Ian James is an environment reporter for The Desert Sun

Despite drought, steady groundwater pumping in California's Coachella Valley

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Despite one of the most severe droughts in California history, the Coachella Valley's overall consumption of water largely held steady during much of this year.

A review of water agencies' data by The Desert Sun has found that the total amount of groundwater pumped during the first eight months of 2014 was down only about 0.8 percent compared to the same period last year.

The data show the area has made some progress in conserving water during the past five years: It used 5.5 percent less water in 2013 than it did in 2009. But the total amount pumped by all users — including water agencies, golf courses, farms and others — has actually increased since reaching a low in 2010 and has remained about the same since 2011.

From January through August this year, despite the drought, the area's total use of groundwater was up 3.9 percent as compared to 2010.

 

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A water feature at the Palm Desert County Club sits adjacent to a green on the course. The PDCC has reduced it water use by 10% since 2012.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

 

Variables behind fluctuations in water use can include how hot the weather is in a given year, population growth, and other factors such as golf courses switching from wells to recycled water. Considering all of those influences, the picture that emerges from the data is one of an area where there have been modest steps to cut back on water use but where the total water footprint has changed little during the past few years.

Lawns, turf-filled gated communities and lush golf courses have long epitomized the desert resort aesthetic of the Coachella Valley, and those patches of green have made the area one of the biggest per-capita water users in California. As more water has been pumped from the aquifer than has seeped back underground, the water table has been declining for years in many areas.

The Desert Sun requested groundwater data from the area's five public water agencies under the California Public Records Act, seeking to assess trends in how much groundwater is being pumped by different categories of users, as well as by the valley as a whole. While the agencies track the amounts used by their customers, they don't typically analyze the area's water use in this way.

The data offer a big-picture view of how water is being used, which categories of users have been conserving more, and which sectors have been using more lately. The figures suggest that the Coachella Valley could do significantly more to cut back, particularly as the drought persists.

The data

 From January through August 2014, the amount of groundwater pumped in the Coachella Valley declined 0.8 percent as compared to the same period in 2013. Water agencies pumped about 0.9 percent less. Agricultural groundwater use was up 6.8 percent during that period. Golf courses pumped 5.9 percent less than from January-August 2013, but they used more than the same period in 2010. As for other entities that operate wells — ranging from homeowner associations to government entities — they used 10.6 percent more groundwater. 

 The reasons for increased water use by some categories during the first eight months of 2014 aren't entirely clear. One factor could be the weather: 2014 has been the state's hottest on record. If farms irrigated more acres of land during the period, that also could affect the numbers.

 The Coachella Valley used 5.5 percent less groundwater in 2013 as compared to 2009. However, when compared with 2010, when the weather was cooler and a little wetter, the area used 2.9 percent more groundwater last year. 

 During 2013, a total of 315,886 acre-feet of groundwater was pumped from the aquifer — the equivalent of about three-fourths of an acre covered a foot deep in water for every person in the Coachella Valley (based on the latest population estimate of 416,000). That's down from 334,288 acre-feet in 2009, but more than the 307,095 acre-feet of water pumped in 2010.

 Groundwater breakdown: Last year, water agencies accounted for 61 percent of the groundwater pumped. The agencies included the Coachella Valley Water District, Desert Water Agency, Mission Springs Water District, Coachella Water Authority, Indio Water Authority, Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company, and small community water systems. Agriculture accounted for 13 percent of groundwater pumping; golf courses used 23 percent; and 3 percent was pumped by other categories of users such as homeowner associations, construction projects, government entities, schools and cemeteries.

Golf courses

The Coachella Valley has one of the largest concentrations of golf courses in the nation. A tally by the Coachella Valley Water District lists a total of 123 golf courses, of which 53 courses have access to Colorado River or reclaimed water from sewage treatment plants. The other 70 courses rely on wells pumping groundwater.

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Large dust mitigation trucks spray water during a construction project in the canal near Highway 50 on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

 

Since 2009, as water agencies have connected more of the courses to pipes carrying recycled water, the quantities of groundwater pumped have declined significantly — a drop of 10.5 percent between 2009 and 2013.

Using 2010 as a baseline for comparison, though, yields a different story. Compared with that year's water use, groundwater pumping by golf courses rose 4.2 percent in 2013. And during the first eight months of this year, even with courses using less than a year ago, they were still pumping slightly more than they did in 2010.

Managers of the area's golf courses announced a goal earlier this year of cutting water use by 10 percent from 2010 levels in the coming years. They remain far from that target, but some courses have begun cutting back.

