Sharks in the Wave Pool

The City Council of La Quinta CA last week unanimously cancelled the Coral Mountain project, “a wellness resort community” featuring a 16-acre surf-wave pool. The locals, who prefer “quiet, tranquility, and dark skies” as one opponent said, had more persuasive experts, better publicity, and the worst drought in 1,200 years on their side.

The idea that the final spurt of Colorado River water at the end of the Coachella Canal, which branches off the All-American Canal less than a mile from the Mexican border, would be a pool for machine made surf waves offended the tastes of many La Quinta residents. Or as TV comedian John Oliver put it after an earlier hearing, the project is “monumentally stupid.” Or as Alena Callimanis, one of the organizers of La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development, put it in the Los Angeles Times two days before the final hearing, “There’s got to be a moratorium on this type of building, this type of excess water use…Why do we have to reproduce an ocean wave experience in the middle of the desert? This is the desert, for Pete’s sake.”

Opponents also pointed out that the wave park’s anticipated noise and lighting, much of it reflecting off the mountain behind it, would have damaged the quality of life of nearby residents as well as abundant wildlife like the nonchalant group of Bighorn sheep lounging under a tree I passed while touring the site.

The wave-pool resort is a reported $200-million investment on 387 acres of vacant land at the base of Coral Mountain. It would have had 600 detached homes (average price, $2.2 million and available for short-term rental) along with a “150-key” hotel, several acres of commercial space, and the well-lit surf pool (54 lights on 40-foot poles), designed for young “wellness” tourists for whom a $500 ride on a perfectly aqua-sculpted artificial wave or a $10,000 weekend is no problem. Charles Schwab’s son, Michael, is a major “adventure” investing partner with the proponents, Meriweather Co. of Boulder CO.

The opposition to the project was composed mainly of permanent residents, although no doubt some of the many golfing snowbirds were represented in absentia. The southwest corner of La Quinta, itself in the southwest corner of Coachella Valley, is a quiet place with affluent, walled, gated, golf-club communities that face Coral Mountain, an impressive, lovely, ruddy desert escarpment, where residents can see and hear wildlife from the comfort of their homes and golf courses.

But, anyone else who bothers to drive out there, perhaps to stay at a public campground at nearby Lake Cahuilla, can also enjoy the beauty of this mountain and its wildlife. The greatest offense the applicants committed was to propose “repurposing” Coral Mountain and its wildlands as a backdrop for a private year-round, desert surfing party.

Despite the loss of this project, desert wave-pool enthusiasts need not despair. There are plans in one stage or another for up to five wave-pool parks in the Coachella Valley, and at least one under construction in Palm Springs. Surely, one jurisdiction or another, possibly even La Quinta, will approve one or more of them, just not at the base of Coral Mountain. Residents I spoke to speculated that that site would probably become another upscale, gated community with a golf course.

There are 25 courses in La Quinta and 95 more in the rest of Coachella Valley. If there is one thing the proponents might be right about, it is that a wave pool – even one a half-mile long  — would use less water than a golf course.

It took the council about six hours to hear all the speakers.  The three-minute rule was ignored for both sides and experts and residents were heard, and documents were handed in. The opponents had emailed their packet in two parts between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. that morning.

City staff  recommended passage of the project for overriding economic reasons even if it appeared to violate sections of the City’s General Plan, zoning code, and the California Environmental Quality Act. The room remain packed until the council rejected the project because it did not comply with the city General Plan. The council let the project’s final environmental impact report stand.

At the beginning of the meeting I found one seat against the back wall, which happened to be next to some people opposed to the project because they lived across the road from the site. Over the hours we listened and chatted, I got the impression they were politically savvy people and that both believed the council would approve the project. They knew that there were two members against the project and three for it. When the council began its deliberations, the second council member to speak, a realtor expected to be in favor of the project, after talking in a politically bipolar manner for several minutes, blurted out his opposition. The people beside me suddenly became very alert. They got happier as each council member spoke in opposition. After the mayor added her vote to the four against the project, most of the room briefly glowed with the rare feeling that the public gets when it triumphs over an environmentally damaging special interest.

The Aquifer

The aquifer that underlies the Coachella Valley has been over drafted for decades. Between 1995-2010 the US Geological Survey noted evidence of land subsidence in the southern part of the valley of up to two feet. It was bad enough that the Coachella Valley Water District has had to do extensive repairs to the Coachella Canal. Agriculture and urban expansion are colliding, but water managers thought they already had a fix in place.

In 1963, CVDW and the Desert Water Authority joined the State Water Project even though there was no way to physically deliver water from the project to the valley. So CVDW and DWA swapped part of their SVP allotment with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in exchange for water from the 242-mile-long Colorado River Aqueduct, which starts at Lake Havasu and ends in Lake Matthews. The water is delivered through the Whitewater River to 19 percolation ponds in the northern part of Coachella Valley.

The 122-mile-long Coachella Canal, which provides non-potable water for agriculture and golf courses, also comes from the Colorado River, where it branches off the All-American Canal and ends in Lake Cahuilla, near Coral Mountain.

An immediate problem is that the Colorado River is so low now that hydroelectric generation for Southern California is imperiled and drastic steps are being taken to keep the water levels behind the complex of dams and generators high enough so that dead pools don’t develop and generators stop for lack of hydropower.

This level of crisis, as we continue in this 1,200-year drought exacerbated by global warming, threatens the agriculture and the present lifestyle of Coachella Valley.

The day after the La Quinta hearing, Ian James reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Jay Famiglietti, a water scientist who leads the Global Institute of Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, sent a letter to the City Council underlining the severity of the situation.

“My research has shown, simply put, that California and the southwestern U.S. are running out of water,” Famiglietti said in the letter, which was read during the meeting. “The Colorado River basin is drying up, Lakes Powell and Mead are at unprecedented low levels, and cuts to surface water allocations are actively being negotiated.”

Famiglietti said that depletion of groundwater in the region is far outstripping the water losses in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. He said the region’s water supplies are “rapidly declining due to climate change, overallocation, and the mismanagement of groundwater,” all of which “indicates that every drop counts, and stronger conservation efforts will be needed to secure La Quinta’s water future.”

That night, adventure capitalists found large, rational sharks in their wave pool.

Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: