Wary Palm Springs guards its cheap, plentiful water

palm.springsThe California narrative about water is generally a tidy tale about the arid south scrambling to come up with water from the relatively wet north. But plenty of other angles deserve mention, starting with the fact that the state’s best-known desert communities — those in the Coachella Valley — have both cheap and plentiful water.

The Palm Springs region and its 400,000 residents and 124 golf courses aren’t gobbling up an extreme chunk of Colorado River supplies, as many assume. It’s blessed with huge underground aquifers that are tapped with an efficient water infrastructure that has drawn admiring looks for decades. Its residents, tourism industry and business community have deeply benefited from state laws that require water rates to be linked to the actual cost of providing water.

This is from a 1991 Los Angeles Times story during the last major California drought:

PALM SPRINGS — 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.

Water rates a fraction of coastal cities

During the current drought, Palm Springs water officials are keeping a lower profile — and for good reason. The state government’s announcement Friday that it will put on hold some of the old rules that governed water apportionment in the Central Valley could foreshadow a full-on attack on labyrinth rules that assign water rights in thousands of communities.

But one still sees stories in the local press that underscore how much different — and better — things are in Palm Springs. Some articles in the Desert Sun talk about city officials stepping up water conservation efforts, but they seem to be more about creating a sympathetic appearance than in response to an actual need for conservation.

Articles such as this 2013 piece raise long-term concerns about overpumping, but they aren’t remotely as daunting as analyses looking at the state’s long-term water-supply picture. That’s because they include facts such as these:

The state Department of Water Resources in 1964 estimated that the aquifer, in the first 1,000 feet below ground, had a total capacity of at least 39.2 million acre-feet. Based on that estimate, the aquifer has lost about 13.5 percent of the total since the 1970s.

That’s not good news. But it’s nothing like the problems facing coastal water agencies and those in the Central Valley.

This hugely favorable status quo is why rates at the Desert Water Agency have barely budged in recent years. With a base rate of from $1.16 to $1.83 per 100 cubic feet of drinking water, depending on the community, Coachella Valley water bills are far less than those in San Diego County, which are based on a rate of over $4 per 100 cubic feet, or San Francisco (over $5).

Will we see water power plays?

Water politics in California have been fraught and ugly for decades. The movie “Chinatown” reflects the cutthroat atmosphere of 80 years ago, but the tactics of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in the 1990s are also jaw-dropping. When its largest client — the San Diego County Water Authority — began looking for new supplies, the MWD undertook what the Los Angeles Times called a “clandestine effort to discredit San Diego County water leaders.”

So it wouldn’t be surprising to see wealthy communities in Silicon Valley and the MWD agitate for a statewide market in water, disguising a grab for cheaper water supplies as a “for the greater good” policy change. The economic argument for such markets is clean and lean. But the history of California was shaped by the complex water rights system left over from a century ago. There would be no Palm Springs as we now know it if water rates in the region were affected by outside factors.

A change in basic water rights isn’t just an existential threat to the economy of the Coachella Valley. It would imperil Imperial Country, the mini-agricultural juggernaut in the state’s southeastern corner that thrives because of cheap, grandfathered water rights.

Brutal battles loom in coming years. But in the short term, what we’re likely to see is more bureaucratic maneuvers. This is from the L.A. Daily News via the San Jose Mercury-News:

“… as the long hot summer drags on, more curtailments are likely to affect those who hold even older rights,” said Caren Trgovcich, the board’s deputy director.

“We are continuing to evaluate the hydrology in watersheds. There could be additional action” as early as next Friday, she said.

The mayors, city managers and city council members in the Coachella Valley and Imperial County are likely to be paying close attention.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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