Coachella Valley water plan shows plenty on tap through 2045. But will supply really hold up?

Janet Wilson
Palm Springs Desert Sun
The Coachella branch of the All-American Canal snakes between a housing development and a man-made water-ski lake next to the open desert in north Indio.

As the West grapples with record lows on the Colorado River and California’s reservoirs approach rock bottom, water suppliers in the arid Coachella Valley plan to increase the already substantial amount of water they take from the drought-parched river and maintain reliance on dwindling state supplies. They also are counting on unbuilt dams, pipes and other costly infrastructure to guarantee future supply. 

Overall, demand for water in the Coachella Valley will grow 8% by 2045, with a 30% increase in municipal needs, mostly in fast-growing Coachella and Indio, four desert water suppliers predict. Agricultural demand, which still outstrips domestic use, is expected to decline by 3%, while supply for other needs like surf parks, fish farms and duck ponds is expected to climb 14%, and for golf courses by 2%. 

The details are contained in a required draft water sustainability update by the agencies. The authors say it is a healthy report card that shows the water basin will remain in good shape. But critics say even if the agencies have legal rights to water imports, it’s a house of cards that ignores what's occurring across the West. 

"Our plan has worked, delivering the results ... and the (agencies) have confidence that we can continue to manage the basin sustainably with this plan update," said Zoe Rodriguez del Rey, Coachella Valley Water District's water resources manager. 

But Jay Famiglietti, a global water scarcity expert who tracks water in the West via satellite data, called the desert water districts’ strategy “a dream, not a plan.”

“I think it’s completely out of sync with our climate change reality, because the water won’t be there to support it in the long term," said Famiglietti, a hydrology professor and executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

The plan shows while the agencies have reversed aquifer losses in the past decade, their main strategy for doing that and for meeting current and future demand — including for new surf wave parks, golf courses and luxury development lagoons — is to import water, and lots of it. 

Two-thirds of all needed water will continue to come from the drought-ravaged Colorado River. The amount will grow by 11.4 billion gallons more per year by 2045, on top of the 131 billion gallons the arid Coachella Valley already receives from that system annually.

Four large Coachella Valley water districts predict an overalll 8% rise in demand by 2045. The category of "other" includes new surf parks and other projects with large water features, such as duck ponds.

“We think it’s insane to say you’ll increase Colorado River supply," said Sarah Spinuzzi, senior attorney with Coachella Valley Waterkeeper, which works to protect and enhance water quality and supply in the region. “If the water is not there, you can have senior water rights all you want, but the delivery is not possible. Physically it doesn't exist."

Other key strategies include receiving at least 45% annually of legally allowed imports from the strapped State Water Project. Yet zero supply from the project will be available to local water districts across the state next year beyond health and safety needs, unless major precipitation occurs, State Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth announced Wednesday. Last year, the desert agencies received just 5%, via a swap agreement with Metropolitan Water District.

The plan also counts on costly infrastructure being built in time to better store, pipe, recycle or otherwise marshal moisture into supply. 

The plan update, which must be submitted by Jan. 1 to the State Department of Water Resources, covers the 525-square-mile Indio subbasin. Underlying most of the Coachella Valley, the subbasin stretches from Whitewater Canyon to the top of the Salton Sea, serving Palm Springs, seven other cities and unincorporated eastern Riverside County communities. Area pumpers historically tapped a massive underground aquifer that is the remnant of ancient Lake Cahuilla, but it was badly depleted by 2009.

The Coachella Valley Water District, Desert Water Agency, Coachella Water Authority and Indio Water Authority are among more than 100 water districts in California whose groundwater basin supplies dropped low enough that they are required under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 to document how they will successfully balance future supply and demand. Four separate votes on the plan are now scheduled for December by the districts' boards over the next month.

The plan does not include Mission Springs Water District, which supplies fast-growing Desert Hot Springs, but which is considered a different supply area by state officials, and which is preparing its own plan.

