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Growth, Golf Drain Groundwater Around Palm Springs

posted on December 21, 2007


PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) -- This desert oasis east of Los Angeles sold itself for decades on water and all the luxury it brings: strings of emerald golf courses, lush resorts and manicured neighborhoods with sparkling pools. Now, the region that water built suddenly finds itself on shifting ground - and in danger of drying up. Parts of the Coachella Valley have sunk more than a foot in a decade as groundwater was sucked up to feed a thirsty economy. A study released this week has left officials scrambling to keep the tap on without jeopardizing more than 120 world-class golf resorts - among them PGA West, Bermuda Dunes Country Club and Mission Hills - or slowing a population that has ballooned by 25 percent in just five years. "We have a problem and we have to deal with it," said Steven Robbins, chief engineer for the Coachella Valley Water District. "But our goal is to not have water be a constraint to growth. We don't want to be the ones to say 'Yea' or 'Nay' to growth." Water officials are pursuing a range of solutions to ease the pressure on the aquifer, from a giant pipeline to import water for golf courses to giving away timers to regulate home sprinklers. And though there hasn't been any damage, there are fears that if more isn't done, the uneven turf eventually could fracture sewer lines, crack roads and crumble foundations, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs. Scientists with the water district and the U.S. Geological Survey found that the earth sank anywhere from several inches to more than 13 inches at a dozen locations between 1996 and 2005, including in Indian Wells, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Coachella. Other places in California have sunk deeper, but they are so rural that there was no significant damage to structures. The San Joaquin Valley in Central California's breadbasket sank about 30 feet in 50 years and the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles, has sunk about 6 feet, Robbins said. The study also found a shortfall of billions of gallons of water in the aquifer, primarily as a result of growth that has pushed gated communities farther into the harsh desert on the eastern edge of the crescent-shaped valley. The area averages less than 3 inches of rainfall a year. Some cities, once considered rural outposts, have grown more than 50 percent since 2000 and the valley's population, about 400,000, is projected to hit 1 million by 2060, according to the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership. "Areas that were completely rural five years ago are now completely covered with urban housing," said Patti Reyes, the water district's assistant director of engineering. "All that puts more demand on the groundwater supply." Residential homes suck up about one-third of the valley's total annual water use, and most of it is pure groundwater. Farmers, who account for about half the water use, irrigate almost entirely with recycled or imported Colorado River water brought in through a branch of the All-American Canal. But golf courses are also to blame: together, they use about 32.5 billion gallons of water a year - most of it groundwater - and some soak the turf with more than 6 million gallons a day during annual reseeding. Just one-third of the valley's 120 courses currently use recycled or imported water from the river for some or all of their landscaping needs. Some private clubs resist recycled water because it can appear cloudy when used in lakes, said Rick Sall, secretary for the Hi-Lo Desert Golf Course Superintendents Association. Despite that water use, many golf club managers were surprised to hear that the valley was sinking. Still, they said it's unfair to target their industry in the water crisis. They point to a growing number of clubs considering recycled or imported water and a rise in the popularity of "desert-style" courses with about half the turf and more efficient drip irrigation systems. "Golf courses always get the brunt of the blame for everything that goes wrong," said Jess Troche, superintendent at the 36-hole Mountain Vista golf course in Palm Desert. "We save as much as we can, as opposed to the typical homeowner who goes into the street and sprays all over the sidewalk," said Troche, who uses recycled water on his course. Water district officials are trying to wean golf courses and other large resorts off groundwater and onto recycled or imported water, so the purest stuff can be used by residents. They are nearly done with the first phase of a $70 million pipeline that will deliver a blend of recycled and Colorado River water to about 50 golf courses by 2015. Also under construction is a $40 million facility that will replenish the aquifer with billions of gallons from the river each year. A similar $70 million facility could be built in the next five years. But some worry that even those projects will not be enough to sustain the region if it continues to grow without more conservation. Statistics show the Coachella Valley adds about 53 people each day - and more than 5,000 new homes a year - in an arid landscape. "We're not so rural anymore and if it gets worse, we're going to see major problems," said Robbins. "It would cost orders of magnitude more after the fact than it would cost us to prevent the problem if we can all work together."


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