How can desert surf parks, lagoon resort be approved amid drought? Here's what law says

Palm Springs Surf Club is slated to fill the former Wet N Wild water park in Palm Springs.
Janet Wilson
Palm Springs Desert Sun

Four surf wave parks, an ice hockey arena with two large chilled rinks and a Disney “beachfront” resort and lagoon are among water-intensive developments that have been approved or are under consideration in the Coachella Valley. 

Major developers are offering up water-themed projects in this parched desert region like there’s no tomorrow, even as a prolonged drought continues across the Southwest, and the Colorado River reservoirs that replenish area water supply dip to historic lows. 

The high-end projects are being proposed and approved while low-income, largely Latino residents in mobile home parks at the eastern edge of the valley, in some cases not far from new luxury projects, continue to live with contaminated wells or no running water.

Related:3 of California's 5 biggest water users are in the Coachella Valley. Who's consuming the most?

Water officials say state laws and policies leave them no choice. Under Proposition 218, passed by voters in 1996 to limit potential tax dollar abuse, they cannot use a dime of hefty reserves to hook up low-income communities that can't afford to pay for new pipes.

At the same time, they say they must issue “will serve” letters to new projects that can afford the infrastructure if city councils, planning commissions or the Riverside County Board of Supervisors approve them, as long as a careful assessment shows they will have enough supply on hand for 20 years for each project.

"Unless there's a huge change in state water laws, that's the law as written," said  Coachella Valley Water District spokeswoman Lorraine Garcia.

Water policy experts and community advocates agreed that assessment was correct, and some expressed frustration. 

State could ban new construction hook-ups

The California Water Resources Control Board could halt water hook-ups for new construction here — or anywhere else in the state —  under emergency provisions of health and safety codes.

If the board determined that it needed to preserve water supply to fight fires, maintain fisheries and meet other critical needs, it could halt hook-ups, even to projects that had already been approved.

Ask The Desert Sun: Who's paying to water the future Storyliving by Disney land?

"The State Water Board has authority to initiate a connection ban on new water connections to a public water system in extreme cases where there is danger of a water outage occurring due to inadequate source capacity," said spokeswoman Jackie Carpenter in an emailed statement in response to questions from The Desert Sun.

However, she said, the board would probably only do so on a selective basis, after other measures had failed.

"It is more likely that the State Water Board will order the (local) water system to address its sources capacity issues with other steps" first, she said. 

Those would include implementing more conservation measures, adding new sources of water, and following its state-approved water contingency plan. 

But Carpenter said that local governments can take action on their own.

"Local moratoria can be done under local rules, so local authorities would determine how those ... are set up. They may choose to allow those who have obtained 'will serve' letters to continue to receive water or not."

Canyon Estates Homeowners' Association in Palm Springs voted to end fall lawn "scalping" and overseeding for fall 2021 to help conserve water in response to the state drought. The Desert Water Agency is urging others to do the same. Photo taken in late August 2021.

During the last prolonged drought from 2012 to 2016, the water board ordered mostly smaller water districts in Northern California with junior water rights to impose a moratorium on new hook-ups. One district appealed, but could not add new customers for years, until it provided verified documentation of available well water supply.

Urban water providers must also have state-approved management and contingency  plans, which can include local moratoriums on adding new customers. CVWD, for example, has a six-stage contingency plan that includes a local moratorium at stage 5. It is one of a number of draconian measures that could be applied. But Garcia said about half of all of the district's vast aquifer supply would need to be gone before such a measure would take effect.

"We're not in short supply; we have plenty of supply," said Garcia. 

But when it comes to projects that have already been approved, local attempts to not provide water have run into legal battles. For example, the Central Coast town of Cambria's community services district last summer declared a Stage 4 water shortage, but on March 11, its attorney told the agency's board it had tight contractual obligations to provide water for a home approved in 2001 that the owner now wants to build. 

In other words, a previously approved project with a "will serve" letter for water from the local supplier must legally be grandfathered in, the attorney said.

But Carpenter, of the state water board, said while local water providers can set their own criteria for moratoriums, "For clarity, a 'will serve' letter is not the same as a legal water right."  

Harsh criticism for outdoor water projects

Some Coachella Valley residents say as climate change-induced droughts increase, the valley's water agencies and other officials — including in Sacramento — need to stop opening the spigots for a flood of new high-end developments with large aquatic features.

"We live in the desert. We must stop this travesty against our water supply.  The time is long overdue to halt these reckless water-intensive recreation projects," said Alena Callimanis of La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development. 

The group has soared to 1,000 members in recent months, as it has expanded it focus from battling the Coral Mountain surf resort project in La Quinta to also contest the Thermal Beach Club project, Palm Desert's Desert Willow surf resort, and the Rancho Mirage lagoon community that is being developed in conjunction with Disney.

La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development did not oppose the Acrisure Arena project being built along Interstate 10 for an American Hockey League franchise and concerts; Callimanis said the project's double ice rinks will use far less water than the outdoor proposals, and it includes hefty energy efficiency and other "green" measures. But environmentalists raised concerns about its water needs of about 6.7 million gallons annually during the county approval process.

The group has also not specifically opposed a Palm Springs project for a smaller, public surf wave park at the site of the old Wet N' Wild water park. If all the surf projects are built, the arid Coachella Valley would have the world's largest cluster of artificial wave parks.

