Surrounded by golf courses in La Quinta, a patch of plowed desert is being preparing for construction. The property’s developers conceptualize the first phase of a neighborhood there — 78 houses with designs named “Italian Farmhouse” and “Tuscan Villa.” A handful of them will back up to a lake big enough for boating. It’s called The Estates at Griffin Lake.
This is just one of many visions for future neighborhoods in the Coachella Valley.
Others include an animation by the Chandi Group, developer of Indio’s Northgate Crossing, which imagines palm-tree-lined street medians, muted green and gold apartment buildings and homes surrounded by lawns on 80 acres.
Another scheme, the Section 24 Specific Plan on land near the Agua Caliente Casino Resort and Spa, proposes 2,400 homes, plus retail and office space, on 577 acres of open desert beside the freeway.
And then there’s La Entrada, a proposed Coachella development so big it would require two new freeway exits. The project would bring almost 8,000 houses to the city and, according to the project’s draft environmental impact report, use as much water as 65 percent of the city did in 2010.
The Coachella Valley’s population has been growing for years and continues ticking upward. Thousands of new homes are slated for construction in the coming decades. Some include just a few dozen houses on an empty block; others, like La Entrada, intend to grow city populations by tens of thousands.
At the same time, one of the worst droughts in California’s recorded history wears on.
Developers and planners are certainly thinking about water.
Last week, La Quinta’s planning commission sent the plan for The Estates at Griffin Lake to city council for approval — despite some reservations about whether turning a pond into a six-acre lake is responsible in the face of coming water cuts.
“In consideration of the Governor’s action (to impose water cuts), the inclusion of a 6 acre lake into a residential project appears contrary to the current direction of state water policy,” the commission’s report read.
Griffin Lake will be built on the estate of the late talk show host Merv Griffin, who once filled the property with stables and a horse track. A planned 221-home project called Griffin Ranch, bought by Florida-based builder Lennar in 2012, surrounds the property.
Griffin Lake’s designers insist the project is water-conscious. If built, the lake would be filled with water from the Colorado River. That water reaches the area through the Coachella branch of the All-American Canal, and it’s classified as non-potable water since it hasn’t been treated for drinking. The water would also be used for irrigating the development’s landscaping, and runoff would be collected and reused.
The city’s environmental report found the lake would increase the neighborhood’s projected water use by about 10 percent. Local water agencies have also said the cuts ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1apparently won’t affect non-potable water.
The Estates at Griffin Lake would be bordered on three sides by golf courses, namely The Madison Club, TPC Stadium Golf Course and Greg Norman Golf Course. In comparison, the commission’s report read: “Due to the relatively small scale of the project in relation to larger surrounding residential and golf developments, impacts are expected to be less than significant when considered in conjunction with the effects of other projects.”
Nevertheless, planning commission member Kathleen Fitzpatrick said most public comments at the commission’s April 14 meeting opposed the project.
“It’s an interesting project because, while it’s very innovative in how it’s using the (lake) water to irrigate, using drip irrigation for a desert-landscaped-themed project, it’s also kind of symptomatic of what we in the Coachella Valley have been roundly criticized for — using water as part of our landscape to create these lush environments,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick supported a motion to postpone the project’s hearing until the governor’s office and local water districts have more clearly outlined water cutbacks. The motion failed, however, so the project proceeded to city council for their review.
Griffin Lake is not unique in raising these concerns. For months, residents have wondered where the water required to support all this development will come from.
“We already know we’re on critical for water, but we’re always adding new homes, we’re always adding new condominiums. And no one ever equates it to water and what is it going to do to us with regard to water,” said Ronald Zimmerman, a retired airline employee who lives in Palm Springs. He said that when he drives around the valley and sees new construction underway, he feels a sense of helplessness because local officials don’t seem to be taking a hard look at assessing the water supplies.
“I can understand why they want to draw more people, but it’s not like we’re in the Midwest or the East where they have plenty of water,” Zimmerman said.
“The water’s going to become the big issue,” he added. “Something’s got to be done for an equal balance between water and development.”
Despite Zimmerman’s assertion, someone is responsible for balancing development and water: the valley’s five public water agencies, in addition to city governments. The water agencies say their long-term plans account for the region’s projected population growth — from about 450,000 in 2010 to nearly 800,000 in 2030 — as well as rising water demands.
The agencies’ calculations of future water supplies factor in increasing deliveries of water from the Colorado River, which the Coachella Valley secured under a 2003 water transfer deal, plus conservation improvements and efforts to connect more golf courses to supplies of recycled water.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download
John Powell, Jr., president of the Coachella Valley Water District’s board, said the area’s population growth has so far been lower than the estimates laid out in the 2010 update of the area’s water management plan.
“We’re not even close. So you still have the conservation, you still have the imported water, and we don’t have nearly the amount of growth that was contained within that plan,” Powell said.
