Why desert golf courses and man-made lakes remain untouched by the Colorado River Crisis

Indio, CA - Sept.  14, 2022-The golf club at Terra Lago is built in the desert.  There are over 120 golf courses in the Cochella Valley.  (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The Golf Club at Terra Lago in Indio, California borders the desert. As the Colorado River crisis worsens, some residents say the Coachella Valley should start reducing water use for golf courses and lakes. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Golf courses. puddles. acres of grass. Cascading waterfalls. Showcasing aquatic extravagance slips by day when Sendy Hernández leads Orellana Barrows into action.

These look like landscapes that have undergone “plastic surgery,” she said, transforming large portions of the Coachella Valley desert into unnaturally lush scenes.

From La Quinta to Palm Springs, the area’s gated communities, resorts, and golf courses have long been touted with palm-studded images of lush greens, swimming pools, and artificial lakes. The entrepreneurs and backers who built the Coachella Valley’s decades-old reputation as a children’s play destination have seen the allure of developments in the water, made possible by aquifer-dependent wells and the steady stream of Colorado River water.

“They wanted to basically make this mirage oasis of what they thought the desert could be, with golf courses and never-ending lakes,” said Hernandez Orellana. “But the reality is that as the climate changes, we need to start moving away from that.”

She said this means rethinking some of the “unsustainable decisions” that paved the way for water-intensive developments, and starting to put limits on wasteful water use.

“Ponds and grass are wasteful,” said Hernandez Orellana. “If you look at all the country clubs, they all have hundreds and hundreds of feet of grass and artificial lakes. We don’t need that.”

Hernandez Orellana, who serves as director of the conservation program for a nonprofit group, is president CactusToClouds Institutewhich she co-founded with two friends and her husband, Colin Barrows, a naturalist and desert advocate.

She said she believes becoming more climate resilient will require improving water use by prioritizing drinking water for communities and reducing non-vital consumption. It would help, she said, “if we could reduce the amount of water that is wasted.”

An elegant residential project with palm trees and an artificial lake

Shadow Lake Estates in Indio is a development built around a private artificial lake where people boat and water ski. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Peninsula large animals feed on grass

Big Peninsula sheep feed on the grass at La Quinta. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Golf courses, lakes, waterfalls, all those artificial water features that we don’t really depend on to survive,” she said, “I think that’s where we have to start making some cuts.”

However, the elected leaders of the Coachella Valley Water District have taken a different approach. They recently Announce plans To reduce the amount of Colorado River water the region uses to replenish the aquifer. This strategy would reduce flows to the valley’s drinking water sources for three years, while sparing large users such as golf courses from mandatory cuts, at least for the time being.

“We want to be as little disruption as possible for any entity, for any user,” said Castulo Estrada, Vice Chairman of the Water District. “This is voluntary. And we believe that right now, we can do that through renewal without having to influence anyone.”

In response to the federal government’s call for urgent action, the Water District has proposed reducing water use by up to 35,000 acre-feet annually over the next three years, a decrease of about 9%.

Part of the water savings can come from farmers or others who agree to use less water in exchange for payments. But water district managers expect to secure the bulk of the cuts by limiting the water supply to the La Quinta aquifer replenishment facility, where Colorado River water drains into ponds and seeps into the soil to recharge the aquifer.

The facility, one of the most important in the valley Groundwater recharge siteshas been taking the waters of the Colorado River since 2009. Studies have shown that imported water not only boosted nearby groundwater levels, but also contributed greatly to Stop the earth from sinkingIt is a costly problem that has previously damaged roads and ruptured the foundations of homes.

Water pools at a facility in the middle of the desert

At the end of the Coachella Canal, Colorado River water is channeled into ponds at an aquifer replenishment facility, to recharge the aquifer. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Estrada said that although groundwater recharge remains an important part of the region’s long-term strategy, board members decided to scale back regeneration as a short-term contribution.

“This is the easiest way, and it’s the least confusing way,” Estrada said. “We feel we can properly forego regeneration for now, without too much of an effect.”

State water regulators last year ordered urban suppliers to prepare for water shortages Implement level 2 measures under their local drought plans. The Coachella Valley Water District has asked customers to reduce outdoor water use by 10% and has begun Charge a fine fee On bills for those who failed to achieve the goal.

