CIRS Blog about Rural California

Case Study: Water Use in the Coachella Valley

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California is experiencing a long term drought. As a result, CIRS is examining various aspects of the California water system. This week, we are looking at a desert region where per capita water use is the highest in the state  for a non-industrial area at 736 gallons per person per day.


(Graphic from of the San jome Mercury News) 


The Coachella Valley is located in eastern Riverside County, California. The entire valley sits in the basin north of the Salton Sea bounded by various strands of the very active San Andreas Fault System. The San Andreas Fault traverses the Valley's east side. The Santa Rosa Mountains to the West are part of the Elsinore Fault Zone.The Inland Empire-Salton Trough region is geologically and seismologically the most complex part of the San Andreas Fault system in southern California. Over the past 15 million years, several strands of the main San Andreas Fault have moved coastal California northwestward in relation to the desert interior. The trough of the Coachella Valley is surrounded by mountain ranges rising up to 11,000 feet in elevation while the valley floor drops to 250 feet below sea level at its lowest around the town of Mecca. In the summer, daytime temperatures range from 104 ° F to 112 ° F and winter temperatures range from 68 F to 88 F making the Coachella Valley a very popular winter resort. The Valley is the northwestern extension of the Sonoran Desert to the southeast and is extremely arid. The majority of rainfall occurs during the winter months. Rain may sometimes fall during the summer months as a result of the desert monsoon.




In almost all characteristics the valley is divided into two distinct regions, the Western Coachella Valley (WCV) and the Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV). The WCV is comprised of the communities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta and Indio. The ECV includes the communities of Coachella, Thermal, Mecca, Oasis and North Shore.




A Tale of Two Realities

Indian Wells is in the Western Coachella Valley and Oasis is in the Eastern Coachella Valley. They are alike in land area and close in population (see box).  However, the similarities end there.

Indian Wells

Per capita income is $100,330 

92 percent of the residents are white (excluding Hispanic or Latino)

Area of 14 square miles

55% of the residents are 65 and older

Median value of housing is $650,000

Municipal water

5.3 percent below poverty level

11 golf courses

Pop 4,958


Per capita income is $7,372 

98 percent of the residents are Hispanic or Latino

Area of 19 square miles

3% of the residents are 65 and over 

Median value of housing is $10,000 or less. 

Private wells supply water

53.6 percent below poverty level

No golf courses, no parks

 Pop 6,890



To the southeast the ECV is a primarily unincorporated rural area with about 600,000 acres of productive crop land irrigated with water from the Colorado River via the All-American Canal and State Water Project.  Due to its warm year-round climate the Eastern Coachella Valley agricultural sector produces citrus, dates, table grapes, melons, lettuce, carrots, broccoli and bell peppers equaling over $500 million in sales and providing over 15,000 jobs

To the northwest there are the eight major cities of the Coachella Valley where the industries revolve around tourism and health care. The Western Coachella Valley is home to 124 golf courses. That’s 11 percent of California’s 1,126 golf courses. Golf is big business in the WCV.  In the state of California as a whole, golf generates $6.3 billion directly every year. Out of the top 10 California cities with golf courses, five are in the WCV with a staggering 38 courses in Palm Desert alone. 

The local water district estimates that 20 percent of the groundwater pumped each year in the Coachella Valley is used for farms (located primarily in the ECV). The remaining 80 percent is divided with 55 percent going to residential customers and businesses, and 25 percent being used to irrigate golf courses in the Western Coachella Valley. The water district estimates that each course uses about 1 million gallons of water per day. (3 acre feet a day per course, that’s 372 acre feet per day for golf course irrigation).

gcs and mhps 2014

Within a one hour drive south on State Highway 111, a completely different environment exists. Water availability disparities are great when comparing the communities in WCV and ECV. While the residents of WCV are whiter and wealthier than those living in unincorporated ECV they also have more access to water. ECV is comprised of small census designated places and unincorporated communities that may not have municipal services. The exception to this statement is the city of Coachella and some sections of the town of Mecca. As for the rest, residents rely on private wells for drinking, cooking and bathing. The problem with the wells in ECV is that they are contaminated with multiple elements beyond healthy limits.

Some of these elements are naturally present in minerals, rocks and soil and so the water that is being pulled from local aquifers comes into contact with them and they go into solution in the water. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, trace elements with human health benchmarks were present in high concentrations in 37 percent of the primary aquifers and at moderate concentrations in 21 percent of the primary aquifers.

Of the 17 trace elements with human-health benchmarks the USGS found 5 at high concentrations: arsenic, boron, fluoride, molybdenum, and strontium. The trace elements with the highest percentages in the Coachella Valley were arsenic and fluoride. Arsenic was found in high concentrations in all aquifers in the basin and fluoride was found at high concentrations in five of the six California Desert Region study areas with the highest proportion in Coachella.

Additionally, radioactive constituents were found above human health benchmarks in 4 percent of the primary aquifers in the area, specifically uranium and gross alpha radioactivity.

Nitrate and nitrite are naturally present at low concentrations in groundwater but when concentrations are high, it is evidence that surface applications of fertilizers, livestock waste or septic system leakage are penetrating the ground and affecting the water. Nitrate is detected at concentrations above benchmarks in the Coachella primary aquifers.

This proves problematic for residents who rely on these tainted aquifers for water. Where the WCV boasts 124 golf courses, the ECV has about the same number of mobile home parks where residents are reliant on drinking water from the aquifer without the benefit of treatment.

 Where does the water come from for all these uses?

  1. Imperial Irrigation District  (IID) is the largest irrigation district in the nation, providing raw water from the Colorado River to more than a million acres of land via more than 6,000 municipal, agricultural, and industrial water users.


IID has very strong rights regarding Colorado River water, and it controls a huge portion of California's total annual allotment: 2.6 MAF for 424,145 irrigated acres see map. IID also generates hydroelectric power at 5 falling water drops along the All-American canal, for 145,000 power customers over 6,471 square miles (Coachella valley IID energy service map). 

Besides the IID, there are five major public water providers in the Coachella Valley, including two that are State Water Project Contractors. These five authorities also work together as the Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group and lead the IRWM program for the Valley.

Coachella Valley Water District serves a very large area between Cathedral City and Salton Sea (western & mid Valley). This district gets water from the State Water Project, groundwater, recycled water facilities, and Colorado River water via the Coachella Canal. Drinking water is pumped from the aquifer and treated. Residents not served by CVWD get their water from one or more of the following agencies. Agricultural water is primarily from the Colorado River through the Coachella Canal. However, up to a third may be pumped from ground water. CVWD has created four groundwater recharge sites in the Coachella Valley.

Desert Water Agency is the main utility for Palm Springs outlying areas incl. Desert Hot Springs and part of Cat City (western & mid Valley). This agency primarily uses water from groundwater but imports water from the State Water Project to recharge local wells.

 Coachella Water Authority is a municipal water agency providing drinking water to the city of Coachella. It delivered 2.6 billion gallons of water in 2012 from 6 groundwater wells and 3 reservoirs.

 Indio Water Authority provides water to the City of Indio, which is approximately 38 square miles in area and more than 75,000 businesses and residents. The IWA gets this water from the Coachella Valley groundwater basin.

 Mission Springs Water District serves Desert Hot Springs and surrounding areas drawing groundwater from the Mission Creek Garne and Cabazon Subbasins

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