Additionally, “our water management plan does allow for growth, and a lot of that growth does occur in conjunction with not only our increasing supplies of Colorado River water but also our increasing successes with conservation,” Powell said.
Powell pointed out that developments of more than 500 homes are required to seek approval of a water supply assessment, and as part of the process, developers need to show that there are sufficient water supplies for the next 20 years.
But, according to the Desert Valley Builders Association, most tracts include between 50 and 100 homes and so are not required to account for water impacts.
For tracts of 500 homes or more, water agencies do not limit the amount of water a project can use per structure or per person, but they do set construction guidelines based on average water use. The Coachella Valley Water District asks developers to plan for houses to use 720 gallons per day per household.
That’s about 225 gallons per capita, on par with the region’s current average usage and well above California’s per capita average of 111 gallons per day.
Mickie Riley, president of the Rilington Group, a local developer, said all projects must submit plans to water agencies to prove they comply with design guidelines, even if they don’t have to complete water supply assessments. Agencies also inspect completed homes.
Powell added that the district’s long-term plans call for bringing the amounts of water that flow into the groundwater aquifer into line with the amounts that are pumped out. For decades, groundwater levels have declined significantly in much of the valley, even as imported water has been used to partially recharge the aquifer.
Some of that water has come through the Colorado River Aqueduct in exchange for local water districts’ allotted amounts from the canals and pipelines of the State Water Project — a necessary trade because the State Water Project doesn’t reach the Coachella Valley. The area’s long-term water management plan is based on an assumption that at least 50 percent of the water agencies’ full contracted amounts will be delivered on average from the State Water Project.
Lately, though, it has been much less. Last year, the area received just 5 percent of its full allocation. This year, it’s expected to receive 20 percent — far below the last high of 80 percent in 2011. Powell said the unreliability of the State Water Project makes for the one assumption in the valley’s water plan “that’s really potentially questionable at this point.”
Still, Powell said, “in our current situation in the Coachella Valley, we’re projecting long-term sustainability. We’re on track.”
Riley said there are a lot of experts looking at water, “from a local point of view, from a state point of view, and I have a lot of faith in those experts.”
So far, the Coachella Valley’s water agencies have not turned down a single request to supply water to proposed large developments. For Jeff Morgan, chairman of the local Tahquitz Group of the Sierra Club, that’s a serious problem.
“Anyone who applies will get a permit and will also get a ‘will-serve’ letter from the water district,” Morgan said. “Where are they going to get water for another 250,000 people? I have no idea.”
“There are some proposed developments that are just so bad out there that it’s beyond comprehension that they could move forward, you know, they’re so egregious in regards to all kinds of things, including water,” Morgan said. “They just shouldn’t be built.”
He pointed to one of the largest proposed developments, La Entrada, which would create a new community on 2,200 acres of desert south of Interstate 10 and northeast of the Coachella branch of the All-American Canal, which brings Colorado River water to the valley. With plans for 7,800 homes plus commercial buildings, schools and parks, the entire project is estimated to cost on the order of $1 billion.
“You can’t ask people, some who are already very conservative in their water uses, to cut back when you’re allowing new developments of bigger and better houses all the time to take more and more water,” Morgan said. “The water districts need to say we don’t have enough water available and until we get some, you’re going to have to wait.”
The proposed La Entrada development is one of the largest being planned in the Coachella Valley. The area’s water agencies say there is enough water to meet the needs of future development.
Developers say they have been thinking about water for decades, however, and continually improving the way they build. Many new housing tracts now choose desert landscaping over green lawns. Almost all new homes come with water- and energy-efficient appliances.
A 2014 study by the California Homebuilding Foundation found that homes built to state codes before 1975 used around 92,100 gallons of water per year on showers, toilets, faucets and laundry, but not accounting for outdoor water use. Homes built in 2013 needed just 46,500 gallons per year — a reduction of almost 50 percent.
CVWD’s Powell added that many older communities feature large grassy areas, while new developments are governed by landscape ordinances ordered by the state in 2006. The latest update, in short, caps outdoor water use at 70 percent of what would be required to irrigate a full lawn.
“If we’re really moving people toward more efficient water use, smarter ways to landscape, all of this, it will buy us more time during a period of drought before it gets to the point where we are today,” said Dave Cogdill, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association.
While most droughts in modern California have ended after two or three years, climate scientists have warned that dry spells like the current one may become more common in coming decades.
And developers recognize that installing desert landscaping and low-flow toilets are solutions of limited scope.
“There’s limited things, quite frankly, that we can do, but there are things we can do to be very conscious of the environment and water conservation,” said Riley, the local developer. “We clearly understand the drought conditions of the state, and when we design a project, we consider efficiency.”