At the Palm Desert Country Club, for instance, the grass has withered and turned brown on some fringes of the golf course. The course's manager plans to convert those nonessential areas to desert landscaping.

By drastically cutting back watering in those areas, the course has reduced its water use by 10 percent since 2012, said Ted Genereux, the golf course's superintendent.

"Everybody would like to see green wall-to-wall, but in all reality, there's about 25-30 acres of grass that I can remove off this property that no one's going to miss as far as the clientele is concerned," Genereux said. "Ideally, any areas where golfers don't frequent or don't hit the ball, we're going to be removing turf that exists there and switching it over to desert-scape."

Stopping his golf cart at the course's irrigation pond, Genereux explained that the pond will soon be filled entirely with a blend of recycled water and Colorado River water.

The course is one of a few making that switch with help from the Coachella Valley Water District. Once the connection work is finished, the Palm Desert Country Club course will be able to stop relying on its well.

"I think everybody's realizing that the aquifer is being depleted, and it's on the forefront of everybody's thought process," said Genereux, a Canadian who moved to the area from Alberta more than two years ago to manage the course.

"Everybody knows water is not as abundant as it once was. So, it's allowing us as superintendents to reduce turf, change the way golf courses were once maintained, and the paying public, the clientele, they're accepting it, because they understand," Genereux said. "I mean, the status quo cannot exist anymore. There have to be changes."

Drought measures

It's not yet clear how water restrictions, which were enacted by local water agencies in August, may affect the area's total use of groundwater this year. The restrictions affect customers of the water agencies but not golf courses, farms or other entities that pump water from their own wells.

The drought measures restrict outdoor watering times and also prohibit, among other things, hosing down driveways or excessive watering that causes runoff onto streets. Those new rules had an impact in cutting home water use significantly in August and September. Less so in October. During that month, water use declined 3.9 percent among customers of the Coachella Valley Water District as compared to the same month last year. In September, in contrast, CVWD customers cut back by 9 percent.

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A purple pipe indicating recycled water at the Palm Desert County Club will soon fill the club's irrigation pond with a blend of recycled water and Colorado River water.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

 

The Desert Water Agency's pumping of groundwater held steady in October, increasing 0.7 percent as compared to the same month last year. That came after DWA customers cut back 10 percent in August and 11 percent in September.

The area lagged behind the statewide average of a 6.7 percent reduction in water use in October, and is far short of the state's goal of reducing home water use by 20 percent this year.

The Coachella Valley has long had some of the lowest water rates in California. Some of the area's water suppliers also rank among the biggest water users in the state on a per-capita basis, according to data collected by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The private Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company, which serves more than 6,000 people in Bermuda Dunes and surrounding areas, was near the top of the list. It reported that its customers used 521 gallons per person per day in October — nearly five times more than the statewide average of 109 gallons per day.

The Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency also ranked high, with average per-capita water use of 337 gallons per day and 322 gallons per day, respectively.

DWA and CVWD have said those figures are skewed because they're based on the population of full-time residents, leaving out large numbers of seasonal residents who spend their winters here. The heat of the desert also leads to more outdoor evaporation and can push water use higher than in other areas.

Still, the customers of some other water agencies in the desert manage to get by with much less. Mission Springs Water District, for instance, reported that people in Desert Hot Springs are using 141 gallons per person per day. In Yucca Valley, the Hi-Desert Water District's customers use 75 gallons a day.

Concerns about the future

The drought's impact has been particularly apparent on the outskirts of Palm Springs, where a network of 19 groundwater recharge ponds in the desert would normally be taking in periodic flows of water from the Colorado River. This year, the ponds at the Whitewater Groundwater Replenishment Facility have been largely dry, leaving expanses of cracked silt baking in the sun.

The water is normally obtained in exchange for allotted amounts from the canals and pipelines of the State Water Project, and this year those water deliveries were cut to just 5 percent of water agencies' full entitlements. Despite recent rainstorms, state officials have initially projected 10 percent of full water deliveries in 2015.

If the initial projection holds, that would mean a second year of much less water flowing in to recharge the aquifer. And the decreasing amounts of water flowing in, combined with the area's steady use of water, has prompted some people to call for more substantial efforts to cut back.

"We could use significantly less," said Jessyca Frederick, co-founder and CEO of the La Quinta-based company Water Wise Now, which sells irrigation equipment and helps homeowners convert to more efficient irrigation systems. She said that while some people in the area are very interested in using less water, the issue doesn't seem to be a high priority in the collective consciousness.

