This is a valley that water built.
Cheap and abundant, water has turned an inhospitable desert into a Garden of Eden — something it was never meant to be and may not remain, even as tens of thousands of new homes are planned.
Ordered by the state to cut water use by 36 percent, residents in this vast sweep of sand — which stretches from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Salton Sea and includes world-class resort cities such as Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage — have adopted tough conservation measures. And the valley’s forward-looking main utility is busy seeking and securing supplies for the future.
But the region’s trajectory — a growth-based economy dependent upon shrinking resources — represents California’s fate writ large: a place with a never-say-never frontier spirit, as it rushes into a hotter, drier and more crowded future.
“When will water start to run out? We need to start worrying — 10 years ago,” said geologist, archaeologist and local historian Harry Quinn, 76, who as a boy climbed on sand dunes now covered by housing tracts with shimmering backyard swimming pools.
Few places in California better symbolize the tension over the urge to grow and the growing thirst for diminishing water — the focus of the latest installment of this newspaper’s ongoing series, “A State of Drought.”
Long ago, the Coachella Valley held ephemeral lakes and later an abundance of artesian wells. Now it is one of the driest places in North America, getting only 3 to 4 inches of rain every year. But it’s also one of the fastest-growing regions in the state. The valley’s population has surged from 1,000 in the early 1900s to about 500,000 today — and is expected to soar to 812,000 by 2035.
Since the drought began four years ago, six major developments have been approved that will add more than 30,000 homes and retail shops. Not a single recent development proposal has been killed because of water worries. And like other parts of California hit hard by the Great Recession, the valley welcomes the flow of new investment.
The scarcity of water hasn’t slowed the rush to build throughout the Golden State. Near Ventura, more than 20,000 homes are proposed in the ranchland of the Santa Clarita Valley, straining an area that critics say is already experiencing dry wells.
Farther north, 25,000 homes are being considered along Interstate 5, creating a whole new town in the parched southern San Joaquin Valley. And another 10,000 homes are planned in the golden hills near Folsom, where water levels are extremely low at the region’s reservoir, Folsom Lake.
In this historic drought, only a few cities, such as Montecito and Sierra Madre, have put a moratorium on water service connections to halt development.
That’s not under consideration here, in Coachella Valley.
“Based on what we know today, we are able to supply water to the projects that we’ve approved,” said Patti Reyes, planning and special program manager of the Coachella Valley Water District, the largest of the valley’s five water agencies.
Coachella Valley lacks nearly every natural asset: harbors, forests, rich soils, wild rivers. Its summer sun is pounding and merciless. When arid winds whirl down steep canyons and rush into the valley, residents retire like rattlesnakes from the unbearable heat. Locals call the sedative effect of its heat “guacamole brain.”
Yet the valley has been transformed by a succession of human ambitions, from the irrigated lemon and orange groves of 1920s land speculators to the irrigated fairways of 121 golf courses, including Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison’s private 19-hole golf course, with the extra hole available for playoffs.
What supports such prosperity?
Water imported from distant parts of California and the West.
Like most of Southern California, the valley has strong legal rights to the Colorado River, whose water is delivered via a concrete-lined aqueduct from the Rocky Mountains. It also has State Water Project rights to the northern Sierra Nevada’s Feather River and Lake Oroville.
Because of the drought, the valley received only 20 percent of its State Water Project allocation this year. It supplements the state water with supplies purchased from the Yuba River.
Underneath the valley is a large underground aquifer, historically overpumped but now largely replenished by imported water from the State Water Project and the Colorado River. It also is entitled to snow melt from the San Gorgonio Mountains to the north.
Such diverse supplies make the desert water surprisingly affordable: Like many water utilities, Coachella Valley Water District’s rates are tiered, to discourage waste. But the base rate for customers here is only $1.12 to $1.69 a unit (748 gallons).
Palo Altans pay $7.52 a unit. San Jose Water Co. customers pay $5.50 to $6. East Bay Municipal Utility District customers pay $4.30. In Los Angeles, the same amount of water is $5.06.
Aware of its good fortune, Coachella Valley fiercely protects its supplies, both legally and logistically. Buried below the valley is a 50-inch pipeline that delivers Colorado River water to a plant that treats and delivers water to 53 golf courses. River water not used for irrigation is percolated into the groundwater basin to recharge the aquifer. Mandatory water restrictions are in place.
Centuries ago, small springs and shallow hand-dug wells offered Cahuilla Indians relief from the baked, naked desert. In the 1860s, stagecoaches, followed by the railroad, delivered some intrepid tourists. Cattle ranchers settled in modest adobe homes.
“Water was a very limiting factor for a long time,” Quinn said. “But with electricity came water because you could pump.”
A SECLUDED OASIS
The valley’s secluded oasis exoticism lured Hollywood’s A-list, from Rudolph Valentino to Theda Bara to Bing Crosby to Cary Grant and Marlon Brando.
“I’ll never forget my first reaction to Palm Springs,” William Powell, debonair star of the “Thin Man” films, said in a 1963 interview about his first visit in 1925. “There was all this sand and no place to go except the Desert Inn. I remember thinking, ‘How can anyone voluntarily come here to live?’ ”
By 1960, though, “the valley was a magical mixture of low-key architecture and very unique desert hideaways,” recalled Kevin Nelson, 62, whose father waited tables at the fabled Racquet Club. “Date palms lined major roads.”
