A wave of desert surf parks raises questions in dry California

A few hours from the California coast, surfers hope one of the next places they can catch a wave is in the desert.

At least four major surf lagoons have been proposed for the Palm Springs region, which is more commonly known for art festivals, mountain hikes and golf, and which has no natural waves in sight.

But some environmentalists and residents say it is not wise to build large resorts in one of the driest places in California during one of the driest periods in recent times. They claim that the water in the massive surf pools will evaporate quickly in the desert heat, wasting a valuable resource, while proponents claim that the waves will increase tourism, increase recreation and use less water than ever popular golf courses.

“Is it their best use of the limited water resources in these climate-driven droughts, golf courses and surf spots?” said Conner Everts, CEO of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. “It’s like a fantasy. It’s like Dubai.”

California is experiencing a relentless drought, exacerbated by climate change, and in recent years its nearly 40 million inhabitants have faced repeated calls to save water. The greater Palm Springs area is located on top of a groundwater reservoir, but receives remarkably little rainfall and is dependent on water from the State Water Project, which runs below capacity, and the Colorado River, a critical U.S. water supplier that is overtaxed.

Local officials in the water district say there is enough water in a 20-year plan to support the new wave pools and resorts.

The proposals, ranging from private luxury communities to a public wave park, come as surfing increases in popularity in the United States. It became an Olympic sport last year, and industry experts predict its continued growth as travel recovers from pandemic shutdowns and amid a rise in inland surf parks, according to San Jose-California-based Global Industry Analysts Inc.

Cheyne Magnusson, a professional surfer who renews a Palm Springs water park and adds a wave pool, reckons with it. He said the area is ideal because so many hardy surfers live within driving distance and the waves can be unreliable at the beach. It is also a popular resort, he said, and beginners may want to try surfing in a safe environment.

“A lot of people have time off today and they really want to go surfing. I can guarantee that they will get a good wave and they will get a lot of them, ”said Magnusson, who helped develop a wave park in inland-secured Waco, Texas.

Magnusson’s project is under construction and two others have been approved. In nearby La Quinta, a proposed 400-acre (160-acre) development about a half-mile-long (0.8-kilometer) wave basin meets resistance from homeowners who moved to the area in search of a quiet retirement community.

They say the proposed Coral Mountain development will attract noisy surf festivals and ruin stargazing with its stark light. And they are concerned that the pool’s expected annual use of 120 acre-feet of water – in addition to the water used in the development’s 600 homes, hotels and retail outlets – will deplete society’s water supplies.

In 2016, an acre-foot was enough water for between three and four California households in a year, according to the nonprofit Water Education Foundation.

“With the evaporation and the wind and everything that’s going to happen …,” said Alena Callimanis, a member of the group La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development, “the optics of this are just crazy.”

But John Gamlin, president of CM Wave Development, noted that the wave pool will use eight to 10 times less water than a golf course, and the golf course has already been approved for the site. He said many local swimming pools in the backyard use drinking water, but the pool will use non-drinking water treated in an on-site filtration facility.

“Ultimately, we are confident that the Coral Mountain project will be among the most responsible water users in the valley,” Gamlin said in an email, adding that residential and open areas that account for most of the project’s outdoor water consumption , will also use non-drinking water.

The Coachella Valley Water District, which serves large parts of the region, said it is up to local officials to build projects, but the water is there. While groundwater basin storage hit a low point in 2009, supplies have since been improved through replenishment efforts and conservation, said Lorraine Garcia, a spokeswoman for the district.

Critics note, however, that the district has replenished groundwater with imported water sources, and these are limited. State officials said recently that water agencies will receive 5% of what they requested this year, in addition to what is needed for critical activities such as drinking and bathing in what has been the driest start to a year in California in at least one century.

The conditions come amid a tourism boom in greater Palm Springs, which became a destination over a century ago when residents sought the warm, dry climate in believers it was good for their health. In the past decade, more young visitors have come to music and art festivals, said Scott White, president of Visit Greater Palm Springs. During the summer months, the temperature often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 C).

“To me, surf parks just make natural sense,” White said.

Desert dweller and surfer Dave Hilts said he would like to try the wave pools for extra practice – though he would still drive to the beach regularly to surf. He started the Coachella Valley Surf Club to give children from low-income families in the country a chance to surf and work with a teacher who started a surf club at her desert high school.

“It will bring a lot of new people to surf who could never surf before,” he said.

However, this growth worries Ruth Langridge, a senior researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who focuses on water law and policy. She said she has long been wary of large-scale development in the desert due to the need for water – from pools or something else.

“You can set aside an agricultural area, but you can not set aside a town once you have built it,” Langridge said. “There is a real concern about the development in places where there will not be enough water.”

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