With wave pools on the way, the desert around Palm Springs could be SoCal’s next surf spot


Not far from the Palm Springs Airport is a bygone oasis. In 1986, the Oasis Water Park opened, and for decades you could hear people laughing and screaming as they rode towering waterslides under the desert sun and incoming planes. Now, a chain link fence surrounds the place. It’s been a couple years since anybody went for a ride, and some of the attractions are losing their battle against the elements.

But one feature isn’t sun-bleached or rusted. An enormous old wave pool that’s been here since the park welcomed its first guests is getting ready for its close-up. 

Channeling the sleek mid-century architecture the desert city is known for, the Palm Springs Surf Club’s wave-generating station features a gently curving roofline that deftly evokes the sea. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.

This defunct water park is coming back as the Palm Springs Surf Club, a full-blown wave riding destination. And that old pool, with a facelift, will be the star. 

You may be thinking, “We have the beach for surfing. What do we need some imitation for?” Well, the head of the tourism organization that markets the Coachella Valley, Scott White, has a pretty good counter.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven to the coast. I leave here and the sun is out. And I get to the coast and it’s cloudy, foggy, misty … cold,” White says. “We’re going to provide the perfect wave with the perfect weather.”

In the not too distant future, you’ll be able to “hang ten” just off the 10 freeway in the middle of the desert with a surfboard under your arm and a date shake in your hand.

With a host of surf parks slated to open in the coming years, the surfers behind the cutting edge of wave-making technology have been perfecting their techniques for a while.

Tom Lochtefeld helped found Raging Waters in the early 1980s. It included a wave pool, which was pretty underwhelming.

“I remember we fired up that wave pool, it was such junk,” Lochtefeld exclaims with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it. I went, ‘This has nothing to do with surfing.’ All wave pools throughout the world were just basically bumpy up-and-down chop machines. They didn’t produce anything surfable, had nothing to do with the sport.”

Lochtefeld has been guided by a passion for surfing from his earliest days.

“I was a good athlete,” he recollects. “I could’ve played either at Stanford or Berkeley in football, but I wanted to surf, so I went to UCSD.” 

Michael Brown (left) has worked with SurfLoch Technologies founder Tom Lochtefeld (right) for six years. Both men are excellent surfers who have spent enough time in the water to intuitively know how waves work and what makes a good one. Interestingly, neither has a background in science. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.

A love of the sport, an intuitive understanding of waves, and good business acumen led Lochtefeld to create SurfLoch Technologies. After a lot of research and countless experiments, he’s developed a system that uses the same tool nature does to form waves.

“We’re using air,” says Lochtefeld. “Air is what makes the waves out in the ocean. We do the same thing as what the ocean does.”

SurfLoch’s office is in San Diego, practically at the end of the runway of Marine Air Station Miramar. In the shadow of the unassuming building and under some shade trees are a pair of test pools. Between them is what’s basically a little shed chock full of a mish-mash of pumps, valves, tubes, and computers.

One of the two test pools at SurfLoch Technologies is long and narrow. Its form may be basic, but it was where the first successful test waves were generated using the air-based system. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.

Michael Brown is standing at the controls of the pneumatic array. A wave rider himself, Brown is a surf systems engineer who helped build and program the physical machinery SurfLoch uses to move water. As the series of pumps prepares to make a wave, it drones like a plane getting ready for takeoff.

Amid the noise, Brown explains what the computers and pumps are doing.

“That’s all it is,” Brown says while pointing to a series of pressurized machines. “Just the moving of the valve in a coordinated manner will give you the wave you want.” 

A string of pipes runs from the control shed at SurfLoch HQ to a scale model one-tenth the size of the wave pool in Palm Springs. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.

He must’ve called up something meant for a kiddie pool because a moment later, one of the many tubes emerging from the pumps blew out a small rush of air that sounded like somebody gently exhaling. A tsunami-level breath it was not.

Brown says SurfLoch has packed a lot under the hood of its wave-making technology.

“We didn’t know what that perfect wave with all the settings and all the programming looked like from day one, so we made a system that can do just about anything,” Brown says with pride. “And then using intuition, using experienced surfing, looking at shooting waves, we could tune and refine the system to make that perfect wave. But in doing that, we also created a system that can make just about any wave you want. It has to be able to make one thing really well, but it can also make a bunch of other things.”

The promise of that versatility is what the Palm Springs Surf Club is banking on. It’s a sunny desert afternoon, and pro surfer Cheyne Magnusson is sitting under a blowing E-Z UP tent in a patio chair at the old water park. It’s basically a construction site now, as the drained wave pool is being expanded. Magnusson is both a backer of the surf club as well as an employee.

