Desert golf courses, fake lakes and the Colorado River crisis

golf courses. ponds. acres of grass. Cascading Waterfalls. Water extravaganzas rush by every day as Sendy Hernández drives Orellana Barrows to work.

She said these views appear like landscapes that have undergone “plastic surgery,” transforming large swathes of the Coachella Valley desert into scenes of unnatural lushness.

From La Quinta to Palm Springs, the area’s gated communities, resorts and golf courses have long been advertised with palm-fringed images of green grass, swimming pools and man-made lakes. The entrepreneurs and promoters who decades ago built the Coachella Valley’s reputation as a travel destination saw the appeal of water-flooded developments made possible by aquifer wells and a steady flow of Colorado River water.

“They basically wanted to create this mirage oasis, which they think could be the desert, with these endless golf courses and lagoons,” said Hernández Orellana. “But the reality is that in the face of climate change, we need to start moving away from that.”

She said that means rethinking some of the “unsustainable choices” that have paved the way for water-intensive developments and curbing the wasteful misuse of water.

“The ponds and the grass are wasteful,” Hernández Orellana said. “If you look at all country clubs, they all have hundreds and hundreds of feet of grass, artificial lagoons. We do not need that.”

Hernández Orellana, who works as a conservation program manager for a nonprofit group, is president of the CactusToClouds Institute, which she founded with two friends and her husband, Colin Barrows, a naturalist and desert advocate.

She said she believes better climate resilience requires better water use, by prioritizing clean water for communities and reducing consumption that is not essential to life. It would help, she said, “if we could just reduce the amount of water that’s wasted.”

An upscale urbanization with palm trees and an artificial lake

Shadow Lake Estates in Indio is a development built around a private man made lake where people boat and water ski.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Peninsular Bighorns feed on grass

Peninsular Bighorn Sheep feed on grass in La Quinta.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“The golf courses, the lagoons, the waterfalls, all these artificial water features that we really don’t depend on to survive, I think that’s where we should start making some of the cuts,” she said.

However, the elected leaders of the Coachella Valley Water District have taken a different approach. They recently announced plans to reduce the amount of Colorado River water the district uses to replenish the aquifer. With this strategy, the inflows into the valley’s drinking water source will be reduced for three years, while large consumers such as golf courses will be spared from forced cuts, at least for the time being.

“We want to be as nondisruptive as possible to every business and every user,” said Cástulo Estrada, vice president of the Water District Board. “It’s voluntary. And we think we could do it from resupply for now without having to impact 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 per year over the next three years, a reduction of about 9%.

Some of the water savings could come from farmers or others who agree to use less water in exchange for payments. But water district managers believe the bulk of the reductions will be secured by cutting water supplies to an aquifer replenishment facility in La Quinta, where Colorado River water flows into ponds and seeps into the ground to replenish the aquifer.

The facility, one of the valley’s most important aquifers, has been receiving water from the Colorado River since 2009. Studies have shown that the imported water not only raised nearby water tables but also largely prevented subsidence, a costly problem that had previously damaged roads and cracked the foundations of houses.

Water ponds at a facility in the middle of the desert

At the end of the Coachella Canal, Colorado River water is channeled to ponds at an aquifer replenishment facility, replenishing the aquifer.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Estrada said that while groundwater replenishment remains an important part of the district’s long-term strategy, board members have decided to scale back replenishment as a short-term contribution.

“This is the easiest way, the less disruptive way,” Estrada said. “We feel like we can really go without supplies for now without having too much of an impact.”

State water regulators last year instructed city suppliers to prepare for shortages by implementing Stage 2 measures as part of their local drought plans. The Coachella Valley Water District urged customers to reduce outdoor water use by 10% and began imposing penalties on bills for those who didn’t meet the target.

But the state did not oblige the authorities to reduce the consumption of domestic water. And according to CVWD, the Colorado River’s untreated water, which is supplied through canals, falls into this category, as does water pumped from private wells for outdoor irrigation.

A housing estate under construction

In La Quinta, a housing development called Cantera is under construction on Coral Mountain.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Unlike residents who are subject to drought restrictions, there are no restrictions on those using private wells or canal water to irrigate farmland, golf courses or grassy landscapes, or to fill artificial lakes.

Barrows said the Water District’s decision to limit aquifer recharge is like “charging the water credit card” and putting off tougher decisions.

“Eventually it gets so bad that the water just isn’t there,” Barrows said. “We’re going to have to make do with less water one way or another.”

If the Coachella Valley were mandated to further reduce its water use, Estrada expects that “we would probably start restricting golf courses.”

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

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

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

A canal runs through a golf course

The Coachella Canal carries water from the Colorado River and supplies some of the Coachella Valley’s golf courses.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Waters of the Colorado River began flowing to farmland in the valley in 1949 through the Coachella Canal, a branch of the All-American Canal that runs through the desert. The imported water allowed farms to thrive, and today agriculture uses 72% of the canal’s water, accounts for about half of the valley’s consumption, and produces crops such as grapes, dates, peppers, lemons, and carrots.

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

Local water authorities have also entered into an agreement to source imported water on the west side of the valley by trading their supplies provided by the State Water Project to Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District for equivalent amounts of water from the Colorado River. This water flows from the Colorado River Aqueduct and flows into a groundwater replenishment facility on the outskirts of Palm Springs. During the last three drought years, these stocks have been reduced to a fraction of the full allocation.

There are approximately 120 golf courses in the Coachella Valley, which account for 18% of the region’s water use. A single course can use up to 1 million gallons per day.

Records show that Valleys golf courses used about the same amount of water in 2019 as they did in 2010, sourcing more than half their water from wells, almost a third from the Colorado River, and the rest from recycled wastewater.

Golf tees are built into the desert

The tee boxes at the Golf Club in Terra Lago are surrounded by desert. A single golf course in the area can use up to 1 million gallons of water per day.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

While new golf courses have become rare, developers have turned to other types of water-intensive facilities such as lagoons and surf parks. Work in progress includes a 20-acre surf lagoon at Thermal and a 24-acre lagoon at Disney’s Cotino development in Rancho Mirage.

But in La Quinta, the city council recently turned down plans for an 18-million-gallon surf park after pouring opposition from residents who argued the resort would drain valuable water that the community needs.

Hernández Orellana and Barrows were among those who opposed the surf park. They said they were pleased and a little surprised when it was defeated.

The couple said there just wasn’t any point in filling more artificial lakes in the desert, especially when the Colorado River is dwindling. Becoming more sustainable requires a shift to much lower water usage.

They have shown how it can be done in their home where they have no grass and no swimming pool. Your front yard has native plants that attract hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. Beyond that, they grow tomatoes and peppers in their garden, and their water bill shows they use far less than most homeowners.

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

She said she was concerned there would be consequences if groundwater overpumping continued. And even with the valley’s priority water rights, “those rights aren’t really going to do much for us if the river dries up.”

“It will definitely affect our area if people continue to act irresponsibly,” she said. “Sooner rather than later, people will start to regret what they’ve done.”

Empty desert land

La Quinta City Council recently rejected a developer’s proposal for a large wave pool and surf park on this property.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

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The Times Podcast: Colorado River in Crisis Desert golf courses, fake lakes and the Colorado River crisis

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