PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – This desert oasis east of Los Angeles sold itself for decades on water and all the luxury it brings: strings of emerald golf courses, lush resorts and manicured neighborhoods with sparkling pools.
Now, the region that water built suddenly finds itself on shifting ground – and in danger of drying up. Parts of the Coachella Valley have sunk more than a foot in a decade as groundwater was sucked up.
A study released this week has left officials scrambling to keep the tap on without jeopardizing more than 120 world-class golf resorts – among them PGA West, Bermuda Dunes Country Club and Mission Hills – or slowing a population that has ballooned by 25 percent in just five years.
“We have a problem, and we have to deal with it,” said Steven Robbins, chief engineer for the Coachella Valley Water District. “But our goal is to not have water be a constraint to growth. We don’t want to be the ones to say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ to growth.”
Water officials are pursuing a range of solutions to ease the pressure on the aquifer, from a giant pipeline to import water for golf courses to giving away timers to regulate home sprinklers.
And though there hasn’t been any damage, there are fears that if more isn’t done, the uneven turf eventually could fracture sewer lines, crack roads and crumble foundations.
Scientists with the water district and the U.S. Geological Survey found that the earth sank anywhere from several inches to more than 13 inches at a dozen locations between 1996 and 2005, including in Indian Wells, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Coachella.
Other places in California have sunk deeper, but they are so rural that there was no significant damage to structures.
The study also found a shortfall of billions of gallons of water in the aquifer, primarily as a result of growth that has pushed gated communities farther into the harsh desert on the eastern edge of the crescent-shaped valley. The area averages less than 3 inches of rainfall a year.
Residential homes suck up about one-third of the valley’s total annual water use, and most of it is pure groundwater. But golf courses are also to blame: together, they use about 32.5 billion gallons of water a year – most of it groundwater – and some soak the turf with more than 6 million gallons a day during annual reseeding.