Digger - March 10, 2021
Highlights of recent articles about or related to groundwater in the Borrego Valley of California and efforts to manage it - or not.
For previous years click here.
Rudy Monica was the principal investor in a syndicate that purchased 170 acresl of pristine desert south of the Country Club neighborhood and west of Borrego Springs Road that, among other things, is home to an ancient and iconic ocotillo forest. The investor's intent was to divide the parcel into 170 one-acre residential lots with devastating consequences for the ocotillo forest, among other things. One investor, Chris Brown, had previously worked as the land use staff person for former San Diego County Commissioner Bill Horn. Other investors were from out of state.
Residents of the nearby Country Club and Tubb Canyon neighborhoods immediately and uniformly opposed the project and opposition quickly spread to the rest of the community as more details became clear earning the project the disdainful epithet "Rudyville." The project came before the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group three times and each time received a negative recommendation. In April 2016, more than 160 community members attended a Sponsor Group meeting to discuss Rudyville. Opposition to it was unanimous.
In September 2018, the County Board of Supervisors scheduled a vote on Rudyville and many Borregans traveled to San Diego to oppose it. Supervisor Bill Horn, who represented Borrego Springs, ignored his constituents and voted against them. Supervisor Diane Jacob, however, did respond to the pleas of Borrego residents and tipped the balance against approval of the project. "The community of Borrego had prevailed against wealth against indifferent political representation against political insiders."
Not quite. The syndicate behind Rudyville was among 60 property owners in the county who claimed to have been damaged by implementation of the County's General Plan in 2015 that, in their case, had reduced the allowable density for their project site. All of the claimants requested property specific zoning changes. The County bundled the 60 requests into a single project for studies required before any Amendment to the General Plan could be granted. On February 25, 2021, the County announced that it had 'discontinued' the six-year-old study project, effectively killing Rudyville's request to increase its zoning density to one-acre lots.
Four letters. None about water.
On March 9, the BWD board accepted a series of new pipelines around De Anza Country Club that replaced old and failing existing lines. The project was complicated by numerous old/abandoned water lines and other utilities in the area. Virtually all of BWD's water delivery system is aging and in need of replacement to avoid catastrophic failures and BWD plans to continue an aggressive pipeline replacement plan in coming years funded by rates/charges, grants/loans, and other funding sources. BWD's current Cost of Services study will address the cost of these improvements.
Three letters. None about water.
As part of its Capital Improvement Plan BWD will soon this year will be drilling a new well to replace well ID-5-5.. Like everything else in water delivery infrastructure, wells have a limited life span. The metal well casings have small openings or "slots" about the width of the tip of a ball point pen that let groundwater flow into the casing but prevent intrusion of sand and dirt. Periodic cleaning using high pressure air and water blasts helps keep the slots clean, but after 6-8 cleanings or 30-40 years, the slots and gravel surrounding the casing become clogged and reduces the well's efficiency or the casing falls apart and the well must be replaced. To ensure uninterrupted service BWD builds a replacement well four to five years before an aging well is no longer productive and runs the two wells in tandem for a few years. Then the pump on the older well is removed and the well filled with concrete or used for Basin Monitoring.
After 40 - 60 years of service, Borrego Water District waterlines are aging out and in need of replacement. In the heyday of home building in Borrego Springs developers created independent, private water systems and infrastructure for their projects. Over the years, these merged into what is now the BWD, leaving the Borrego Air Ranch with the only private water company in Borrego Springs.The oldest pipes are made of asbestos-cement that, while safe so long as the pipes are intact, becomes brittle with age and eventually rupture. Repairing broken pipes is not safe because it releases asbestos into the air where it can be inhaled by repair crews. In newer developments PVC pipe was used but not buried in soft sand as intended. Rather, rocks, broken pavement, and other debris were used as fill. As the pipelines were subjected to settling, earthquakes, and water pressure surges over time they were damaged by the unsuitable fill and developed leaks. BWD has a Capital Improvement Plan to replace aging infrastructure funded by grants, bond financing, water rates, and charges.
Three letters. None about water.
The author of this long article, a brief and simplified history of what passed for groundwater management in the Borrego Valley, is identified only as the "Local Government Commission," but theBorrego Valley Stewardship Council likely had a hand in it as well.
