Digger - july 18, 2017
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.
This update reports on the June Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee meeting at which the District's consulting engineers made a presentation on development of Borrego's GSP including "the issue of voluntary metered pumping" within the Borrego Basin. The Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, comprising the Borrego Water District and the County of San Diego, will apply for a State grant to cover part of the cost of installing flow meters on private production wells extracting more than two acre feet of water per year, the owners of which agree in writing to participate. Once installed the meters will be read at least once a month to document seasonal variations in water use.
What is troubling about this report is the heavy emphasis on "voluntary metered pumping" ("meter" or its variants appear in the update a half-dozen times but never without the modifier). A very few pumpers already have flow meters on their wells and allow BWD access to the readings. The opportunity do so has been open to all pumpers, but most have ignored or declined it. What that very likely means is that BWD is already collecting all the data will get from volunteer pumpers. Historically pumpers have protected such information like the crown jewels, so all of this hype may be just much ado about nothing unless metering is required of all non-de minimus production wells in the Basin forthwith.
Finally, the irony that one of the few, if not the only, "Groundwater Sustainability Update" ever published that actually contains substantive information about the effort to control the overdraft of the Borrego Basin is also the only one to be labeled "boilerplate" cannot pass without comment.
N.B. Note the disjuncture between the lenient policy on metering described above and the urgency to control pumping to protect future water quality reflected in what follows.
At their June meeting BWD directors agreed that the issue of water quality data for the Borrego Basin is "in need of immediate attention" and that "as much [data] as possible" will be required to plan for Borrego's future. Many aspects of the SGMA deal not just with the quantity of water available, but with the quality of water remaining in the aquifer. The State strictly limits contaminants allowed in drinking water and if treatment is required to bring water within those limits the cost to BWD ratepayers will be very - perhaps prohibitively - high.
Hydrologist John Peterson "has for literally decades repeatedly 'preached' the need for acquiring water quality data to guide decisions on Borrego's water future. This time board members agreed to act" and will allocate funds to test water for critical contaminants at least annually beginning in the Fall of this year. Director Lyle Brecht claims to favor 'front-loading' in reducing the amount of water pumped each each year. i.e. making large cuts in water use as soon as possible rather than waiting until 2040 to reach sustainability as allowed by SGMA - presumably to reduce the possibility of encountering contaminated water as the aquifer is drawn down.
The first half of this update describes the agenda for the upcoming Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee meeting at which the District's consulting engineers will make a presentation on basin hydrology and grant funding possibilities. The second half of the quarter-page paid ad is devoted to an announcement that water in Borrego's schools is lead-free while acknowledging that the information is "not technically Groundwater Sustainability related." But BWD paid for a quarter-page so had to fill it somehow and you can only enlarge the font so much before it calls attention to itself. But, as usual with these "updates," it is hard to see how any of this brings the basin any closer to sustainability.
"As summer heats up, so does the activity of the Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan... and work has intensively begun on a number of complex issues within the GSP planning process." So goes the optimistic lede for this Update. At least the rhetoric has warmed up a bit. It remains to be seen if the cumbersome and unwieldy GSP apparatus can accommodate an actual increase in meaningful activity.
The GSP Advisory Committee will hear about 3 "key issues" at its next meeting and AC members will then discuss the issues with the interest groups they represent and bring recommendations back to the AC at a later date. The three issues are:
A report on the May 15 meeting of the Advisory Committee for the Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan. Trey Driscoll of Dudek, Inc. Summarized the status of the GSP and offered a slightly modified division of current water use (agriculture 72%, recreation 17%, municipal 11%), pointed out areas in the northern valley (agricultural area) where concerns about water use are the greatest, provided an update on the 1,423 outstanding water credits which can be bought and sold like commodities with the same attendant risks and warned that their value may reach zero upon implementation of the GSP. According to Driscoll many wells in the valley show levels of total dissolved solids well below that requiring treatment to be used as drinking water, but others are "very close to or even exceed" the maximum allowed and some are on the rise - especially on and in the vicinity of Rams Hill. He also provided daunting cost estimates for various options to reduce water use in the basin which could be financed by issuing bonds that would have to be repaid by BWD ratepayers.
Describes a new 35-acre herb farm in the north valley. It is on land previously used for agriculture so there are no restrictions on water use - at least until the GSP is implemented.
A graphic and spot-on depiction of Rams Hill's business plan (see next entry below).
Berkley confirmed that Rams Hill is "'exploring' the possibility of another golf course... using maybe forty per cent less water than we're using on the course we have," and thinks the owners "can come up with a reason - politically speaking - why the community would let us use 500 (acre feet of water)." The future of the proposed course seems to depend upon BWD receiving "a share of the $7 Billion [State] water bound money in 2018" that would allow the District to "offer the farmers the money for the land" currently under cultivation and provide them a "chance for an excellent exit before the mandated reduction" triggered by implementation of a GSP forces them to cease farming. Essentially Berkley envisions a situation wherein BWD buys out the farmers and Rams Hill gets the water. Not a bad business plan - for Berkley and the farmers.
