On May 24, the California State Water Resources Control Board announced some of the strictest water-conservation rules in the state’s history, following an executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom to address the worsening drought across our state.

These regulations are the latest in a series of efforts by the state to deal with the drought, following four previous emergency orders issued by the governor in 2021 (and a somewhat non-specific call for residents to save water made by Newsom on March 28). The new regulations call for a ban on irrigating nonfunctional (in other words, merely ornamental) grass with drinking water, and a requirement that urban water suppliers—including our local Coachella Valley water providers—implement the Level 2 water-usage-reduction actions previously established in water shortage contingency plans, to prepare for a water shortage of at least 20 percent.

However, the Coachella Valley is not like the rest of the state—and the area’s water districts want you to know that. The reason: Despite a relentlessly warming climate and the lengthy drought, we have The Aquifer.

Ashley Metzger, the director of public affairs and water planning at the west valley’s Desert Water Agency (DWA), spoke to KESQ/News Channel 3 for a recent report on the drought hysteria gripping California and most of our neighboring states.

“If we did nothing and just continued on using water like we do today, we would still have north of 100 years of water,” Metzger told KESQ.

The rationale: According to DWA estimates, Coachella Valley sits on top of an aquifer containing some 40 million acre-feet of water in just the top 1,000 feet of what is believed to be a 13,000-foot-deep underground reservoir filled with water, rock and sand.

That statement by Metzger served as a valuable counterpoint to a recent Los Angeles Times front-page story, headlined “Water Hits Scary New Lows.” Reporter Ian James laid out the threat posed to California residents by the worsening drought conditions of the past three years.

“As the West endures another year of unrelenting drought worsened by climate change, the Colorado River’s reservoirs have declined so low that major water cuts will be necessary next year to reduce risks of supplies reaching perilously low levels,” the article began, before quoting from Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton’s comments made during a recent U.S. Senate hearing.

The piece goes on to state that “federal officials now believe protecting ‘critical levels’ at the country’s largest reservoirs—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—will require much larger reductions in water deliveries” to the seven states, including California, reliant on the river’s waterflow.

“A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today, and the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history,” Touton said.

While water from the Colorado River is not a primary drinking-water source for those living in Coachella Valley, it is a valuable source of non-potable water used to irrigate the agricultural fields located across our valley’s eastern end. Also, a noteworthy portion of its output, brought to our region via the Coachella Canal, is used by the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD)—the largest water manager and provider at the east end of our valley—along with the DWA to replenish the water stored in the aquifer, which benefits our entire valley and the six water districts/agencies that manage our region’s water supplies.

Make no mistake: That Colorado River water makes a significant contribution to the local water supply, because aquifer replenishment is a critical long term component to the water-supply management strategies of all the valley’s water providers.

For example, the MSWD’s water shortage contingency plan explains: “Because (water delivery) production exceeds the recharge provided by precipitation and return flows, the agencies use imported water to recharge the groundwater basin,” before specifying that the imported water sources include the Colorado River water delivered via the Coachella Canal.

In years when local precipitation levels are normal or better, water runs into the valley via the Whitewater River in the west, and can be directed to recharge/replenishment facilities.

However, we still have The Aquifer.

The majority of the rest of California is not as fortunate. For example, cities in Northern California, such as San Francisco and Sacramento, rely heavily on precipitation and mountain runoff—and they are facing serious challenges in the warmer summer months ahead.

Water-use restrictions ordered by the state on May 24 prohibit the watering of ornamental turf areas, such as the lawn at the entrance to the Tierra Vista community in Palm Desert. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

“We are extraordinarily lucky for two reasons,” Metzger told the Independent in a recent interview. “One is that we sit on top of this aquifer that can act as a huge drought buffer, and it affords us the ability to manage water in the long term and not have to panic if significant droughts or dry events do occur. Secondly, because of decades of really wise water management by my predecessors and the folks before them, thought was given to bringing water in from other places to replenish our aquifer—so we have something really special, and we’re working really hard to protect it.”

But Gov. Newsom and state water authorities are not differentiating between our region, with our more-favorable water reality, and the rest of the state. Even though there is no practical method by which any of the water stored in our aquifer could be transported to areas of the state in more serious need, the water use restrictions rolling out of Sacramento are basically standardized statewide.