Purple pipes carry recycled water and Colorado River water to golf courses and other large water users across the valley on June 2, 2015.

'No one should expect to come to the desert and be at the beach'

Water agency staff said hydrologists, engineers and other consultants had made extensive efforts to provide and analyze new data to accurately predict future needs and supply. The update predicts the area's population will grow by 53% between now and 2045, adding 213,000 people.

“This Plan demonstrates that the (agencies) have the necessary tools to support effective water management in the region,” the weighty draft concludes.  

Water from the Colorado River fills percolation ponds to replenish groundwater near Palm Springs, Calif., Wed. July, 5, 2017.

Yet in August, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared the first-ever Colorado River Basin water shortage and implemented 18% cuts to Arizona’s supply under the terms of a pre-negotiated drought plan. California and other states could face cuts in the coming years. 

“I’m sure cities (across the West) trying to figure out how they’re going to get enough water will not be happy that these districts are taking Colorado River water for wave parks,” said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, policy coordinator for water programs with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works with underrepresented communities to address inequality. 

Activists also said the plan fails to outline a realistic strategy to bring clean water to hundreds of mobile home parks in the Coachella Valley that have tainted wells or no wells and are not connected to municipal supplies.  

“The modeling in this document must be revised to reflect the true water situation in our valley,” said Alena Callimanis of La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development, who along with neighbors in several mid-valley communities is fighting what she sees as excessive water demand by developers of private surf parks and large lagoons. “No one should expect to come to the desert and be at the beach in this day and age.”

Callimanis also said the plan excluded data for 2020, one of the driest years across the West, overestimates how much the valley can expect in state imports, and appears to severely underestimate evaporation rates from open-water areas. 

Rodriguez del Rey, the CVWD water resources manager overseeing the multi-agency plan, said leaving out 2020 data was a matter of timing, because the analysis was complicated and lengthy. “The plan will be updated again in five years,” she said. "So there are a lot of opportunities to revisit these assumptions and adjust course should water supply outlook look different than the assumptions used in this plan."

The consultants used data from 1995 to 2019 to model the next 25 years, with the authors saying it accurately captures climate change impacts like hotter temperatures and increased droughts.

The Coachella branch of the All-American Canal separates agriculture from open desert in the eastern Coachella Valley, Tuesday, April 15, 2015.

Rodriguez del Rey said: "So far the plan has worked well as evidenced over the last decade by increases in groundwater storage and levels, arresting subsidence, and decreasing water use while still experiencing growth. We report on progress annually ... so even before we get to the next update, we have these checkpoints built in to evaluate progress and be transparent about water supply and groundwater conditions."

She and Katie Evans, spokeswoman for the agencies preparing the plan, including the largest, the Coachella Valley Water District, defended the reliance on imports.  

Both said in emails and phone interviews that the agencies would not use all of the water to which they are legally entitled from the Colorado River. Evans noted the increases are actually transfers from other agencies, so not an overall rise in demand on the river system. They said the plan made “conservative” estimates about what will be available from state water supplies, lower than the average 58% that a 2019 state water resources report said would be available long-term to all districts statewide. 

The state reports are typically issued every two years, and deputy director of the state's groundwater sustainability management office, Paul Gosselin, said California authorities would likely be providing updated guidance to local districts soon on how to best calculate water reliability. He agreed that plans can be adjusted over time via the required five-year updates.

Evans said as senior water rights holders on the Colorado River, CVWD would be taking legal increases. She noted they would also likely be “contributing” some of its legal share by leaving it in Lake Mead reservoir under a 2019 drought contingency plan. 

The level of Lake Mead, which stores Colorado River water for use by California and other states, has declined precipitously during a nearly 20-year drought in the Colorado River Basin.

But a Desert Sun review of all four scenarios laid out in the lengthy draft plan shows each depends on increases in Colorado River supply. Evans said CVWD won increases under a 2003 quantification settlement agreement that diverted Lake Mead reserves from Imperial Valley farmers and the Salton Sea to urban areas. The supply was augmented by an agreement the district made with the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) for state water supply.

