Natural Perspectives: Borrowing water from the future to irrigate a desert

Vic and I just returned from a brief getaway over the Memorial Day weekend. We stayed in the Palm Springs area at a resort with our son, daughter-in-law, and four small grandchildren, enjoying desert luxury.

One expects a desert to be hot and dry. Palm Springs and its neighboring communities in the Coachella Valley are certainly in the desert. And they are hot. But with lush green golf courses and flowing fountains everywhere, the area looks more tropical than arid. But that oasis image is a mirage. The area is getting by on borrowed water. And it is being borrowed from the future.

The Coachella Valley gets only three inches of rain a year. Geographically, it is a desert. But the Coachella Valley Water District has done an incredible job of acquiring the water needed to turn this desert first into productive agriculture and in recent decades into an amazing winter resort.

The advent of air conditioning in the 1930s made Palm Springs attractive to the Hollywood stars of the old silver screen. Roads are named for Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and other luminaries who were also residents.

Artificially chilled indoor air turned this hot, dry desert into a year-round playground for the wealthy. Golf courses and tennis courts sprang up like mushrooms.

Besides air conditioning, there was one other crucial thing that the growth of Palm Springs required: water. Growth is possible only because the Coachella Valley Water District long ago acquired rights to import water from the Colorado River. In the 1940s, the district built a canal called the Coachella Canal to convey river water to the valley.

Back then, the water was used primarily by farmers growing grapefruit and dates. An odd thing is that for the most part, they don't use water directly out of the canal. First, they allow it to filter into the local groundwater basin. Then they pump it back out as needed.

But as the population has grown and grown, the water resources became strained. It was obvious that water was being pumped out faster than it was being replaced. To conserve, the water district has taken some important steps.

Water loss from the Coachella Canal has been greatly reduced by lining the dirt canal with concrete. Water is being reclaimed from half of the area's six wastewater treatment plants. A half dozen of the many golf courses in the area use that reclaimed water, but the majority still use ground water.

Conservation is going to have to play an increasingly large role if water supplies are going to last. The water district has classes and publications designed to help residents learn to landscape appropriately for a desert area.

At least 60% of area farmers now use drip or other forms of micro-irrigation to grow crops. This helps conserve water in comparison to overhead irrigation. The area is known for dates, table grapes, and citrus fruits. Although fewer than 70,000 acres are under cultivation, the value of the crops grown in the Coachella Valley is about $575 million. This is recognized as an unusually high crop value.

On this trip, Vic and I wiled away our time lounging poolside under palm trees at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Villas and Spa in Indian Wells. On our drive up to the entrance, huge fountains spouted and bubbled a cool, wet greeting.

The Hyatt boasts seven heated outdoor pools, one with a huge water slide that kept our three granddaughters entertained for hours. Even our seven-month-old grandson, Mike, enjoyed a dip in one of the kiddie pools. He kicked and splashed in glee.

While we were there, the afternoon temperature was 95 degrees. That was downright comfortable compared to this Thursday's projected high of 109. Summer has come to the desert, and they can expect triple digit temperatures from now until the cooler days of October bring some relief.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this desert playground. Global climate change is bringing challenges to the Coachella Valley. Forecasters call for temperature increases there to rival those of Death Valley in the near future. That increased heat will drive up the demand for water.

But at a time when the growing area needs more water, supplies are expected to dwindle. Colorado River water comes from the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies, like the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, are experiencing warmer temperatures and less precipitation.

This means less water in the river, which means less water for all of the users along the way. The Coachella Valley can expect less water from the Colorado River, as can all users, including the people of Orange County. We get about half of our imported water from the Colorado. (The other half comes from the Sacramento River.)

One possible scenario is that the Coachella Valley Water District will decrease water allotted to the farmers so that homes and businesses can continue to enjoy using water as they currently do. Other areas of California are already cutting water to farms in favor of urban areas.

It really makes us wonder about the state of food security in the United States. If water is cut to American farmers, then more and more of our food will have to come from outside the country. That will mean less control over the quality and price of the food, and the conditions under which it was grown. Do we really want to outsource our nation's food supply? I don't.

That's what I thought about as we relaxed poolside under the shade of towering palm trees, sipping mimosas. Yeah, I really know how to enjoy a weekend getaway.

VIC LEIPZIG are LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. You can reach them at

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