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Coachella Valley groundwater pumping holds steady

Facing one of the worst droughts in California history, Gov. Jerry Brown in January urged people across the state to cut water use by 20 percent. Those calls have been echoed by mayors, city councils and water districts. But the Coachella Valley, like much of California, remains far from reaching that goal.

In fact, data from the Coachella Valley’s five public water agencies show that their combined pumping of groundwater has changed little, increasing slightly during the first five months of this year as compared to the average in those months during the previous three years.

An analysis of public water agencies’ data by The Desert Sun found that the amount of water pumped from the ground by those agencies valley-wide increased 1.1 percent from January to May 2014 as compared to the average in those five months from 2011 through 2013.

Data from five of the Coachella Valley’s public water providers show that despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s call to reduce water rates by 20%, rates in the valley remain virtually unchanged.
Daniel Simon/The Desert Sun

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The data largely confirm what is plain to see driving around the Coachella Valley: In many areas, sprinklers continue to soak large patches of grass on medians, roadsides, front yards and the gardens of condominium complexes. While some areas have successfully pared back water use, others are using as much water as ever.

“People are conserving, but obviously the numbers show that there’s more that needs to be done, and there’s always more that needs to be done. But the fact that we’re getting such a great response to our conservation programs I think shows that people are interested and they are trying, and hopefully we’ll start to see some better numbers soon,” said Heather Engel, director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District, the area’s largest water agency.

Engel pointed out that the water district’s lawn buyback program, which provides homeowners with up to $1,000 to cover the costs of taking out a lawn, has led to the removal of about 3 million square feet of grass since 2009. Tiered rates that reward those who save water have also helped the water district reduce per-capita water use by 15 percent since the state set an earlier goal in 2008 of reducing water use by 20 percent.

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Despite those long-term water savings, this year’s drought doesn’t appear to have prompted any big change among the bulk of CVWD customers. The water district pumped about 3.4 percent more water during the first five months of this year as compared to the 2011-2013 average.

The data show that some agencies have fared better in reducing their pumping of groundwater. In the city of Coachella, water production declined by 6.7 percent. The Indio Water Authority saw a decline of 6.1 percent.

In Desert Hot Springs, groundwater pumping by Mission Springs Water District decreased 1.3 percent. And in Palm Springs and parts of Cathedral City, the Desert Water Agency pumped 0.1 percent less groundwater.

Officials at water agencies say the figures understate per-capita water savings because they don’t take into account growth in population and tourism during the past several years.

The figures also don’t precisely reflect water consumption. For instance, leaks and thefts of backflow devices can increase the amounts of water pumped. Those sorts of factors could be pushing up the amounts of water pumped by CVWD; the agency’s domestic water use rose by a smaller amount, 1.4 percent, during the first five months of the year.

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But managers of water agencies acknowledged that in much of the Coachella Valley, there has been a largely flat trend in groundwater pumping this year.

“To look at a month-to-month basis I don’t think is very productive. I just think that you’ve got to look at water use over a much broader period of time,” said David Luker, general manager of the Desert Water Agency. He noted that annual water use by DWA customers has decreased more than 17 percent since 2007.

In its new budget, DWA boosted spending on water conservation programs, including a $1 million program to provide incentives to homeowners and homeowner associations that remove turf. Two DWA staff members recently traveled to Las Vegas to study how the water agency there has designed its successful turf removal program, and they plan to present a proposal to the board in Palm Springs on Tuesday.

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“We’re moving pretty darn fast,” Luker said. “We’re well on our way.”

The Coachella Valley has long had some of the lowest water rates in California, and also some of the highest per-capita water use in the state.

Heavy pumping of water from wells has for decades led to declining groundwater levels in much of the Coachella Valley, despite deliveries of imported water that are used to replenish the aquifer.

A portion of the water drawn from the ground is sprayed out on golf courses. The Coachella Valley has a total of 124 golf courses, and those that rely on wells consume an estimated one-fourth of the groundwater used in the area.

In January, representatives of golf courses pledged to cut their water use by 10 percent. It’s not clear how far golf courses, farms or other private well owners have gone in reducing their water use in recent months.

A statewide survey released earlier this month showed that the Colorado River region, which includes the Coachella Valley, has been trailing most areas of the state in cutting back on water use this year. The State Water Resources Control Board found that statewide urban water use declined 5 percent from January through May this year as compared to the average for those months in the past three years. In the Colorado River region, water use declined by 1 percent.

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Some water managers say that because the Coachella Valley has already made significant strides in saving water, the governor’s latest call for drought cutbacks is a tall order.

“All the agencies have already been working toward this. To ask for another 20 percent is actually pretty difficult,” said Kirk Cloyd, general manager of the Coachella Water Authority.

Customers of Mission Springs Water District have already surpassed the state’s earlier goal by reducing water use more than 20 percent, said John Soulliere, a spokesman for the water district. “That’s the problem with these sweeping goals. It doesn’t take into account how far we’ve come.”

In other areas, such as Palm Springs, city officials have been talking about how much more needs to be done. Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet has set a goal of reducing the use of water on city parks, medians and other facilities by 50 percent — a goal the city is just starting to work toward.

In the Palm Springs neighborhood of Deepwell, where the streets are lined with green lawns and tall hedges, a sign has gone up on one lawn that is starting to turn brown. It reads: “I’m ditching my grass; You should too!”

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Richard Oberhaus, a political consultant and a DWA board member, has decided to replace his lawn with desert landscaping.

“We’re trying to set an example,” he said. “Everybody needs to meet the goal of reducing their water usage by 20 percent.”

Ideas for cutting back on water use go beyond converting to desert landscaping. Some promote more recycling of wastewater in the Coachella Valley. Others suggest converting more sprinklers to efficient drip irrigation systems.

Oberhaus said that it makes no sense for streets to be lined with wide patches of grass, and that he hopes to see the city of Palm Springs move forward with its plans.

“The city of Palm Springs waters more asphalt, concrete and cars than anybody else in town,” Oberhaus said. “I want to see grass on the soccer fields, in the playground areas, but we can ditch all the grass that’s in the medians and stop watering the asphalt.”

Ian James can be reached by email at ian.james@desertsun.com and on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.

Article source: http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/environment/2014/06/29/coachella-valley-water-pumping-holds-steady/11701147/