Talks are now underway among three states, including California, about storing an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead. While MWD to the north and the Imperial Irrigation District to the south are discussing how much they can save, Evans said, “We are part of the discussion but at this time CVWD is not making a specific contribution to that 500,000 acre-feet.” An acre-foot is enough to supply two to three average households for a year.

Luxury homes sit alongside an artificial pond at Shadow Lakes Estates in Indio on June 1, 2015. At left is the Coachella Canal.

Aquifer rebounds from 2009 lows 

CVWD's Rodriguez del Rey said the plan has plenty of room for “adaptive” management, with a broad menu of options in coming years if certain pieces don’t materialize or are delayed. Besides imports, those include increased recycling of wastewater and of aquifer recharges via construction of pipes and reservoirs, using more non-drinking water on golf courses, figuring out how to better clean salty water imports, and more aggressive conservation. 

Evans added that water is set aside for hooking up dozens or even hundreds of smaller mobile home parks if funds can be obtained to build the infrastructure. The updated plan also includes a 10% buffer for municipal and other potable water uses.

There is good news in the update. A 2010 plan projected 40% growth in population from 2010 to 2020, but actual growth from 2010-2019 was just 10%. (The update does not include 2020 census data, because work on it began before the new census was released, Evans said. Instead, it uses Southern California Association of Governments data, along with aggregated customer billing information and other demographic trend sources.)

Workers build the Coachella Canal in 1946, placing rebar on cut banks of the wasteway. The Salton Sea can be seen in the distance.

Many golf courses now use recycled water. Overall, the demand for urban, agriculture, golf courses and other uses has averaged 150,000 acre-feet less per year than projected in 2010. Subsidence, which can damage wells, and seawater intrusion from the Salton Sea have both been halted.   

Three replenishment facilities now pump large amounts of imported water back into the ground. The underground aquifer has regained substantial amounts of water since hitting a historic low in 2009, recovering approximately 840,000 acre-feet of groundwater, or about 45% of its cumulative depletion from 1970 to 2009.

“The (agencies) have succeeded in reversing historical groundwater trends and are currently — and plan to continue — managing the Indio Subbasin sustainably,” the document says. 

Water from the Colorado River rushes into a groundwater recharge facility near Palm Springs, Calif., Wed. July, 5, 2017.

But even hefty imports might not be enough to slake long-term demand. Buried in the 476-page draft is a scenario that combines climate change and need, and which shows water stored in the giant aquifer under the valley could dwindle by 542,000 acre-feet if costly infrastructure is not built by 2035. Rodriguez del Rey said it was a "baseline" scenario and that deficits would only occur "if no new projects or management actions at any level are implemented."

"That scenario ... is intended as a comparison to emphasize the need to invest in the multi-pronged approach that has been part of the region’s strategy," she said.

The districts are aggressively applying for grants, and two are pitching in to support construction of the delayed Sites Reservoir in Northern California, considered by many to be critical to better storing what precipitation is available in coming decades.

Other serious problems remain in addition to the over-reliance on water imports, say some. Contamination of eastern Coachella Valley wells with arsenic and other contaminants is mapped, but solutions are not identified, they say. Evans said the districts met state monitoring requirements and are working on long-range solutions.

California’s groundwater act, dubbed SGMA for short, requires 115 of the state's 525 basins to show how they will guarantee balanced and clean groundwater supply and demand decades into the future, meaning adequate supplies from area aquifers, rainfall and other replenishment.

“Groundwater sustainability means, ‘will you still have water available for the long term, basically for generations to come, not using it all up now,” said former state water resources spokeswoman Joyia Emard. “It’s there for the future.”

She said the “overarching theme” of SGMA is local control, “because locals have the best information about their own basins, and so they identify their own sustainability goals.”

In addition to a sharp increase in demand from new housing developments, including in Indio and Coachella, the plan outlines a slight increase in water used by golf courses, and a 14% rise in a catch-all category dubbed "other," which includes four proposed water-intensive surf wave projects that, if all are built, would make the Coachella Valley the surf park capital of the world, with more clustered here than anywhere else.