Related:Drought-stricken California imposes new round of water cuts

The developers and their consultants argue the surf wave parks use far less water than golf courses. But opponents counter that the waves and the swimming lagoon require potable drinking water quality supply, because of close human contact, while golf links can — and increasingly do — use recycled water.

Callimanis and others expressed concern about the inequities in laws and policies that provide water infrastructure to wealthy developers but not to low-income residents.

"We believe these dynamics in state law are very unfair, as they facilitate wasteful luxury development, while making it more difficult for jurisdictions to extend water infrastructure to lower-income communities," said Omar Gastelum, policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works with area communities on environmental justice and other issues. "These laws are the perfect example of how environmental racism and lack of equity still harm local communities."

Careful planning for all types of service

Local water officials say they have planned carefully to ensure supply is available long-term for all types of projects. CVWD and other water districts sent updated groundwater sustainability plans to the California Department of Water Resources by Jan. 1, concluding the vast Indio sub-basin aquifer that underlies much of the valley is in good shape, with plenty on tap through 2045.

Some experts note that plan relies on increased supplies from the Colorado River, and far larger supplies from the State Water Project than are currently being offered. University of Saskatchewan hydrology professor Jay Famiglietti, a global water scarcity expert who tracks water in the West, in December 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.

But veteran state water policy expert Ellen Hanak, vice president of the Water Policy Center at the  Public Policy Institute of California, said that CVWD and other large Coachella Valley water suppliers have worked hard to restore and maintain supply in the region's main aquifer, and lay out reasonable future plans.

The latest sustainable groundwater management plan update includes a 14% increase in water in a category dubbed "other," which includes surf wave parks.

There are other factors at play. The Coachella Valley has long been known as a developer-friendly tourism and second home mecca. In an effort to lure younger visitors and buyers, real estate companies are moving away from golf course resorts and toward projects with hiking and biking trails and water elements that allow patrons to cool off on blisteringly hot days.

Rancho Mirage approved a specific plan for the Disney project — which is now being called Cotino — in 2019, including the lagoon, prior to the theme park giant's involvement. CVWD also signed off on those plans, which initially called for a 34-acre lagoon, though that has been reduced to 24 acres.

CVWD's Garcia said the district cannot deny or approve projects, and doesn't take sides.

"They're being called water-hungry projects, but we're not calling them that," said Garcia. "Just because we're providing the water, it doesn't mean we support a project or don't support a project. It's all about supply."

The district, along with project consultants and city or county staff, conducts a "water assessment" to determine if there is adequate supply even during extreme, multi-year dry spells, and that a project is within state-mandated maximum allowances for outdoor water use, among other reviews. If so, the district must issue a "will serve letter," said district staff.

As for the current drought, Garcia said different regions of the state have vastly different conditions: "We live in a climate that's always in a drought, no matter what the governor's saying. The Coachella Valley is always in a drought, we average about 3.5 inches of rainwater per year, so we are always planning for the dry years."

She said CVWD's preplanning, combined with the 200 square-mile aquifer under most of the valley that is continually replenished with Colorado River imports, means this arid, hot region is actually better equipped to cope with multi-year lack of rainfall than northern parts of the state with wetter weather, because those areas have little to no supply tucked underground.

A resident of Oasis Mobile Home Park opens his shower faucet to gather water for cooking. The park was cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for having dangerous levels of arsenic.

Long-terms woes for low income residents

CVWD's latest groundwater plan does budget water for hooking up low-income areas, as grants and state and federal funds to do it are obtained. Millions of dollars have been won, and more is being sought.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, CVWD Vice President Cástulo R. Estrada and Sergio Carranza, executive director of Pueblo Unido CDC, will hold a press conference to discuss $2.7 million in federal funding recently appropriated to improve clean drinking water access. The funds will aid the construction of a new water transmission line to underserved communities in the eastern Coachella Valley that currently rely on unreliable private wells.  

Having enough water is not a problem, but funding the infrastructure is a challenge.

"The customer bases for these low-income areas tend to be small, so the water supply is not the issue there," said Hanak. But she said it is "unfortunately correct" that Proposition 218 and other measures prohibit districts from using current customers' funds, unless a majority of current customers vote to approve such use. CVWD had $341 million in reserve funds at the start of this fiscal year.

"Proposition 218 requires a strict calculation for property-related fees, so that they must be strictly tied to the service provided to the property, " agreed Kyle Jones, policy and legal director for Community Water Center, which helps low-income California communities advocate for water solutions. "We can't use ratepayer funds from the larger system to pay for improvements to connect the other system."

Both said newer state laws — such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, which says all Californians have a legal right to clean, reliable supply — are raising awareness of the problem. 

USA Today Climate Point: Want more environment and energy news? Sign up here for free.

Juanita Arroyo, a resident of Oasis Mobile Home Park, where she and neighbors have lived with contaminated well water for years, said more needs to be done faster. 

"I think they're not prioritizing us in a plan to get things done quickly. Instead, they prioritize other projects that have nothing to do with resolving this issue, like a racetrack or water park with a wave pool," said Arroyo. "How do those help the community? Maybe they'll bring tourism revenue to the area, but how shameful."

Children test out water delivered to the Oasis Mobile Home Park by the Coachella Valley Water District.

Desert Sun reporter Eliana Perez contributed to this report.

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