Coachella in drought: Polo club looks to cut water use

coacThe look of Coachella has long been about acres upon acres of lawn where festivalgoers can dance, roam and lounge on the grass beneath palm trees.

Despite the drought, the lawns of Coachella will be as green as ever when thousands descend on the Empire Polo Club in Indio this Friday for the annual music festival. Those who manage the grounds say they’ve been trying to gradually reduce their water footprint while still keeping the polo club’s signature grassy spaces.

“We’re concerned about watering,” Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett told The Desert Sun in an interview. “What we’re going to do is put less grass in there. We’ve already started to do it because there are definitely places where it’s not needed – walkways that aren’t grass or dirt so we won’t have to water (them) down.”

Tollett said he oversees water use during the month of April, while the Empire Polo Club is responsible for watering the fields during the other 11 months of the year.

At the polo club, large sprinklers were dousing some grassy areas on Monday as workers prepared the grounds for the festival.

The Empire Polo Club uses water from wells for irrigation and, like nearby farms, also receives untreated water from the Colorado River by canal.

“Basically ours is ag water. In fact, in the last few years, we’ve really limited the use of ground water. We have wells and we used to pump a lot of the groundwater. We’ve been directed to and have gone ahead to cut the groundwater down and we’re using the ag water,” said Alex Haagen III, owner of the Empire Polo Club. “On the groundwater we buy from either the Indio Water Authority or the wells that we have, we’ve cut back drastically.”

Gov. Jerry Brown last week mandated a 25 percent statewide cut in water use, but his executive order focused on reducing “potable urban water usage.”

The Coachella Valley Water District has interpreted the language of the order to mean that users of canal water appear to be exempt, along with properties that pump water from private wells. If that interpretation stands as state officials work out details, the Coachella Valley’s golf courses wouldn’t be directly subject to the mandatory water restrictions, nor would businesses such as the Empire Polo Club.

Haagen said the polo club has been proactive about trying to scale back its water use, even as more lawn has been added.

“Years ago, in an effort to cut our water use down, we went ahead and put all in-ground water systems in that are computer-controlled. So we don’t waste water,” Haagen said. “We can limit the amount we put down and we really control our water use. We’ve done that for years.”

“We can still see if there are ways that we can cut back on water usage,” Haagen added. He said that might occur in the summer, once the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals are over and the work of restoring the grass begins. “We might just cut back in the summer, when it’s not used as much, and it might not be as lush.”

Haagen said, however, that he wouldn’t sacrifice greenery during the polo season.

“You couldn’t. Polo ponies run on grass. They don’t run on dirt,” he said. “If they ever had regulations that stop us from watering the field, I don’t know what would happen. I think like golf courses, it would be over. It would kill the business.”

The water table has declined in many areas of the Coachella Valley over the years as groundwater has been pumped from wells to irrigate expanding subdivisions, golf courses and farms. Brian Macy, general manager of the Indio Water Authority, said that when businesses such as the polo club use Colorado River water, “that’s great, because it reduces the amount of water that needs to be pumped” from the aquifer.

In addition to the Empire Polo Club, the Coachella Music and Arts Festival also uses the grounds of the adjacent Eldorado Polo Club, which similarly uses both groundwater and water from the Colorado River.

During the festival, water trucks constantly spray water to keep down dust on dirt roads and parking lots. Those water trucks were out wetting down some areas on Monday, while workers were putting up tents and erecting the festival’s Ferris wheel.

Haagen said the water trucks are filled with water from Medjhool Lake, which is surrounded by lush foliage on the property.

“Medjhool Lake is fed by ag water, and what we do is we pump it out into our water trucks and we use that to water down the roads,” Haagen said. “But what we’ve done also, and what we’re going to do more next year, is pave more of our roads. If we pave them, then we don’t need to use the water to keep the dust down.”

Bruce Fessier can be reached at and on Twitter at @BruceFessier.

Ian James can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.