Then there are accusations such as the ones made in a May story by Jay Barmann at SFist.com, which paint the Coachella Valley as a haven for drought deniers and water spendthrifts: “As we learned in March, the real water hogs in California are in the southeast, desert-y quadrant of the state—the Palm Springs area, the Inland Empire, and Imperial County—where water use shot up by 19% between January 2020 and January 2022, perhaps driven by more residents living there full-time during the pandemic.”

Metzger didn’t care much for Barmann’s quote.

“It’s not really controversial to me, because we’re the hottest place in the state, so it’s kind of obvious that we would be the highest water users,” Metzger said. “I don’t think calling us ‘water hogs’ is all that nice or appropriate. We have different circumstances here. It takes a lot more water to keep plants and people and everything running than it does in a cooler climate. … We do use a lot more water per person, but we also use more air conditioning per person. The lifestyle out here is just a bit different.”

Lorraine Garcia, the CVWD communications specialist, had a similar reaction when the Independent asked her about Barmann’s piece.

“I would say that we do have a tourist economy, and we did have an influx of people coming into our valley during (later stages of the) pandemic,” Garcia said. “So that definitely will increase water use. And, specifically here in Coachella Valley, we are in a desert, so our water use always looks like it’s increasing, especially in the summer months, because it’s hot, and we live in a dry, arid climate. We do not get a whole lot of rain.”

“But, on the other hand and overall, our residents have been doing a great job. If you look at overall years, and not just the last two years, we’ve done a tremendous amount of turf removals and transitioning to desert landscaping. We’ve been saving water since 2013, which was the baseline (for water usage savings computations) during our previous drought (in 2015). Historically, California has drought, and for many years now, many water agencies have looked at 2013 for the baseline. But recently, the state has been looking at 2020 (for baseline standards), although that is proving to be a really challenging year because of the pandemic.”

Metzger agreed that the 2020 baseline is problematic.

“I kind of take issue with the 2020 baseline, because of the fact that we’re a highly seasonal and tourist-based economy,” Metzger said. “And when you try to compare something to March or April of 2020, you’re going to be looking at night and day, because nobody was here. Back then, the whole country was in lockdown, but specifically, snowbirds left. … Not only that, but the visitors and vacationers stopped coming. So it’s interesting that they selected 2020 as a baseline; the pandemic really skews the numbers.”

While we all can, and should, do our part to conserve water, the largest demand on our Western water supply does not have to do with our homes; instead, it has to do with the region’s massive agricultural industry.

John Entsminger is the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which manages water supplies to the Las Vegas area. In the aforementioned June 14 Los Angeles Times piece, he points out that roughly 80% of the Colorado River’s flow is used for agriculture.

“However, and there’s no way around this, cities alone cannot address this crisis,” Entsminger told the Times. “… I’m not suggesting that farmers stop farming, but rather that they carefully consider crop selection and make the investments needed to optimize irrigation efficiency. By reducing their use of Colorado River water, agricultural entities are protecting their own interests.”

The Desert Water Agency’s aquifer-recharge facility. Credit: courtesy of the DWA

The CVWD—whose territory includes much of the eastern valley’s farmlands—delivers about 260,000 acre-feet of water annually that’s imported from the Colorado River via the 123.5 mile Coachella Canal, a branch of the All-American Canal. The water district supplies more than 1,200 irrigation customers, including 62,648 acres belonging to agricultural businesses, plus lands used as golf courses. Also, as we’ve pointed out, some of that imported water is used for groundwater replenishment.

“For our agricultural customers, we mostly use our irrigation system that (feeds) from the canal,” Garcia said. “Currently, we do not have any restrictions (imposed on the canal water), but we did have a public meeting with our ag customers to see what their interest was in the Colorado River conservation program. We discussed that if (those customers) were to change over to another (less thirsty) crop, or not use some land for a certain period of time, we could offer an incentive to conserve water in those ways. There has been some interest, so that’s something that we’re pursuing right now in anticipation of restrictions being imposed on the Colorado River non-potable water.”

Residential and non-agricultural commercial customers are already under usage restrictions that have been imposed throughout the valley—although figuring out the specific restrictions enacted by each water district can be hugely confusing.

“Back at our April 12 board meeting, our board activated actions in Levels 2 and 3, so those have been in effect since then,” Garcia said. “We were trying to be proactive—and Level 1 measures are always in effect now. The state officially adopted their emergency regulations on May 24, and they’ve asked us to consider actions of our own. We’ll be going to our board to ask them to officially adopt the rest of the actions that were not included in the first round.”