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A water feature at the Palm Desert County Club sits adjacent to a green on the course. The PDCC has reduced it water use by 10% since 2012.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

 

Frederick said the water districts' long-term plans to combat declining groundwater levels are based on big assumptions about continued access to large quantities of water from the Colorado River and other sources. In the meantime, she noted, the agencies have opted for less stringent water restrictions than some other areas of the state.

More lawns are also being planted as new homes are built in the desert, and fresh turf has recently been rolled out along portions of Highway 111.

City governments, for their part, haven't been taking action to enforce ordinances that outlaw wasting water, Frederick said. "Most cities in the valley have a municipal code saying that runoff is never allowed, and yet it happens all the time and it is completely unenforced."

If water districts and local governments don't approach the issue of water conservation with greater urgency, Frederick said she is concerned the area's groundwater levels will keep dropping.

As groundwater levels sink, pumping costs increase. Sinking ground can also damage roads, homes and other infrastructure.

"We have to ask ourselves: how long do we want the aquifer to last?" Frederick said. "We're choosing to spend it in order to maintain our habits. But at some point, that may not be feasible anymore."

Others say they perceive a growing recognition in the community of a need to adjust to using less.

Paul Ortega, a landscape consultant and co-founder of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley, said he was encouraged by the water districts' recent decisions to increase spending on programs that pay homeowners for each square foot of grass removed.

"To me, it's a real sign of a commitment to address the current water situation," Ortega said. "What I would love to see in the future is a commitment to not even having turf put in in the first place."

Richard Oberhaus, a board member of the Desert Water Agency, is among those who recently removed his lawn to replace it with desert landscaping. He said he has been pleased with the public's response in trying to save water.

"Can we do more? Certainly," Oberhaus said. "We're constantly going to have to raise the bar to conserve water in Southern California."

ABOUT THE SERIES: Beyond Drought

As California confronts some of its driest times on record, the state also faces bigger, more systemic problems of growing water scarcity that go beyond the drought. Even in years with more rainfall, there often isn't enough water to slake the thirst of agriculture and growing cities and towns.

Heavy pumping of groundwater is drawing down aquifers, while reservoirs are running low in places from the Central Valley to the Colorado River. This growing gap, with demands for water regularly outstripping supplies, is prompting difficult questions about what sorts of uses should take precedence and how to stretch water supplies further.

In this series of occasional articles, The Desert Sun is examining how the region is hitting its water limits and how those constraints are affecting life and prompting discussion about rethinking California's water priorities.

Read the series and other recent water coverage at DesertSun.com/water.

State still deep in drought despite rains

For California to begin to emerge from three years of drought, the state would need many more storms of the sort that have rolled in from the Pacific in the past week.

Reservoirs have fallen so low that the state Department of Water Resources says refilling them would take a full winter of precipitation well above normal.

"The drought has come on us over the course of three years, and it'll take at the very least a wet year of a magnitude of 150 percent of what we normally see," said Arthur Hinojosa, chief of the department's hydrology and flood operations office in Sacramento. "A 150-percent year usually is enough to fill reservoirs."

Depleted groundwater aquifers, however, are another matter because it takes time for water to seep back into the ground, he said. How much time isn't clear. The rate of recharge varies depending on the area, and some aquifers have permanently lost storage capacity as the ground has sunk and filled in the empty spaces where there used to be water.

Groundwater levels have been dropping sharply across the state, with especially large declines in Central Valley farming areas.

Hinojosa said state officials will be able to offer a better prognosis of the water deficit in January, when the first snow survey of the winter will be carried out in the Sierra Nevada. In the meantime, he said, this week's rains have certainly helped.

"Everyone has benefited from the precipitation," he said. "We need a lot more of these to start making headway."

About the data

The Desert Sun requested groundwater production data from the area's public water agencies under the California Public Records Act, seeking to assess trends in how much groundwater is being pumped by different categories of users.

The water agencies provided monthly data on groundwater pumping by all users in the area between 2009 and August 2014.

The data do not include recycled water or Colorado River water delivered by canal to golf courses and farms. Considering those sources of water as well as groundwater, agriculture accounted for 49.5 percent of total water use last year in the Coachella Valley Water District's area. Golf courses used 17.2 percent, while the water district and other users accounted for 33.3 percent of total water use.

This article originally appeared on The Desert Sun website on Dec. 5, 2014.

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