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

May 29, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
(Courtesy Lou Murray )

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.

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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.

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