The article begins by noting that "2020 marked the beginning of a new era in [California 's] approach to water management" when, pursuant to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA), representatives of the states 46 high-priority groundwater basins submitted groundwater management plans to the California Department of Water Resources as required by SGMA. Prior to passage of SGMA landowners were entitled to pump water from beneath their property without limit. Enactment of SGMA gave California the dubious honor of being the last state in the Union to require comprehensive groundwater management. The result of this hands-off approach by the State was that Borrego's sole-source aquifer, formed over millennia, has been rapidly depleted in recent decades. A United States Geological Survey study in 1982 showed that the aquifer's recharge rate was roughly 6,000 acre feet per year, very close to the now validated 5,700 acre feet per year, but was dismissed out of hand by pumpers who used most of the water, i.e. farms and golf courses. Each user segment continued interpreting the data according to their own interests, ignoring the obvious fact that groundwater was being pumped at an unsustainable rate. Bickering over data among the three user groups continued through the 1990's, forestalling any action to address the groundwater problem.
In 2002, AB 3030, known as the Groundwater Management Act, enabled the Borrego Water District to develop a Groundwater Management Plan that discussed the need to restrict water use but failed to prescribe remedies, establish deadlines for implementing them, or provide penalties for not doing so, rendering it, in effect, a toothless paper tiger.
BWD then sought other methods of ensuring water for the community's future, e.g., importing Colorado River water, using Borrego's aquifer as a storage reservoir for other water agencies in return for in-kind payment (conjunctive use), drilling a well in nearby Clark Dry Lake, etc. One feasibility study after another, however, found each proposal to be too costly, politically or legally impossible, or environmentally too risky, and, after wasting a great deal of time and money, no viable alternatives were found and acrimony and distrust among water users continued to fester.
In 2002 the Regional Water Management Planning Act briefly appeared to offer a solution to Borrego's deteriorating water situation, but more than two years of facilitated negotiations among interested parties produced nothing but continued animosity. It did, however, make clear the level of distrust in the community.
In 2012, BWD appealed to DWR for help and the agency provided a facilitator to convene a group of interested parties known as the Borrego Water Coalition (BWC) to improve Borrego's 2002 GMP. Notably absent from the group, however, was a representative of the residents of Borrego Springs, so the BWC was not accountable to members of the community at large. Once formed, the BWC met in closed session to "engender honest conversation and build trust between represented user groups, but [that] had the negative effect of continuing to exclude the broader community." Nonetheless, the threat of pending legislation motivated the BWC to produce a plan aligned with the anticipated SGMA.
The secrecy enshrouding the BWC's dealings continued to foster and aggravate suspicion in the community and the Borrego Valley Stewardship Council was formed in 2014 to "convene diverse community voices in matters affecting the future of Borrego Springs." The Stewardship Council became involved in with the groundwater sustainability issue when SGMA was passed in 2014. The Borrego Basin was declared to be in "critical overdraft" and required by SGMA to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) to deal with the problem. By 2017 the County of San Diego and BWD were designated the GSA for the Borrego Basin as a joint powers authority. The GSA convened a nine-member GSP Advisory Committee including former members of the BWC plus representatives of the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group and the Borrego Valley Stewardship Council.
Over the next two and one-half years the GSP Advisory Committee created a plan to reduce annual pumping of the Borrego Valley aquifer to it 5,700 acre-foot sustainable yield, a reduction of 75% over twenty years, "arguably the most dire condition in California." Meanwhile, Borrego was receiving significant bad press because of its water situation. To address this, the Borrego Valley Stewardship Council, with support from the Local Government Commission, sought to redefine Borrego and its future.
In March 2019 the Draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan was released making it the first in the state, but soon thereafter distrust among pumpers in the Valley escalated. Public questioning during GSA Advisory Committee meetings and the data gathering process made some pumpers defensive and uncooperative and BWD came under pressure from major pumpers to enter private negotiations. At the same time, San Diego County threatened to withdraw from the GSA as soon as the plan was finalized apparently because the major pumpers did not want to be responsible to the public and the County did not want to be responsible for implementation of a plan devised without public accountability. BWD, however, could not serve as a GSA without the County's participation because the County is the region's sole land use authority. This culminated in BWD's accepting private negotiations in anticipation of the GSP soon being replaced by a stipulated agreement most of the Advisory Committee members had never seen, and the Advisory Committee voted to accept the GSP as an act of solidarity with their community, to acknowledge the work of those who developed the GSP, and because they hoped the GSP would eventually become part of the stipulated agreement. Still, "[t]wo of the basin's largest agricultural pumpers, parties to the private negotiations, declined to accept the GSP."