The most notable new statewide restriction is the prohibition on using potable water to irrigate non-functional/ornamental grass areas. Other restrictions in place within CVWD territory include a prohibition on spray irrigation during daylight hours (but dripline systems can still be utilized during the day); and a reduction in outdoor water budgets by 10%. Also, overseeding is discouraged; water runoff onto streets and sidewalks from irrigation is prohibited; broken sprinklers must be fixed within five days; water waste patrols will be increased; restaurants can serve water only upon request; the turf=conservation rebate has been expanded; and HOAs are encouraged to suspend code enforcement and fines for brown grass areas.

At the west end of the valley, the DWA has mandated similar, but slightly different, water-conservation methods. For instance, the DWA website’s “Restrictions” page includes the daylight-watering prohibition, the restaurant water-service restriction, and the order to control spray irrigation from landing on sidewalks and paved areas. In addition, it specifically lists a prohibition on watering during, and 48 hours after, a measurable rainfall; and bans using running water to wash vehicles. Agency customers are also encouraged to not empty and refill swimming pools through Oct. 31.

All six “CV Water Counts” member districts/agencies have reportedly been working to coordinate their water conservation actions to reduce any confusion.

“Our experience during the last drought was really informative,” Metzger said. “It was a huge challenge because of the fact that people live in one city, work in another city, pick their kids up from day care in a third city, and eat at a restaurant in a fourth city. Everything is so interconnected that having different rules in these different places that don’t even match city lines and are just random water agency jurisdiction (boundary lines) made things really complicated—and it hampered our ability to do more cost-effective regional messaging. So one goal that we had was to collaborate, and for the first time ever, we did a regional urban water management plan that was completed in the summer of 2021. Also, we took our water-shortage contingency plans and aligned them so that the elements that the customers have to implement in each area are, by and large, the same. That’s great, because we’re doing a $100,000 ad buy regionally on conservation messaging through CV Water Counts, and I don’t think that’s something we could have done if we didn’t take the steps necessary to align all these things.”

Lawns like this one, at the entrance to the Rancho Mirage Country Club, may soon look less green, due to a state ban on watering ornamental turf with potable water. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

Enforcement policies also seem to vary across the different valley water-agency territories. For DWA customers: “There are citations that start at $50 for a single-family home, and $100 for every other type of customer, and they increase per infraction,” Metzger said. “The first tickets that we give people are essentially ‘fix-it’ tickets. They can either show us proof of repair or apply for an incentive, and we’ll wave the first citation. If they don’t (take action), they’re going to get a citation fine on their bill.”

As for the CVWD? “Right now, we really want to work with our customers,” Garcia said. “We’ll do written warnings, and there can be fines, but we really want people to fix water wasting issues like broken sprinklers. Again, it’s all about us working with all of our customers to get through this drought period and make sure that we reduce our water use.”

All six local agencies continue to offer water-savings incentives. Both the CVWD and DWA have raised their turf-removal rebates from $2 to $3 per square foot of turf that is permanently replaced with low-water-use options. Also, all of the agencies offer a selection of incentives involving smart irrigation controllers, low-flow toilets, washing machines and the like.

But make no mistake: More severe restrictions could be coming if the drought conditions persist statewide. Topping that possibilities list could be a limit on all outdoor irrigation to two or three specific days of the week.

“We’ve done what the state asked of us, which was to go to Level 2 and inform our customers about the state’s prohibition on watering non-functional turf … when it does not impact the health of trees and shrubs,” Metzger said. “We’re just working really hard to let people know what’s going on, and also that they shouldn’t panic. It’s really easy to hear about all of these things that are happening, and assume that we must be running out of water.

“It’s important that (customers) know it’s incumbent upon us to make sure they don’t run out of water, and it’s something that they have invested in. … We don’t need to panic. We’re not in a crisis or an emergency here in the Coachella Valley in terms of any possibility that we’ll run out of water anytime in the next several years. That’s not where we are—and we’re lucky not to be in that place.”

Updated June 22 to clarify which water agencies work to recharge the aquifer.

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...

One reply on “The Aquifer: Local Agencies Say the Coachella Valley’s Water Supply Is Secure Despite the Ongoing Drought—but the State’s Water-Use Restrictions Still Apply”

  1. What a stupid story. The aquifer is recharged from the Colorado aqueduct. If the water stops flowing, the aquifer cannot be recharged. So, no, we are not as we,, off as the water bureaucrats claim.

Comments are closed.