Drought impacting aquifer and local water agencies trying to protect it

Only one of three Coachella Valley water recharge facilities remains in operation because of extended drought

Drought impacting local water agencies in recharging aquifer

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - California's extended drought has impacted the efforts of local water agencies to recharge the Coachella Valley's underground water aquifer. 

But local water managers say this dry desert area is doing much better than the state as a whole when it comes to future water supplies. 

A shortage of rain and snow has dried up water recharge ponds operated jointly by the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency.

200 acres of ponds in northwest Palm Springs send water directly back into the aquifer during wetter years.

But Craig Ewing of the Desert Water Agency said, "That's not the case today.  It is dry."

Ewing continued, "And it is dry because there is not water coming off the Colorado River."

A state aqueduct, which feeds the ponds, has been shut off because of the drought.

That means up to 200 acre feet of water isn't soaking back into the Coachella Valley's aquifer there each day, enough water to serve the needs of 400 homes for a year.

The White Water River is dry for the most part, flowing at just a trickle.

A state aqueduct in the White Water Canyon has been turned off and is no longer feeding the river which in turn flows to the Palm Springs recharge ponds.

The only water in the river now is a smattering of local rain and snowmelt.

Local water managers say the drought is a real concern for the aquifer, but they're not too concerned.

The spigots are wide open, and the water is flowing out fast at the Coachella Valley Water District's Levy Recharge Facility in La Quinta.

Board President, John Powell Jr. said, "You're seeing over a foot of water a day percolating down into the aquifer."

Powell said this operation is at full capacity, despite the drought in California, and soaking 35,000 acre feet of water into the aquifer a year.

That's enough water to provide for 70,000 homes for a year.

Powell said, "We're actually seeing water levels increase because of this recharge effort."

Another concern is sinking soil, subsidence around the central and east valley.  

There are slumps where too much water is being pumped from the ground. 

One is in Palm Desert in the Rancho Las Palmas area bounded by Monterey Avenue on the east, Fred Waring Drive and Highway 111 on the south and Bob Hope Drive on the west.

There are three slumps in Indian Wells east of Eldorado between Highway 111 and the mountainsides, and wide-spread subsidence in La Quinta again along the mountains throughout the community, primarily under golf courses.

To the west of the Coachella Valley, the water situation in Cabazon is more tenuous. 

Water managers there say the water table is dropping by a foot a year on average.

The Cabazon Water District cut service to the Nestlé Arrowhead water bottling plant in 2010 because it used so much water.

But Nestlé simply dug its own water well instead.

It's also tapped a spring in Millard Canyon, water that's no longer flowing into the aquifer.

Cabazon Water District General Manager Calvin Louie said, "Theoretically it would come back down and recharge the Cabazon Basin.  And again theoretically it would flow downstream to Coachella."

Louie says Nestlé and the Morongo Tribe won't tell them how much water they're taking, making water management for the common aquifer even more difficult.

Water managers say the Coachella Valley is doing pretty good overall when it comes to water supplies, water agencies putting back in just as much water as we've been pumping out over the past 10 years, even with the drought.

Ewing said, "Now we have an aquifer which provides us with a huge savings account of water if you will, which allows us to get past even significant drought, multi year droughts."

Powell said, "This isn't something you want to look at in any one year.  You want to look at it over a period of multiple years and use averages."

The Levy Recharge Plant has been so successful some subsidence in the La Quinta area has been reversed, the ground has actually risen in some places.

As for the future, stopping new development isn't the answer, managers say.

Ewing said new projects tend to be more water efficient, opting for drought tolerant landscaping than older developments which often feature large green lawns which also require much more water.

News Channel 3 contacted Nestlé Waters North America and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians for comment.

Nestlé Waters North America issued a statement saying, "We share concerns about the severity of California's drought and have taken steps to increase efficiencies resulting in a 19% reduction in the water used in the production of our products from 2010 to 2013.  We remain committed to using water resources responsibly to ensure their long-term viability, as we have done here for more than 25 years.  No one in California, ourselves included, is immune to the effects of the drought and, in light of the current situation, we continue to adapt our operations to ensure we make the most efficient use of this precious resource."

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians responded to Cabazon Water District concerns by saying the water under reservation land belongs to the tribe.  

It says the U.S. Geological Survey believes lowering groundwater levels are most likely due to the drought, and the amount of water the Arrowhead plant uses is relatively small when compared to other water users.

The tribe said the water plant's take from the Millard Spring is less than what one golf course would use.    

The tribe also said it has a long history of environmental stewardship which includes water conservation programs on the reservation and in its business enterprises, a groundwater recharge program and strict monitoring of tribal water resources, including the Arrowhead plant, to ensure these water resources remain viable for future generations.

News Channel 3's original report stated the tribe had not responded to our story by air time.  The tribe had responded, but the response had not been received.  We regret the omission.  

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