“I’m the chief hydro officer, which is a made-up title, but it’s a real thing now, I guess,” Mangnusson says with a laugh. “And I design waves utilizing various wave pool technologies.”

In this case, it’s SurfLoch’s air-based technology. Like a DJ at a soundboard, Magnusson can use what’s basically a big iPad to change a bunch of parameters — pressure, timing, you name it — in each of the individual big pumps that push the water out.

Cheyne Magnusson reached the highest level of amateur surfing  while still a teenager in Hawaii and went pro in his early 20s. Before getting involved with the Palm Springs Surf Club, Magnusson literally made waves at a surf park in Waco, Texas. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.

“There’s probably like five guys who do what I do in the world, and the rest of them have PhDs. I’m just like this guy who surfs,” says Magnusson, again with a self-deprecating laugh.

He might be chuckling, but his knack for manufacturing waves has led to a strange realization.

“You’re constantly refining the product it’s spitting out. And when I say ‘product,’ I’m talking about waves. And that might be the weirdest thing for someone like me, to refer to a wave as a product, but that’s essentially what we have here,” Magnusson says.

How you turn air into solid — or technically liquid — products is proprietary magic. Several surf pools are in the works for the Coachella Valley, and each is using a different method to generate waves. One involves dragging something through the water to make a wake to surf on, while another method uses paddles. 

Magnusson says it actually makes sense for a concentration of these surf parks to locate here. The Surf Club is supposed to open in 2022, another soon after, and a couple more within five years.

“Everyone’s had their eye on Palm Springs,” says Magnusson. “The reason being is: The heartbeat of the surf industry has always been Southern California. So you have this overwhelmingly surf-centric population that’s a two-hour drive. And the other thing we know about surfers is they love to take trips.”

Seconding Magnusson’s view is Doug Sheres, a partner in the company developing DSRT Surf, an upcoming resort in Palm Desert that will have a wave pool as its primary draw.

“For somebody who wants to take a surf trip, it’s pretty attractive,” Sheres says. “You get more or less guaranteed decent weather. With the wave pool, you get basically guaranteed good waves. With the hospitality component to it, you get guaranteed quality lodging experience. You’ve got the golf and other activities right there.”

Just as important as the method used to generate the waves is the depth and curvature of the pool’s bottom, known as bathymetry. If the bathymetry of a wave pool is off by even a few centimeters, it can dramatically alter how waves travel through the water and render them unsurfable. Photo by Matt Guilhem/KCRW.

It’s clear surfing is loading up its woodie and heading to the desert, but these projects are going to use a lot of water, right? Well, let’s take DSRT Surf, for example. It’s planning to build a 5.5-acre lagoon that’ll hold about 6 million gallons. Factoring in evaporation and at least one annual draining for maintenance, developer Doug Sheres says they’re looking at using about 20 million gallons per year. 

Yeah, it’s a lot. But the surf entrepreneurs want you to compare that with all the other environmentally unfriendly recreation already firmly planted in the desert.

“What sounds like a tremendous amount of water, it’s roughly the amount of water a hole of golf uses,” says Sheres. “So, while providing a recreational activity that arguably will cater to as many if not more people than play golf on the average golf course in a day, we’re only using the amount of water that one hole on that golf course would use.”

Since DSRT Surf is going in at an existing golf resort, they’ve launched a program called “turf for surf” that will remove enough grass to bring the pool’s water impact down to zero.

Sitting in the dry and empty old water park that will soon be the Palm Springs Surf Club, Cheyne Magnusson is looking out at the wave pool when the big question hovering over all these new developments is broached: What about the ocean?

“There will never be a replacement for the ocean — not at all,” Magnusson says firmly.

The pro surfer who learned the sport in the waters off Hawaii views these pools as complementary to ocean surfing, not a replacement for it.

“Surfing the ocean teaches you lessons,” Magnusson says almost reflectively. “There’s a culture there, there’s a respect. There’s unwritten rules and everything. Now, you’re packaging it in, kind of a nice cushy bubble where it’s like there are rules. You don’t have to fight with other people for waves. There is an off button in case someone gets hurt. These are all good things. But they’re kind of hard things for people to accept who have based their life around this whole ocean culture.”

Although the experiences will be different, Magnusson is looking forward to people hopping out of the pool after catching a wave he made, still beaming.

“When I see … the surfed-out look where people are just like, ‘Dude I’m just so pumped,’ that’s what I get most excited about,” says Magnusson, this time with a grin instead of a laugh.

With several surf destinations on the horizon for the Coachella Valley, there’s a lot to be stoked for.



Matt Guilhem