At the eleventh hour, and without opportunity for public comment, attorneys for the major pumper groups released a stipulated agreement that would pursue a 'friendly adjudication' of the Borrego Basin rather than moving forward with the publicly developed GSP thereby offending many Borregans and particularly GSP advisory committee members all of whom protested vigorously. In response to this backlash, parties to the negotiations hastily convened public meetings to discuss the stipulated agreement eventually compromising on converting the draft GSP into a Groundwater Management Plan to be submitted to the court as an attachment to the Stipulated Agreement. Many Borregans eventually came to accept the stipulated agreement because they believed it would expedite water use reductions.
The Stipulated Agreement was submitted to DWR in January 2020, and assigned to a California Superior Court Judge for review. If certified by the Court, the Borrego Basin will be overseen by a district court judge and managed by a WaterMaster Board comprising pumpers and community representatives. An Interim WaterMaster Board including a community representative is already in place and holding public meetings and will become permanent if the Superior Court judge rules in favor of the Stipulated Agreement. It could, however, be years before all the details of the Stipulated Agreement and the WaterMaster Board are settled.
Three letters. None about water.
BWD operates a sewer system that serves approximately 800 customers in Town Center, Borrego Springs Resort/Club Circle, and Rams Hill. Most of the infrastructure dates from the mid-1980s and two major projects are underway to maintain and improve sewer service.
The four-mile sewer collection system has a large diameter pipeline has a slow flow rate that contributes to the creation of odors. Manholes along the sewer line allow the odors to escape. BWD plans to install an oxygen injection system to control the odors, relocate the sewer line that now runs through the La Casa del Zorro parking lot to Borrego Springs Road, and seal the manholes. The project is being funded by a bond issue from 2018.
A state of California Water Board grant of $478,000 will fund repairs to and replacement of equipment at the Rams Hill Water Treatment Plant.
This is the thirteenth in a series of "monthly reports" by Rebecca Falk intended to keep Borregans informed about what occurs in Watermaster Board (WMB) Meetings.
It is, in the main, a lamentation over the loss of public and transparent process in the effort to implement the Stipulated Agreement intended to bring water use in the Borrego Basin into conformity with state law. Much of the discussion concerns whether the WMB is bound by provisions of California's public meeting law, the Brown Act, or not.
Falk argues that, to ensure the implementation process did not devolve into "a private negotiation that ensured management by those who have overused our water over the years," there was prior agreement enshrined in the Stipulated Agreement that the WMB would "follow sunshine/transparency provisions for public meetings" contained in the Brown Act that usually only apply to public agencies, and that such adherence would be mandatory.
In practice, however, Falk alleges that the WMB consistently ignores the above agreement, characterizes the Brown Act as unenforceable, and considers compliance with it "voluntary." She expresses concern that "[v]oluntarly doing something implies that the consent can be withdrawn." While she stipulates that, to her knowledge, provisions of the Brown Act "have mostly been followed by the WMB," thus far, she questions "how far will this proclaimed 'voluntary' goodwill go when issues get tough?" She avers that WMB Chair Dave Duncan rudely prevented her from inquiring further into the matter in a WMB meeting, made clear that he would not respond to a request for clarification from her in a public meeting, and instead made it "a matter for censorship and temper."
The WMB approved four of six applicants for its Environmental Working Group: Jim Dice, Danny McAmish, John Peterson, and Dr. Michael Wells. The two applicants not approved were David Garmon and Jim Engelke. One of those not approved had been recommended for approval by two directors, but Director Smith commented that he "would introduce an element of negativity." Falk took the comment as a reference to that applicant's previous support for a public process for reaching a Stipulated agreement over the private process that was used and found it "disheartening."
Executive Director Adams reported that as of December 70% of assessments owing WMB had been paid, but five pumpers have still not paid the first installment of their contribution to the WMB. The second installment is due March 1.
Nine water credit holders have met all requirements for converting their credits to Baseline Pumping Allocations. Six water credit holders are unable to convert their water credits to Baseline Pumping Allocations because they have not yet properly shut down abandoned wells.
The ED reported that the December self-reporting of water meter readings "went well with some exceptions."
There will be a conference in February and a hearing in March with the judge overseeing the Borrego Basin Adjudication.
Four letters. None about water.