Nancy Sinatra learned to swim here. Her father, Frank, hosted golf tournaments on velvet-green fairways. Shirley Temple and her parents were photographed in colorful gardens. They were followed by dreamers, schemers and snowbirds seeking respite from long winters.
President Barack Obama has visited five times in the last two years, golfing at Ellison’s 246-acre Porcupine Creek compound and the Annenberg Foundation’s historic Sunnylands estate.
It’s so lush that a dozen allergists have opened practices. Locals say high-pollen days used to be rare, but today non-native grasses, olive trees and ambrosia trigger runny noses and itchy eyes.
A vector control agency was created to combat a new waterborne pest: the mosquito.
The valley’s golf courses, among the most geographically concentrated in the nation, suck up 34.6 billion gallons of water annually — enough to supply 483,720 Californians. According to the water district, more than half pump groundwater and the rest use either recycled water, Colorado River water or a blend of both.
Water is essential to this growing economy. Vacationers are flocking to Rancho Las Palmas — a verdant 240-acre resort featuring Splashtopia, a 2-acre water playground with a 450-foot lazy river and water slides. Multimillion-dollar homes are for sale at new subdivisions such as Shadow Lake Estates, built around its own artificial lake where, the ads say, “swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding and water skiing await you.”
“People come from all over” on nonstop seasonal flights from New York City, Toronto, Vancouver, Denver and other major cities, said real estate agent Jennie Robinson, a single-digit-handicap golfer who specializes in homes on luxury golf courses. “Tourism generates more revenue and jobs than anything else.”
Because of the large underground aquifer, “water has never been an issue with us,” she said.
But there’s trouble in paradise: The drought has led to a scarcity of water here and across California. And according to the state Department of Water Resources, population pressures will boost urban demand for water statewide by nearly 3 million acre-feet annually by 2050 — five times what the city of Los Angeles used in a normal year before the drought.
To make matters worse, experts predict that water supplies will shrink.
That’s because change caused by global warming is likely to reduce already historically low snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada. Lawsuits may commit more Northern California water to help endangered fish. And Southern California’s historic rights to the Colorado River may be challenged by other fast-growing states.
In Coachella Valley, the state’s new groundwater law might make it hard to tap the valley’s vast underground aquifer. Already, there are legal fights over the aquifer’s future. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is suing the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency, saying they are drawing too much out of the aquifer, which flows partly under tribal land.
Meanwhile, the most desirable part of the valley is running out of room — putting development pressures on even more improbable places.
Water has been promised to Travertine Point, a 14,000-home development on the edge of the Salton Sea, 20 miles from the nearest town. The go-ahead has also been given to the 7,161-home Kohl Ranch community, to be built around a 4.5-mile auto racing track and a lake in Thermal. A third plan, a massive multiuse project called La Entrada, built in the cactus- and creosote-covered hills above the modest town of Coachella, envisions 7,800 homes plus restaurants, shops, offices, churches and four schools.
Civic leaders argue that nature is no match for human imagination, money, technical know-how and urban planning.
“We have to plan responsibly for growth to occur,” said the water district’s Reyes. “People have to live somewhere.”
By 2045, the region is projected to be short about 119,000 acre-feet of water a year, the district concedes. It aims to address the problem by saving 100,000 acre-feet through conservation. Additional water can be saved by recycling wastewater, district officials say.
Eventually, growth will be supported by expensive projects: a desalination plant to treat the water that drains from farmers’ fields — water that contains a complex mixture of salt and other dissolved chemicals; expanded recycling; additional groundwater pumping; and treatment and purchase of water from other locales. The projected cost of implementing the plan is $8.86 billion over 35 years, or $253 million a year.
PLENTY OF WHAT-IFS
But critics challenge the district’s assumptions. What if allotments from the State Water Project continue to fall? What if future Colorado River deliveries aren’t so ironclad? What if there’s no outside water to buy?
“It’s all based on legal rights. But if there is no water, what good is a legal right?” said Chris Brown, a Sacramento water consultant. “What if there is a simultaneous drought in California and the Colorado Basin? What then?”
The critics argue that the district’s projections are based on outdated and overly optimistic information.
“It looks like speculation built on assumptions, ignoring current conditions, let alone what has happened over the last 15 years,” said Conner Everts of the Southern California Watershed Alliance.
Longtime residents worry: What if this four-year drought turns into a megadrought that lasts decades?
“I have lived in the California deserts most of my life, and it seems nothing in the desert can last very long,” said Ruth Nolan, an author, conservationist and associate professor at the College of the Desert. “You can build a paradise and the sand eventually reclaims it. … Whatever people build to make permanent, the desert can bury with wind and sand.
“How long can this be a viable place to live?” she asked. “If there’s not year-round green grass, faux lakes, swimming pools and air-conditioning, will people want to stay? We are right on the edge of what can be sustainable.”
Then the reach of Coachella — and California — may have exceeded its grasp, threatening an economy based on abundance, expansion and artifice.
“The economy is built on never-ending growth,” said Jeff Morgan, 71, who leads the valley’s Sierra Club chapter. “But you can’t grow water.”
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098. Follow her at Twitter.com/Lisa M. Krieger.