U.S. Water News Online
PALM DESERT, Calif. -- In the middle of the Southern
California desert, resort guests can travel by gondola to waterfront
bistros, homeowners can water-ski on a manmade lake, and golfers can
tee off at more than 100 courses made lush and green from constant
How much longer can this go on?
That is what some are wondering since the federal government in
April cut the amount of water California can draw from the Colorado
River -- a rollback that has thrown into question the long-term
future of the Coachella Valley, a resort and retirement mecca 110
miles east of Los Angeles.
``We've gone from being assured that we lived in this magical
place where the rules of water didn't apply to now having, I think, a
very appropriate wake-up call about the fact that we do live in the
California desert,'' said Buford Crites, a 17-year member of the Palm
Desert City Council. ``People have lived in this false water
For years, California has been using more than its fair share of
water from the Colorado River, which flows to seven Western states.
But drought and booming growth around the West finally prompted the
government to crack down and demand that the state's water agencies
work out a deal to redistribute the water.
When a deal fell through Dec. 31, the government cut back the
state's share of river water by 15 percent.
The bulk of that cut landed on the Coachella Valley. The valley's
water agency halted deliveries of Colorado River water to about a
dozen golf courses, at least one construction company and the lake
built for water skiing amid a housing development.
Also, a landscaping ordinance that had been in the works before
the cutbacks and went into effect on June 1 requires new developments
to use 25 percent less water than existing ones. Water rates also may
``It's an attempt to recognize we do live in a desert and water is
not something we can take for granted,'' said Steve Robbins, general
manager of the water agency.
Dave Twedt, the land development manager for the new Trilogy Golf
Club at La Quinta, is looking for water to ensure his greens are not
brown when Tiger Woods and other top golfers arrive this fall for the
popular Skins Game. The club is one of several spending more than
$200,000 each to drill into the aquifer far beneath the course.
``You don't have a whole lot of choices,'' Twedt said. ``It's not
like we'll be put out of business because, thank goodness, we can
drill an irrigation well.''
Drilling wells, though, may not be the long-range answer, either.
The many homes, farms, golf courses and other resorts that already
use well water are pumping so much from beneath the ground that the
valley floor sinks more than an inch a year in spots -- a process
that could accelerate if the water agency cannot get more Colorado
River water, which is usually used to recharge the aquifer.
If officials cannot line up more water, the water agency may be
forced to impose tougher restrictions on wells and usage to protect
It was cheap and abundant water from the aquifer that transformed
this desert -- described by 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell
as ``the most desolate region on the continent'' -- into a lush
landscape of fairways and luxury neighborhoods decorated with
waterfalls and lakes.
The 300-square-mile valley stretches from the former Rat Pack
getaway of Palm Springs, which sprang up in the 1950s, south to the
briny shores of the Salton Sea. The population boomed 170 percent
between 1980 and 2001 to about 330,000.
Golf courses are the selling point for many of the developers
building gated communities in the valley. Last year, golf helped
attract 3.5 million visitors, who pumped an estimated $1 billion into
In this self-ordained golf capital of the world, the cut in
Colorado water has shocked golf course managers and development
``Because the club has not been properly forewarned and has not
been given a reasonable amount of time to transition to a private
water supply, there is a real possibility of incurring catastrophic
damages,'' John Heckenlively, president of The Plantation golf club
wrote in an April 30 letter to the water district.
Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable growers, who use most of the
valley's Colorado River water allotment, face a crisis of their own.
They are paying $15 million over five years -- nearly 10 times the
usual cost -- to buy excess water from farmers in nearby Palo Verde.
Water officials hope the valley and three other Southern
California water agencies reach an agreement to share the Colorado
River and secure enough water to supply farmers and recharge the
aquifer for the next 35 years.
But whether the valley finds more water or not, there will
probably be no more projects like Palm Desert's Desert Springs
Marriott, where guests ride gondolas to feast on ahi steaks by the
edge of a sprawling lake, said Crites, the city councilman.
``That was done in Palm Desert at a different time -- when people
really believed we could pretend we were Hawaii,'' he said. ``There
was really no organized group saying the emperor had no clothes.''
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