At the BWD board meeting on 12 January, General Manager Geoff Poole announced that the State Water Resources Control Board had approved a $478,000 reimbursement grant to BWD to rehabilitate its wastewater treatment plant. The BWD board unanimously approved a resolution accepting it.
Three letters. None about water.
On December 22, the BWD board awarded a contract for construction of a second replacement production well located at Tilting T and DiGiorgio Rd. to Southwest Drilling, the same company that recently constructed a well at Borrego Springs Road and Big Horn, at a cost of $857,250. The project will be partially funded by a grant from the California Department of Water Resources.
"When you need water, water is the only thing that will do."
Matthew Diserio, President and Co-Founder
Water Asset Management, founded 2005
In the West, access to water can make or break cities and rural communities and decide the fate of every part of the economy. Some argue that there is not enough of it; others that there is plenty, it's just in the wrong places.
Over the last few years, a proliferation of private investors has been scouring the southwestern United States to buy coveted water rights and sell them to the highest bidder, usually growing cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. The most valuable of these rights privilege water access to small, often family-owned farms in stressed communities.
Rechanneling water from rural areas to urban growth spots has long been handled by municipal water managers and utilities. But investors, adept at sussing out undervalued assets, sense an opportunity.
As investor interest mounts, leaders of southwestern states are gathering to decide the future of the Colorado River. Their negotiations could redefine rules that have governed one of the most valuable economic resources in the United States for the last century.
A 13-page document called the Colorado River Compact drafted in 1922, allocates the river's annual flow, dividing the water among seven western U.S. states, 29 Native American tribes, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California, providing water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland.
Increasingly, however, the river is threatened by drought; flows are down 20 percent over the last 20 years. The negotiating states will be focused on restoring the flow of the Colorado River and rebalancing water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, that hold water to use in case of extreme drought.
Open market proponents believe the last best hope against the drought is a market-based solution that allows private investors seeking profit a significant hand in distributing water in the West. They maintain that water is underpriced and consequently overused, that U.S. consumers will be compelled to use water more wisely in coming years, and that a market-based approach discourages wasteful low-value water uses like agriculture, which consumes more than 70 percent of the water in the Southwest. But while investors and the environment may benefit, water will almost certainly be more expensive.
The U.S. water business has been called "the biggest emerging market on earth." Private investors would like to bring Wall Street into the water industry and most would like to see the price of water, long set quietly by utilities and governments, rise precipitously as traders exploit volatility due to drought, failing infrastructure, or government restrictions.
On the other hand, many others see the Colorado River Compact as a safeguard isolating the river from the market. The general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest water supplier in the country, points out that the river is overallocated and climate change and continued growth are exacerbating the problem. The emergence of open markets could outpace the negotiations. If states, cities, big farms and utilities were able to buy water freely, especially across state lines, the allocations of the compact could be obviated and government's power to manage the fate of the river eroded.
In the last few years, Colorado has been debating a water policy that has piqued private investor's interest: paying farmers not to use the river at all called "demand management." It is an attempt to solve the so-called wrong places problem and reroute water from agriculture to urban uses and conservation.
For more than a decade in parts of Southern California, farmers have been paid to fallow land and California's agricultural water markets are considered a potential model for the West. Nasdaq and CME Group, the world's largest derivatives marketplace, have announced plans to open a futures market for California water similar to those for commodities like crude oil and soybeans.
The market in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that pipes water from the Colorado River 13 miles under the Continental Divide, serves Denver and other cities, fueling development in some of the fastest-growing housing markets in the country. In the last 10 years, the price of water there has gone up more than eightfold.
Australia's water markets are valued at $2 billion after 14 years in existence and primarily facilitate trades in agricultural areas. When started, they were hailed as a fast, flexible way of redistributing water on the driest inhabited continent, with little regulation. The way the markets were set up, however, left them open to being gamed. That led to their domination by professional investors and the advent of a market in complex financial products, such as derivatives, based on water. Last year, when Australia's drought and devastating wildfires spiked water prices, the markets became a paradise for arbitrage. Subsequently, the government's antitrust department conducted an inquiry and recommended comprehensive changes, citing inadequate regulation and market exploitation by professional traders.
Proponents of water markets argue that the West has an outdated and overregulated system for allocating water that has encouraged cultivation of crops in the desert. As the West has grown in population, a system originally designed around the needs of farms is left to support the rapid growth of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. What has happened in Colorado, Australia, and elsewhere, however, is a cautionary tale for America as it seeks to deal with the wrong places problem.For the full text of this article click here
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