Surge of desert surf parks stirs questions in dry California

Hours from the California coast, surfers are hoping one of the closest places to catch a wave is in the desert.

At least four major surfing lagoons are suggested for the Palm Springs region, which is better known for arts festivals, mountain hiking, and golf, and has no natural waves in sight.

However, some environmentalists and residents say it doesn’t make water sense to build large resorts in one of California’s driest places during one of the driest periods in recent history. They claim that water in the giant surfing pools evaporates quickly in the desert heat, wasting a valuable resource, while proponents argue the waves boost tourism, boost recreation and use less water than well-loved golf courses.


“Is that your best use of limited water resources in these climate-related droughts, are golf courses and surf spots?” said Conner Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. “It’s like a fantasy. It’s like Dubai.”

California is experiencing an unrelenting drought made worse by climate change, and its nearly 40 million residents have received repeated calls to conserve water in recent years. The Palm Springs metropolitan area sits on an aquifer but receives remarkably little rainfall and relies on water from the State Water Project, which is running below capacity, and the Colorado River, a critical U.S. water utility that is overburdened.

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

The proposals, which range from private, luxury communities to a public wave park, come as surfing’s popularity rises in the United States. It became an Olympic sport last year, and industry experts are forecasting its continued growth as travel recovers after pandemic shutdowns and amid a surge in inland surf parks, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc., based in San Jose, California.

Cheyne Magnusson, a pro surfer who is remodeling a Palm Springs water park and adding a wave pool, is counting on it. He said the area is ideal because so many die-hard surfers live within driving distance and the waves at the beach can be unreliable. It’s also a popular vacation spot, he said, and beginners might want to try surfing in a safe environment.

“A lot of people have today off and really want to surf. I can guarantee they’re going to get a good wave, and they’re going to get a lot of them,” said Magnusson, who has helped develop a wave park in landlocked Waco, Texas.

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