Balancing growth and water supply Summit called to vet ideas to avoid possible shortage of high-quality water
By Benjamin Spillman The Desert Sun October 20th, 2004
Every year, the aquifer under the Coachella Valley is "overdrafted" by enough water to serve 300,000 households.
That means that though the underground water supply is vast, users are taking out much more water than goes back in.
"We are living on borrowed time," said Mark Beuhler, assistant general manager of Coachella Valley Water District.
That, one estimate says, could mean an end to the "high-quality" water supply in less than 80 years. Or, it could mean ground collapsing into an emptier aquifer.
To combat these possibilities, more restrictive water rules, pipelines that would tap Colorado River and Northern California water supplies and increased scrutiny of homeowners’ landscaping could all be in the Coachella Valley’s future.
Water stewards and community leaders in the desert region known for cheap water, abundant golf and lush lawns will meet today in Indian Wells for a discussion of what steps to take to maintain the water supply that built a multi-billion tourism and agriculture industry in the area.
The water symposium, sponsored by the water district, will include leaders of area water districts and communities, farmers, golf course operators and environmentalists.
That this diverse collection of groups, often at odds over water management, is coming together at the symposium shows there is increasing focus on ensuring the valley’s long-term water future.
A 35-year water plan
The water district has already embarked on a 35-year, $250 million to $300 million water management plan it says will reverse the ongoing overdraft, now estimated to be about 150,000 acre-feet annually. An acre-foot is enough water to supply up to two households for a year.
The water plan aims to reduce overall water consumption in the Coachella Valley by about 7 percent. It also calls on increasing the annual imported water supply from about the current 400,000 to about 560,000 acre-feet.
It suggests dividing water conservation among domestic users and typical businesses, farms and golf courses. Under the plan, domestic users will use 10 percent less water by 2010, golf courses will use 5 percent less by 2010 and farmers will use 7 percent less by 2015.
The imported water, which will come from Northern California via the State Water Project and the Colorado River via the Coachella Canal and the Colorado River aqueduct, will be used to recharge the underground water supply.
The aquifer has shrunk an estimated 5 million acre-feet since 1936 and is estimated to have a 30 million-acre-foot capacity, Beuhler said.
But despite the massive size of the aquifer, he said implementing the water management plan is important to avoid future problems like ground subsidence.
Beuhler said there have already been isolated instances of subsidence, a phenomena that occurs when the ground collapses into an emptied aquifer, around the valley.
He said by the time the problem is widespread it could be too late to solve it.
"Everything sinks, the buildings, their foundations can crack," Beuhler said. "It is not a significant problem yet but it is coming."
Not just quantity, quality
Although CVWD aims to avert problems associated with the aquifer overdraft, the water management plan has been criticized, in part, for not taking water quality into account.
For example, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians are wary of the plan to recharge the high-quality ground water, the result of thousands of years of snowmelt from the mountains and rainfall, with lower quality water from the Colorado River.
River water has more salt and other contaminants. The tribe, which has its own water rights, estimated in 2002 that under CVWD’s plan the "high-quality" groundwater supply would be gone in 80 years.
Beuhler said that estimate though, was a "gross oversimplification," though he conceded that Colorado River water has more salinity than local groundwater. All over Southern California, water users, including those in Los Angeles, use water from the Colorado River.
Nonetheless, in a letter to CVWD, the tribe recommended using Northern California water from the State Water Project to recharge the aquifer.
But that could require building a costly pipeline toward Beaumont or Yucca Valley, the closest physical connections to the Northern California water.
Golf course questions
Others suggested further strengthening conservation measures and increasing the cost of water for golf courses and other large users.
"There is no respect for water," said Joan Taylor, president of the Palm Springs branch of the Sierra Club. "It shouldn’t be so cheap that they can squander it on golf courses."
Taylor said golf courses should rely more on recycled and imported water, not ground water. Currently, about 72 of the valley’s approximately 115 golf courses rely on groundwater.
Robert White, vice president of the Hi-Lo Desert Golf Superintendents Association said the golf community has already reduced water consumption on courses by 11 percent in the last three years.
Many local golf courses are converting to irrigation systems that read the weather and there is research into hybrid grasses that use up to 21 percent less water, White said.
"We are just very, very careful with the amount of water," said White.
He said much of the wasted water in streets comes from homeowners who over-water lawns.