While critics say the water district should stop saying they will supply such projects, Evans said they have no choice by law if water is available. She and others said it is up to city and county planners and officials to approve or deny project approvals. 

The distinctive water line of ancient Lake Cahuilla on Coral Mountain, right, shows how high the water once was here.  Coral Mountain Resort is proposed for this land and would include a 16-acre wave park here in south La Quinta, June 17, 2021.

Subsidence, contamination tackled in plans

The plans must be approved by the state Department of Water Resources. If a local basin does not fix problems, water contractors can face hearings, fees and even possible takeover by the State Water Resources Control Board, “though no one wants that,” said Emard.

There are different priority levels: The Borrego Springs Water basin, for example, was one of 21 designated as “critically over-drafted,” the worst off. With no legal import rights, tunnels or pipes, that local water district struck an agreement with farmers, resorts and golf courses to voluntarily slash water use by 74% to try to guarantee the town's future existence. 

Most water districts subject to SGMA review face their first deadline to submit a plan on Jan. 1. The Indo subbasin is five years ahead because it already was addressing sustainability when the state law was passed.

It is in the least severe of the state’s SGMA categories — medium priority — because the agencies adopted and have been implementing a local sustainability plan since 2002, and storage in the aquifer has rebounded substantially. When SGMA took effect in 2014, groundwater agencies with robust local plans were allowed to submit them as alternates. The Indio alternate plan was found to meet state criteria in 2017, but must undergo an update every five years.

Golfers play at Silverock Resort as water flows through the Coachella Branch of the All-American Canal in La Quinta, Friday, July 16, 2021.

Coachella Valley a 'really good test case'

Famiglietti, the hydrology professor, said the Indio subbasin plan is “a really good test case, really pushing the envelope” for local water providers across California and state regulators about whether they will come to grips with the rapidly changing climate and mega-droughts. Dozens more districts are submitting their first plans by Jan. 1.

"In California, sustainable groundwater management to a lot of people means no change," he said. "But there’s no way around it. The only way we can get to be sustainable is to have incredible increases in efficiency and huge reductions in supply.”

The Coachella branch of the All-American Canal runs along the base of the Chocolate Mountains near the Riverside and Imperial county line.

Upcoming meetings

The following board meetings will be held to "review and adopt" the water plan update. See links for more information on how to watch the livestreams.

Coachella Valley Water District – Dec. 7, 8:30 a.m., 75515 Hovley Lane East, Palm Desert. Comments accepted live or send to Sylvia Bermudez, PO Box 1058, Coachella, CA 92236 or sbermudez@cvwd.org or 760-398-2651  http://cvwd.org/151/Board-Agendas

Coachella Water Authority – Dec. 8, 6 p.m., Coachella City Hall, 1515 Sixth St., Coachella. No online info. Send comments to "Elected City Clerk, Coachella Civic Center, 53990 Enterprise Way, Coachella, CA 92236 or email cityclerk@coachella.org

Desert Water Agency – Dec. 7, 8 a.m., virtual meeting only https://dwa.org/connect-with-us/calendar/ or https://dwa.org/events/board-meeting-42/ Comments accepted live at meeting, or send to Sylvia Baca,  PO Box 1710, Palm Springs, CA 92263 or SBaca@dwa.org or (760) 323-4971 ext. 114

Indio Water Authority (City Council serves as IWA board) – Dec. 15, 5 p.m. at City Council Chambers, 150 Civic Center Mall, Indio  https://www.indio.org/your_government/city_clerk/agendas.htm  Zoom Webinar ID: 883 6835 9918 / Passcode: 931694 Send advance comments to Sabdi Sanchez, 100 Civic Center Mall, Indio, CA 92201 or email SSanchez@indio.org

Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today Climate Point. She can be reached at jwilson@gannett.com or @janetwilson66 on Twitter