However, Cogdill said, there are already millions of homes in California, and the comparatively efficient ones built today shouldn’t be vilified.
“When you realize there are roughly 13.5 million residential properties in this state, and right now we are building less than 100,000 new units statewide each year — taking that into consideration, and looking at it from the standpoint of water use, when you’re adding 100,000 to a 13.5 million supply and those new homes are twice as water-efficient, you can see where the bigger bang for the buck is,” said Cogdill, quoting statistics from the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
In short, Cogdill argues that as people move out of old, inefficient homes and into new ones, they will actually save water.
Further, construction and development are significant drivers of the Coachella Valley economy. Construction employs about 6,700 people in the valley, accounting for around 5 percent of workers, according to the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership.
Statewide, construction supports more than 700,000, according to the California Employment Development Department.
Construction jobs also pay better than most — employees earned $39,500 on average in 2013, above the mean salary for all Coachella Valley workers.
“Additionally, the ripple effect of indirect expansion also creates secondary job creation,” said Gretchen Gutierrez, president and CEO of the Desert Valley Builders Association. “New homes mean people need grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, et cetera, which in turn employ staff.”
La Entrada, the 7,800-home development that drew Morgan’s ire, actually bills itself as a water conservation leader. Terry Manley, president and CEO of La Entrada developer New West Communities, told The Desert Sun last summer that the development will not include golf courses, water features or green lawns.
“If you’re a developer of any level of responsibility, you’ve been looking at water and water conservation for about a decade now,” Manley said in August. “New communities that embrace and employ water conservation are exactly what we should be looking at doing.”
Again, developments on such a dramatic scale are rare. Further, reviews by water districts are just one layer of scrutiny plans receive.
“At this point, our recommendation from the commission is just that,” said Fitzpatrick, the planning commission member who wanted to delay discussion of the lake project until state water restrictions crystallize. “It still has to go to (city) council, it will be open for discussion until the council acts, and… even though they have approval for the project, the permits have to still be secured, and in order to secure the permits, they will be required to meet whatever code is in effect at that time.”
“It’s taken them 20 months to get to this point, so it’s not something that’s happening overnight, and it’s certainly not cast in stone,” Fitzpatrick added. “Until the day they start construction, their project is subject to whatever regulations come down the pike” from the governor’s office and water districts.
Most parties in this conversation — water districts, planners, developers and builders — say development isn’t going away. Growth is inevitable.
“As far as our industry goes, we’re pleased that the governor sees the wisdom in not calling for any kind of moratorium (on building),” said the California Building Industry Association’s Cogdill. “We’re not the culprit in this situation. In fact, we’re very much part of the solution in getting California to much more efficient use of water.”
Riley, the La Quinta-based builder, agrees. He pointed to significant efficiency improvements inside homes and outdoors and the growing popularity of recycled water for irrigation. Also, like many do, he mentioned that agriculture still uses the bulk of California’s water.
“Developers and builders — I think we’re concerned, but it’s just like everything where you’re concerned. If you’re concerned, you’re going to come up with a resolution,” Riley said. “I don’t think it’s a panic mode, I really don’t… Humans are a resilient sort, and with creativity, we’ll figure it out.”
But worries outside the industry persist.
“I’m generally in agreement with those who point to development as something that ‘raises all boats’… but the simple fact is that they will consume more water,” wrote Palm Desert resident Lou Einung in a recent email to The Desert Sun. “Overall, the equation in simplest form is, ‘more people, more water consumption’.”
Some cities in the Southwest have moved to block new development. In 2014, the Montecito Water District in Santa Barbara County suspended all applications for new or expanded water service. Sierra Madre, in Los Angeles County, adopted a moratorium on new water service connections. And Williams, Arizona, announced it would stop issuing building permits in the face of dwindling water supplies.
Nearby, Borrego Springs requires all new homes and developments to purchase “water credits,” which work like carbon credits, offsetting increased water use by decreasing use elsewhere.
“There are no easy answers here, of course, but the scrutiny is going to go up on all sides. No question about that,” said Craig Ewing, president of the Desert Water Agency board. Previously, he spent 28 years in planning.
“The public is faster to react to these things than governmental institutions, and so the public is already saying, ‘Why are we seeing new development when we’re being asked to cut back?’ And the governments are going to be slower to figure out, ‘Well, how do we deal with all of this?’”
“The water agencies want to be in the business of providing water. It’s what we’ve done and what we commit to do. Cities want to approve growth, new development because it’s an economic engine for them,” Ewing said. “So to put the brakes on urban development by cities or water supplied by water agencies is a pretty hard thing to do. But the community’s asking the hard questions, and both water agencies and cities are going to have to sort of step back from the old assumptions and take a much closer look at how we do business.”
Rosalie Murphy covers business and real estate at The Desert Sun. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rozmurph.
Ian James covers water and environmental issues for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.