But the state has not required the agencies to reduce the use of non-potable water. According to CVWD, untreated Colorado River water delivered by canal falls into this category, as does water pumped from private wells for outdoor irrigation.

Residential project under construction

A housing project called Cantera in Coral Mountain is under construction in La Quinta. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Unlike residents, who are subject to drought restrictions, there are no restrictions on those who use private wells or canal water to irrigate farmland, golf courses, turfed landscaping, or to fill in artificial lakes.

Barrows said the water district’s decision to scale back aquifer replenishment is like “charging a water credit card” and putting off more difficult decisions for later.

“Eventually, it will get bad enough that there will be no water,” Barrows said. “We’re going to have to deal with less water one way or another.”

If the Coachella Valley is mandated to reduce water use further, Estrada said he expects “we’ll probably start putting limits on golf courses.”

District officials also have the authority, if necessary, to limit groundwater pumping, Estrada said. But Estrada said he and other board members feel such restrictions are not necessary at this time.

“There is enough water,” Estrada said. “We need to be smart about how we do things. But we are not in crisis right now.”

Because of its size, the Coachella Valley has a relatively large allotment of water. Although it has a much smaller population than the Las Vegas area, it gets more imported water.

A canal runs through a golf course

The Coachella Canal carries the waters of the Colorado River and provides some of the golf courses in the Coachella Valley. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The waters of the Colorado River began flowing into the valley’s farmland in 1949 Coachella Channel, an offshoot of the All-American Channel that stretches across the desert. Imported water has enabled farms to thrive, and nowadays agriculture consumes 72% of the canal’s water, which accounts for about half Use the valley and produce crops such as grapes, dates, peppers, lemons and carrots.

Since 2003, the Coachella Valley has received an increased amount of Colorado River water under an agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District.

Local water agencies also have an agreement to obtain imported water on the west side of the valley by trading their assigned state water project supply to the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California for equivalent volumes of Colorado River water. This water flows from the Colorado River Canal and empties into a groundwater replenishment facility on the outskirts of Palm Springs. During the past three years of drought, these supplies have been drop to part of Full customization.

There are about 120 golf courses in the Coachella Valley, and they represent 18% of the area water use. One course can consume as much 1 million gallons per day.

Records show golf courses in used valleys around the same amount of water In 2019 as they did in 2010, they pulled more than half of their water from wells, nearly a third of the Colorado River and the rest from recycled sewage.

Golf tee boxes are built in the desert

T-shirt boxes at Terra Lago Golf Club surrounded by desert. A single golf course in the region can consume up to 1 million gallons of water per day. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

While new golf courses are becoming a rarity, developers have turned to other types of water-intensive facilities, such as lakes and surf parks. Projects in progress include a 20 acres of surfing lake in thermal and a 24 acres of lagoon In the Disney Cotino development at Rancho Mirage.

But in La Quinta, the city council recently rejected plans The 18-million-gallon surf park was approved after an outpouring of opposition from residents, who argued for the resort Drain precious water that society needs.

Hernandez Orellana and Barrows were among those who spoke out against the surf park. They said they were pleased, and a little surprised, when they were defeated.

Filling more artificial lakes in the desert simply doesn’t make sense, the couple said, especially with the Colorado River dwindling. To achieve greater sustainability, they said, a shift to using much less water would be required.

They have shown how this can be done in their own home, as they have neither lawn nor swimming pool. In their yard are native plants that attract hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. In the back, they grow tomatoes and peppers in their garden, and their water bill shows that they use much less than most homeowners.

“Our desert is beautiful the way it is,” said Hernandez Orellana, “and I think people should learn to appreciate it and stop… putting it under the knife.” She said that while residents can help, local elected officials should stop approving developments such as surf parks, and should start putting limits on wasteful water use.

She said she worries that if groundwater pumping is allowed to continue, there will be consequences. And even with the highest priority water rights for the valley, “those rights won’t do us much good if the river runs dry.”

“It will certainly affect our region if people continue to be irresponsible,” she said. “Sooner rather than later, people will start to regret what they did.”

Empty desert land

The La Quinta City Council recently rejected a developer’s proposal to build a large wave pool and surfing park on this property. (Caroline Cole / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.

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