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California Faces Water Cutbacks

In the middle of the Southern California desert, resort guests can travel by gondola to waterfront bistros, homeowners can water-ski on a manmade lake, and golfers can tee off at more than 100 courses made lush and green from constant watering.

How much longer can this go on?

That is what some are wondering since the federal government in April cut the amount of water California can draw from the Colorado River - a rollback that has thrown into question the long-term future of the Coachella Valley, a resort and retirement mecca 110 miles east of Los Angeles.

"We've gone from being assured that we lived in this magical place where the rules of water didn't apply to now having, I think, a very appropriate wake-up call about the fact that we do live in the California desert," said Buford Crites, a 17-year member of the Palm Desert City Council. "People have lived in this false water utopia."

For years, California has been using more than its fair share of water from the Colorado River, which flows to seven Western states. But drought and booming growth around the West finally prompted the government to crack down and demand that the state's water agencies work out a deal to redistribute the water.

When a deal fell through Dec. 31, the government cut back the state's share of river water by 15 percent.

The bulk of that cut landed on the Coachella Valley. The valley's water agency halted deliveries of Colorado River water to about a dozen golf courses, at least one construction company and the lake built for water skiing amid a housing development.

Also, a landscaping ordinance that had been in the works before the cutbacks and went into effect on June 1 requires new developments to use 25 less percent water than existing ones. Water rates also may go up.

"It's an attempt to recognize we do live in a desert and water is not something we can take for granted," said Steve Robbins, general manager of the water agency.

Dave Twedt, the land development manager for the new Trilogy Golf Club at La Quinta, is looking for water to ensure his greens are not brown when Tiger Woods and other top golfers arrive this fall for the popular Skins Game. The club is one of several spending more than $200,000 each to drill into the aquifer far beneath the course.

"You don't have a whole lot of choices," Twedt said. "It's not like we'll be put out of business because, thank goodness, we can drill an irrigation well."

Drilling wells, though, may not be the long-range answer, either.

The many homes, farms, golf courses and other resorts that already use well water are sucking so much from the ground that the valley floor sinks more than an inch a year in spots - a process that could accelerate if the water agency cannot get more Colorado River water, which is usually poured onto the ground and allowed to soak into the earth to replenish the aquifer.

If officials cannot line up more water, the water agency may be forced to impose tougher restrictions on wells and usage to protect the aquifer.

It was cheap and abundant water from the aquifer that transformed this desert - described by 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell as "the most desolate region on the continent" - into a lush landscape of fairways and luxury neighborhoods decorated with waterfalls and lakes.

The 300-square-mile valley stretches from the former Rat Pack getaway of Palm Springs, which sprang up in the 1950s, south to the briny shores of the Salton Sea. The population boomed 170 percent between 1980 and 2001 to about 330,000.

Golf courses are the selling point for many of the developers building gated communities in the valley. Last year, golf helped attract 3.5 million visitors, who pumped an estimated $1 billion into the economy.

In this self-ordained golf capital of the world, the cut in Colorado water has shocked golf course managers and development companies.

"Because the club has not been properly forewarned and has not been given a reasonable amount of time to transition to a private water supply, there is a real possibility of incurring catastrophic damages," John Heckenlively, president of The Plantation golf club wrote in an April 30 letter to the water district.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable growers, who use most of the valley's Colorado River water allotment, face a crisis of their own. They are paying $15 million over five years - nearly 10 times the usual cost - to buy excess water from farmers in nearby Palo Verde.

Water officials hope that the valley and three other Southern California water agencies reach an agreement to share the Colorado River and secure enough water to supply farmers and recharge the aquifer for the next 35 years.

But whether the valley finds more water or not, there will probably be no more projects like Palm Desert's Desert Springs Marriott, where guests ride gondolas to feast on ahi steaks by the edge of a sprawling lake, said Crites, the city councilman.

"That was done in Palm Desert at a different time - when people really believed we could pretend we were Hawaii," he said. "There was really no organized group saying the emperor had no clothes."

By Seth Hettena