Bermuda or creosote?
Steve Robbins, general manager of CVWD said convincing homeowners to convert from lawns to desert landscaping is another important water management goal.
The district may consider offering incentives to remove grass, Robbins said. Las Vegas, for example, has paid homeowners as much as $1 for every square foot of turf they remove.
"That becomes very, very expensive water," Robbins said.
So far CVWD has focused on educational campaigns to alert homeowners to "lush and efficient" desert foliage. It is also promoting a landscaping ordinance that would reduce the amount of water available to new developments by 25 percent.
But many homeowners in the desert are accustomed to keeping lush, green lawns.
"I believe (lawns) should have grass," said Rick Sullivan, of Palm Desert.
Sullivan recently watered a patch of grass at his Palm Desert Country Club home.
He said without grass, the area would resemble more isolated desert communities like Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where he also has a home.
"It’s green, it gives off oxygen, it’s pretty," he said of the benefits of maintaining a grassy lawn.
Landscaper Karen Lien, also of Palm Desert, said desert homeowners with roots in wetter climates seem to prefer grass to desert landscaping.
"They want a tropical looking courtyard," Lien said. "They don’t care about water, at all."
Benjamin Spillman can be reached at 760-778-4643 or by e-mail .
*Since 1936, the 30 million-acre-foot aquifer has diminished by 5 million acre feet. Every year, the aquifer is overdrafted by 150,000 acre-feet. That’s enough to supply service to 300,000 households.
*Water plans calls for households to reduce use by 10 percent and for golf courses to reduce use by 5 percent.
*Another way to re-charge the aquifer is to pipe in water from rivers or water sources elsewhere.
*When planning a garden, plant items with similar watering needs together and chose water-efficient plants, including local, native vegetation.
*Integrate rocks, bricks and gravel into landscaping.
*Lawns with grass should be watered before sunrise or after sunset to maximize water absorption into the soil and minimize loss due to evaporation.
Coachella Begins Groundwater Recharge New facility can recharge Valley's aquifer with up to 40,000 acre-feet annually. By: Compiled by staff Published: Jun 18, 2009 The same amount of water used by approximately 40,000 desert households each year will be pumped back into the ground over the next 12 months thanks to a new project by the Coachella Valley Water District. CVWD recently began replenishing groundwater in the east valley at its newest recharge facility in south La Quinta. The new facility can recharge the Coachella Valley's aquifer with up to 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.
"With this latest project, CVWD responds to the statewide water crisis and takes another step towards protecting our local water resources," says General Manager-Chief Engineer Steve Robbins.
Every year, the Coachella Valley uses almost 400,000 acre-feet of groundwater, but on average only 63,000 acre-feet is replenished naturally through rain or snow melt. Over time excess pumping depletes the aquifer, threatens water supplies to the local population and compromises future growth in the valley.
To replenish groundwater, the new facility uses Colorado River water delivered to the valley via the Coachella Canal, across 120 miles to Lake Cahuilla in La Quinta. The water then travels along existing irrigation pipes, is pumped into 39 recharge basins and left to percolate into the ground.
Extensive scientific modeling and a pilot program were conducted by CVWD over the past decade to locate sites in the east valley that would most impact the aquifer level. In 30 years, the groundwater level in the eastern Coachella Valley will be an estimated 25-105 feet higher than it would have been had CVWD not built the new recharge facility.
"Recharge at this new facility will help reverse two decades of groundwater depletion in the La Quinta-Indio area," says Robbins.
As a responsible steward of the Coachella Valley's groundwater resources, CVWD now operates four groundwater recharge facilities that replenish water back into the ground. Combined, these sites have recharged over 2.2 million acre-feet of water since 1973. Two facilities at Windy Point and Mission Creek are jointly operated with Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs using water from the agencies' entitlements to the State Water Project.
Because the aquifer lies below the entire valley, recharge benefits all local residents and businesses. By replenishing the aquifer, CVWD ensures that a reliable supply of groundwater will continue to be available, across the entire valley, now and for future generations.
CVWD recharge programs are partially funded by fees charged to large water users that pump more than 25 acre-feet of groundwater per year, such as farms, golf courses and Home Owners Associations.
The Coachella Valley Water District serves over 106,000 residential and business customers across 1,000 square miles, primarily in Riverside County, but also in portions of Imperial and San Diego counties.