Three Coachella Valley water agencies are among the state’s top five residential water users this winter so far, according to state data released last week amid growing concerns about serious drought.
Tiny Myoma Dunes Water District — which serves Bermuda Dunes and a corner of La Quinta — ranked first in January, producing 217 gallons a day per residential customer. The Coachella Valley Water District, which serves Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Thousand Palms, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Thermal and the Salton Sea communities, came in third with nearly 188 gallons a day per customer. Desert Water Agency, which serves Palm Springs and Cathedral City, ranked fifth with nearly 178 gallons a day per customer.
Related:Californians don’t cut back water as state braces for another dry year
Statewide, the average amount of water produced per customer was 66 gallons per day in January, but many areas in the Coachella Valley are at nearly three times that amount.
And despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call in July 2021 for Californians to reduce usage by 15%, the Desert Water Agency actually increased the amount by 0.6% from then through January, though Myoma Dunes has done better, with a nearly 7% reduction. Statewide water use declined just 2.6% during that period.
Less state supply will be available
On Friday, the Department of Water Resources announced it must reduce State Water Project allocations to just 5% of requested supplies for 2022. It previously set the allocation at 15% but a historically dry January and February, with no significant storms forecast for March, requires a reduction in the allocation to conserve available water supply, officials said.
The State Water Project collects water from rivers in Northern California and redistributes it to cities through a network of aqueducts. The Coachella Valley doesn’t directly receive supplies from the State Water Project’s supply, but holds rights to the water that it swaps with Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District for its Colorado River supply. Both systems are at low levels.
“We are experiencing climate change whiplash in real time, with extreme swings between wet and dry conditions. That means adjusting quickly based on the data and the science,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “While we had hoped for more rain and snow, DWR has been preparing for a third consecutive year of drought since October. We are continuing with a series of actions to balance the needs of endangered species, water supply conservation, and water deliveries for millions of Californians.”
In a letter to state water contractors earlier this month, Nemeth stressed the need for proactive conservation measures now to prepare for ongoing extreme dry conditions.
Desert Water Agency spokeswoman Ashely Metzger said the Coachella Valley has plenty of water in its large groundwater aquifer for now, but agreed more conservation is critical. Still, she questioned the state’s methodology on per capita water usage, and said their own data does show people are trying to conserve. She said the Department of Water Resources does not allow them to fully account for seasonal residents and short-term rentals by large parties, or to enter water used per meter.
She and other local officials said area tourism and short-term rentals rebounding from the pandemic and hotter, drier weather this winter are driving increases.
“So in 2020, as you can imagine, tourism was not doing very well here,” said Metzger. “In 2022, it’s been doing very well. So we have a lot more bodies in town, and that means a lot more showers, and a lot more teeth-brushing and toilet flushing and laundry loads.”
Record-breaking warm weather and little rain is another factor, with outdoor landscaping the largest use of water in the valley, noted CVWD Spokesman Scott Burritt, with larger mid-Valley properties they serve having extensive plantings.
Jenna Shimmin, CVWD’s conservation manager, said, “One thing that’s not really captured (in the state data) is the fact that here in the valley, we’re a very arid climate, whereas the coastal areas or Northern California, they get much more rainfall than we do.”
Other water districts in the valley are doing somewhat better, but not by much. Indio ranked 18th in January, out of nearly 400 water districts statewide, producing 105 gallons per day per residential customer, and it neither reduced nor increased that supply compared to 2020 since Newsom’s declaration. Mission Springs Water District, which serves Desert Hot Springs, ranked 26th in January, with 105 gallons average per residential customer, and it had a 4.5% increase in water usage between July and January compared to 2020.
But the region’s water usage is up over its own usage in January 2020 and January 2021 too. Record-breaking warm weather and little rain are factors there, with outdoor landscaping the largest use of water in the valley, noted CVWD spokesman Scott Burritt.
“It’s hot, and it’s been hot,” Metzger agreed. She said the agency’s own data show it has reduced water use by 12.4% since January 2021, and is still 20% lower than 2013, before the state’s last major drought.
‘The yard is the beast that drinks’
Myoma Dunes General Manager Michele Donze said she was not surprised the district is currently topping winter water charts.
“It’s lousy,” she said. “We have lawns, that’s our biggest problem. … The yard is the beast that drinks. You may be gone (part of the year) but the yard still gets fed (water).”
The small district serves predominantly large homeowner association developments adjoining gold courses that have resisted removing turf or limiting watering any time of the year, whether residents are there are not.
But the district did beat statewide conservation efforts since Newsom’s July 2021 announcement, with nearly 7% reductions over the 7-month period. Now that snowbirds from Canada and elsewhere have returned, water use is climbing compared to January 2020 and 2021, she said. New owners are also buying units and may not be well-educated in water efficiency.
local water Officials stressed more water needs to be conserved, and are employing a variety of public education, incentives and enforcement to try to do better.
Burritt and Shimmin said turf rebates are the biggest driver of reductions, though they are looking at other possible actions in their drought water contingency plan.
“We are looking for that conservation number to improve,” said Burritt.
Desert Water Agency’s board added $300,000 to its turf removal rebate budget for this year, and has had some success in the past year in persuading large homeowner associations to remove turf and to discontinue winter “overseeding,” which requires enormous amounts of water during more temperate months.
In Bermuda Dunes, “we’ve been putting notices on the door when we see anyone is still watering twice a day and every day,” said Donze. The district is also considering providing more smart water measuring devices to customers so they can better track their own use.
She said a CVWD project due to be completed later this year to replace much of the high-quality water currently provided for Bermuda Dunes golf courses with raw Colorado River water and recycled wastewater would likely help too.
Donze said for 15% cuts to occur, the governor would likely need to mandate tough statewide restrictions, as was done during the 2015 drought. But Metzger said that “one size fits all” approach was not best for the Palm Springs area.
So far California officials have stopped short of mandatory statewide watering restrictions. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot visited California’s desert region earlier this week, and at a joint news conference with Palm Springs and DWA officials, he praised turf removal programs and urged step-up conservation effort.
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Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today’s Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at email@example.com or @janetwillson66 on Twitter.