irrigation that relies on treated waste water, effluent, and other alternative sources. "The new courses are subject to conservation measures that the old courses were not. It limits the number of lakes they are allowed to have and the amount of turf used per hole," said Woodard. Older developments are able to skirt these newer regulations, but they still have to report on their water use to the City of Phoenix's Water Department, the agency that oversees water conservation.

Some newer developments are making environmental sustainability a high priority, however. One of these is the Sanctuary Golf Course in Scottsdale, which has drastically reduced its water use by creating a course that's true to its surroundings. Native plants well-adapted to arid conditions have been used in landscaping the terrain, and the trademark yawning expanses of green turf found at most golf clubs have been reduced here by 25 percent. Moreover, when the course was built, its designers strove to leave wildlife habitats protected and undisturbed.

All of these measures earned Sanctuary the Audubon Society's stamp of approval. It's one of only 17 courses in the world to earn Audubon Signature Status — an accolade that the course's superintendent, Jeff Davis, said helps attract a different breed of golfer.

"We have attracted a contingency of golfer that is pesticide-sensitive or that wants a more environmentally friendly experience," he said. "When people come to play golf, they want to see lush green courses, and we don't provide that. We just attract an altogether different crowd than the top-tier courses," he added.

Sanctuary has also had to drastically reduce its use of pesticides and herbicides in order to comply with the program. An Audubon inspector visits the site once a year to make sure the course is meeting all of its stringent requirements. Using environmentally friendly practices hasn't cost the course any more money than using traditional methods like chemical treatments, said Davis. Instead, It just requires more labor — and more creativity, he added.

Other destination resorts like the Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch have taken an aggressive, facility-wide approach to environmental responsibility. The resort has reduced the amount of chemicals used to treat its swimming pools, has switched its golf course irrigation system to recycled water, and has introduced natural predators like ladybugs and lacewings to reduce its reliance on pesticides for landscaping.

The resort's environmental overhaul has also earned it a number of international awards, including the American Hotel and Motel Association's Enviro-management Award. Still, The Hyatt has a ways to go before it successfully addresses all of its environmental misdeeds, conceded Nicole Witteveld, the resort's environmental coordinator.

The hotel still wastes energy by leaving its doors open and allowing air-conditioned air to escape. Moreover, the resort's numerous waterfalls, swimming pools, and artificial lakes still rely on chemical treatments rather than more eco-friendly alternatives like saline disinfectants, she said.

But given that environmentally sustainable policies are not mandatory for any hotel or resort, the Hyatt at Gainey Ranch is making important strides.

In Tempe, just south of Scottsdale's golfing bustle, the Fiesta Inn is doing its part to slash water usage while still offering all the luxuries of a resort experience. The hotel has converted most of its landscaped grounds to a drip irrigation system, which effectively targets plants with only the necessary amount of water that each one needs. Rather than creating the standard "tropical" landscape found at most sunny-destination resorts, the Fiesta Inn has maintained a decidedly Arizona look with cacti, native plants, wildflowers, and feeders that attract local birds. "It's been a two-year project to convert to a desert landscape and a drip system," said sales manager Julie Goss.

The entire hotel also offers guests the option of forgoing towel service in order to reduce the amount of water used by the resort's laundry. Given that U.S. hotels use more than 180 billion gallons of water each year, the Fiesta Inn's efforts are a step in the right direction.

Still, some environmentalists balk at the very notion that golf courses and water-guzzling resorts should exist at all. "They just aren't very appropriate for the desert," said Sandy Bahr, conservation director of the Phoenix Sierra Club. But if they are to exist, they should, "be accommodating the natural landscape rather than grossly manipulating it," said Bahr.

So while the phrase "environmentally responsible tourism in Phoenix" has typically been considered an oxymoron, eco-conscious vacationers may find more options available in this golf-heavy sun city.

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Copyright 2002 Environmental News Network (ENN), all rights reserved. ENN is a GreenBiz News Affiliate.
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