Well-Made Plans Keep Palm Springs an Oasis in a Drought : Water: Officials say criticism is unjustified because they take care in pumping from underground reserves.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a mirage lurking in a dip in the highway, Palm Springs shimmers enticingly atop the Sonoran Desert, an impossibly green splotch on a canvas of tawny brown.

Outside the city, the flat, sandy landscape is broken only rarely by scraggly tamarisk trees, yucca plants and pathetic shrubs twisted by relentless desert winds.

But in town it's another world, with lush grass and petunias lining the boulevards, fountains gurgling outside local landmarks and shaggy palms swaying soothingly in the breeze. There are even misters on several restaurant patios, which shower diners with a fine, tropical spray.

For visitors from drought-stressed corners of California, the dramatic contrast provokes instant suspicion: Is this artificial oasis hogging water while folks in other regions are skipping showers?

It does look suspicious, but appearances can be deceiving. The truth is, Palm Springs--which gets just 5 inches of rain annually and sweats out 120-degree temperatures most summers--sits atop a vast sea of ground water, which has been carefully managed and now insulates the city from the effects of drought.

And, although residents here use about twice as much water per capita as their counterparts in Los Angeles, rationing the ample local supplies would be of little help to needy regions: There is simply no way, officials say, to transport the water out of the desert.

"It really bugs me that people see us as bad guys," griped Mayor Sonny Bono. "If we hadn't taken good care of our resources, we wouldn't be in good shape. But we did."

The roots of such prudent management, locals say, can be traced to Palm Springs' earliest settlers, who learned the hard way that without a reliable water supply, life in the desert is a risky proposition.

In 1887, Palm Springs pioneer James McCallum was hailed as a hero when he built a 16-mile canal to funnel runoff from the San Gorgonio Mountains to a small village of settlers and Agua Caliente Indians. The settlers, who had moved to the desert for health reasons, quickly took advantage of the water, planting figs, olives and other crops that thrived in the sunny climate.

But two flukes of nature--a flood that washed out the canal and a 10-year drought that dried up their mountain source--rudely interrupted the merry desert experiment. Lacking water, the settlers gave up and fled.

Later, enterprising explorers discovered the area's true treasure--a huge underground sink, filled with amazingly pure water pooled through centuries of snowmelt. Initially, it seemed there was an endless supply, but by 1960, the desert dwellers were in trouble again: excessive pumping was draining the subterranean basin, causing the water table to plummet 70 feet.

Faced with continuing growth and dwindling supplies, desert water managers decided to join the State Water Project, a system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts authorized by the California Legislature in the 1950s. The move gave Palm Springs the right to imported water, but there was a hitch: no facilities had been built to connect the desert with the massive state system.

Instead, the Desert Water Agency signed exchange agreements with the Metropolitan Water District. Under the contracts, the agency gives its allotment of state project water to Metropolitan, and in return receives an equal amount of Colorado River water, which is diverted from the MWD's aqueduct into earthen basins north of Palm Springs, and allowed to seep underground. Between 1985 and 1987, about 600,000 acre-feet of river water percolated into the underground reservoir, providing a 10-year supply for desert customers.

Although pleased that they have evaded the drought's clutches through prudent water management, locals are highly sensitive to their city's image as a water-gobbling resort. Bono and other officials--who receive bundles of letters from critics accusing Palm Springs of profligacy--are particularly touchy, and are well-armed with proof that their city strives for water efficiency.

Let's start with the "moisture probes." These tiny devices--buried in the turf that covers city parks and many median strips--are equipped with sensors that detect precisely when the grass needs water. Although they have been dogged by reliability problems, the probes and the installation of electronic timers to control sprinklers have helped the city cut irrigation water usage by as much as 25% in some areas, officials reported.

Other gizmos used to save water include wind sensors--which shut down sprinklers at times when gusts might blow the spray off-target--and soil polymers, tiny water-filled granules that slowly release their contents to keep roots moist.

Then there is reclaimed water--the fancy term for highly treated sewage. The Desert Water Agency, which serves Palm Springs and Cathedral City, opened a state-of-the-art reclamation plant in 1988 and plans to double its capacity in the coming years. Already, the facility churns out about 3 million gallons of treated waste water a day, pumping it to several Palm Springs parks and ball fields, the municipal golf course and private links.

"At first, the golf course people were afraid the (reclaimed water) would smell and be slimy," said Ron Baetz, spokesman for the Desert Water Agency. "Now they love it. They especially love the price, because it's half the rate (of potable water)."

There are attempts to be progressive on the landscaping front as well. At the water agency headquarters, a veritable wonderland of desert plants grow in a sort of outdoor laboratory, including flowering sage, blooming ocotillos, exotic grasses and other drought-tolerant specimens.

Around town, the vegetation results are more mixed. The newer buildings--the senior citizens complex and the convention center, for instance--are surrounded by boulders and native vegetation scattered attractively atop crushed rock. Many of the downtown planting beds have been redesigned, and now use only a narrow necklace of grass around more water-efficient selections. Overall, the city reduced its landscape water usage 10% over the last five years while at the same time adding parkland.

But image can be everything, and running up the center of one of the city's main thoroughfares--Tahquitz-McCallum Way--is a wide band of turf accented with colorful petunias. Even the most novice gardener knows the rap on turf--it's a water-guzzler. Why not replace it with a less thirsty species?

"We've tried to integrate the desert-style landscaping, but it just doesn't appeal to a lot of people," said Terry Lortz, the city's park and golf course superintendent. "The tourists want to see that lush grass and those bright flowers. They're from back East, they've been in the snow. When they come here, they want to feel like they're in Shangri-La."

The mayor agreed: "You can't have all dirt and cactus. In my opinion, Palm Springs isn't lush enough."

Specifically, Bono said he believes some businesses have gone too far with the concept of xeriscape--or desert-style vegetation. A new Motel 6 in town, for instance, is surrounded by a rather sparse collection of drought-tolerant selections.

"I'm not real happy with that," Bono said. "They can't put in a cactus and throw up a wooden tree and tell me that's their desert theme."

As for Palm Springs residents, at least one nursery worker reports that there is little interest in xeriscaping. Instead, according to the Sunrise Nursery employee, most people favor "the dense, tropical look."

"I hope that doesn't become popular," the nurseryman said with a grimace when asked whether he thought drought-tolerant plants might catch on in the resort city. "This is Palm Springs. We're not Tucson."

Joan and Bo Mayne, however, seem to see things differently. The retired couple, recent transplants to Palm Springs, were examining the nursery's small cactus section one recent day, looking for something to augment their patio collection.

"It's funny, but people don't seem too concerned about water out here," Bo Mayne mused. "It's as if we're not even in the desert."

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