A report on the 15 May Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee. Reports that the morning session "consisted of organizational and structural discussions about the Advisory Committee", i.e. housekeeping. The afternoon session was a presentation by Trey Driscoll of Dudek, Inc. on the status and scope of work encompassed by the GSP.
An interview with Bill Berkley regarding "goings on at Rams Hill" including installation of a solar farm and experimentation with hydroponic agriculture to raise produce that Berkley claims only requires one acre foot of water (per year?) to grow $4 million worth of produce. We'll see.
There were two letters concerning Borrego's water situation in this issue:
One letter expresses concern about plans to build another golf course at Rams Hill and calls it "foolhardy" to even consider more golf courses in the valley. Also argues that domestic use of water should be the highest priority in a new groundwater sustainability plan. Once adequate domestic supplies are assured "water that remains would then be available for agriculture and golf."
Another comments on unfounded claims that Borrego's groundwater management efforts have already been a success and points out that insofar as there have been any such efforts, they have been an unqualified, unmitigated disaster. (For the full-text of this letter click here.)
Filler, more filler, and nothing but filler. Reports that: construction of a new water storage tank to replace one that failed and solar energy facilities to serve the BWD office and warehouse has been completed; the "updated BWD website is nearing completion" as it has been for many months: the BWD board is "investigating additional cyber security measures. Also suggests several issues that will come before the board in May. How any of this counts as developments in groundwater sustainability is anyone's guess.
This Update, like those that precede it, fails to live up to its title. It is no more than a meeting notice with a few hackneyed background facts about the SGMA thrown in for padding. It announces another meeting of the Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee on 15 May, reiterates the purpose of the AC, and that the "prime consultant" for the GSP, Dudek Inc., will lead a discussion of the GSP, and reminds everyone that its purpose is to reduce Basin-wide pumping by 70%, preserve potable water "sources" (there is only one), and retain affordable water rates, among other things.
There were two letters concerning Borrego's water situation in this issue. Usually there are none.
One letter objects to Rams Hill owner Bill Berkeley's announced plan to build yet another golf course at Rams Hill because "the valley's water supply is already in desperate straits" and can't support it and calls it "a very bad idea" for Borrego that should be rejected. An opinion with which no reasonable person could disagree.
The second is a satirical letter thanking "farmers and golf courses in Borrego for draining our aquifer" and "all the water boards and 'locals' who allowed this to happen" in just sixty years ensuring that the town will see little or no growth in future because of the critical lack of water.
This Update barely rises above the usual "much ado about nothing." It reports on the 10 April meeting of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) Advisory Committee (AC) which received a presentation on the "important aspects of the GSP." If an advisory committee needs a briefing on "the important aspects" of that on which it is supposed to advise it is probably already in over its head. But never mind. The "Update" goes on to describe the "major issues" for the AC as "preserving potable water resources and allocating water" among agriculture, recreation, and municipal use (BWD) in a way that will protect the potable water supplies [there is only one] and avoid the need for additional [and very expensive] water treatment." It cites fallowing farm land as the most likely option for reducing water use and lists a number of issues it poses and possible solutions, but admits that "[t]he County, BWD, and the AC will have their hands full in" dealing with them. That's putting it mildly.
Dudek Engineering Inc. has been selected as the "Prime Consultant" to develop a Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the Borrego Basin along with a gaggle of "sub-consultants." Dudek has already been providing BWD with technical advice on a wide variety of issues, including the Basin overdraft, for three years; so this is merely the formalization of an existing relationship, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, and hardly qualifies as breaking news. Still, on a relative scale, it reflects progress - depressing as that may be.
A very brief and singularly uninformative summary of the BWD Annual Town Hall meeting on 29 March. The agenda for the meeting provided more detail and the paucity of information reflects the continuing lack of meaningful progress on producing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.
California is pushing to accelerate implementation of the State Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA), the goal of which is to facilitate a more uniform and sustainable approach to groundwater management statewide. Critics complain that the groundwater overdraft problem is so great that the state should move faster to curb pumping. State officials say the problem is almost a century old and will require years to correct.
Some view the new local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) mandated by the SGMA as an opportunity for the previously disenfranchised to have a voice in shaping local groundwater policy; others worry that they will only perpetuate dominance of powerful agribusinesses in controlling groundwater. In any case, the GSAs will have to take a hard look at local land use and determine what is supportable in each of the state's 127 overdrafted groundwater basins
All parties are concerned about how they may be affected and want their needs addressed. Successful development and implementation of Groundwater Sustainability Plans will require active engagement by all groundwater users in a basin, but the requirement for community involvement in the local agency formation process is often being ignored leaving the foxes to guard the hen-house. For the law to be successful, there will have to be a dramatic change in California's power structure to provide responsible stewardship of water.
SGMA provides for the California Department of Water Resources to assume control of a basin when a local agency's makeup isn't inclusive enough or if a plan falls short of sustainability goals, but there is significant concern that DWR may prove incapable of making such tough regulatory calls.
It would be naive to expect that this groundwater statute will upend the entrenched politics of water in California where powerful corporate interests hold sway, but it may give all concerned parties a chance to influence decisions about groundwater policy - if they will take it.
Not only is there still no meaningful progress to report but we now know that there may be none for many years: "It may take up to 20 years before the final touches are put on the implementation of Borrego's Groundwater Sustainability Plan... BWD and the County of San Diego are now beginning the process to develop the Groundwater Sustainability Plan." No wonder these "Updates" have been vacuous.
The first public meeting of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee on 6 March "was dedicated to procedural issues... [c]hief among [which]... is the requirement to hold all discussions and deliberations in public and not in back rooms away from the public eye." But "it is permissable [for Advisory Committee members] to hold private conversations about almost any subject between individual Advisory Committee members, what are discouraged are conversations about agenda items being discussed at the next meeting." That is just a clumsy and deceitful way of saying: "You can conive, collude, and log-roll to your heart's content; just don't be too obvious about it."
A letter to the editor exposing a disingenuous propaganda campaign, by the Borrego Water Coalition to burnish the image of farmers and other pumpers in the Valley.
Yet another fortnight with no material progress toward groundwater sustainability in the Valley, but selection of a consultant to assist with development of a Plan, which must be completed before 2020, "is expected to occur in March." Hope springs eternal. The BWD board and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors are "co-Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) for the Borrego Basin" and both must sanction a Plan before it can be sent to the State of California for approval and court validation. "'Stakeholder Participation' is a key component of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan and the Borrego Basin GSAs have created a nine-member Advisory Committee" to provide at least the illusion of same. Four of the nine members are pumpers in the valley and all of the members except for the BWD ratepayer representative "have existing structures," i.e. organized interest groups, to work with. For ratepayers, then, it's kind of like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
In the late 70's and early 80,s Borrego Springs averaged seven inches of rain per year, but that has dropped to a little more than five inches per year "since the onset of the drought." This year, however, the article speculates that Borrego may again receive as much as seven inches of rain marking a "return to normal" annual rainfall in the valley. Or it may just be a one-off. One swallow does not a summer make.
Support for A Ray Shindler's argument that the BWD board must negotiate a larger initial share of the aquifer's safe-yield to avoid unaffordable water rates. For the full-text of this letter click here.
Apparently there is still no progress on reaching groundwater sustainability in the Valley to report. Instead this "Update" solicits "topics of most interest to Borregans" to be covered at the upcoming Town Hall Meeting. Currently at the top of the list is the Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan, especially "the overall schedule" and how the public can participate in the process of developing the Plan. The article describes the Borrego Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee consisting of nine individuals "nominated by various organizations in Borrego... to ensure that the interests of their organization are represented throughout the development of the GSP." That's not, however, public participation as usually understood. It's participation by special interests and sounds awfully like a reprise of the Borrego Water Coalition which has served only to prevent direct public participation in the process.
A report on the BWD board meeting on 17 January. The board received a consultant's report forecasting water availability in 2040 when water use in the valley must be reduced to no more than the aquifer's safe-yield of 5,700 acre-feet per year. The report concluded that to meet this requirement BWD must work with San Diego County to significantly reduce the existing density for new housing starting yesterday. Another consultant's report forecasting water rates in 2040 "concluded that they could triple." The board also "endorsed" eight members of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee. One more member, who will represent the Borrego Water Coalition, remains to be appointed even though six of the eight members already endorsed are members of the BWC. Curious isn't it?
This iteration of the Groundwater Sustainability Update may actually live up to its billing - but barely and then only if you include acts of God. It reports that, despite what most locals will tell themselves, the recent rains "will have very little impact on [Borrego's] severely depleted aquifer" beyond a transient reduction in pumpage and prudently concludes: "we still need to conserve."
More filler! This time it looks like the dog's breakfast. Despite the urgency of the situation, there apparently has again been no progress on groundwater sustainability to report. This "update" resorts to citing statistics on BWD's infrastructure and customers that should be available on its website. That still filled only half the space available, however, so it goes on to provide a brief history of water use in the Borrego Valley starting with Native Americans before settlers arrived. Alas, even that was still not quite enough text, so the final paragraph describes the geology of the basin. Meanwhile the clock is ticking.
A letter to the editor by Ray Shindler advocating that BWD ensure that it receives at least enough water to serve its existing customers from the 5,700 acre feet allowed under the State Groundwater Management Act. As things stand now the District will receive only one-third of that amount.
Michael Sadler is at it again. This article ostensibly has nothing to do with water. But about one-third of the way in comes this astonishing assertion: "While aquifer conservation is on everyone's mind, 'The resort has its own wells and they are giving us just what we need,' says [the club pro] The fairways are lush rye grass..." The implication of this statement is that since Borrego Springs Resort has its own wells water use on the course somehow doesn't count, but any and every well in the Valley draws upon - and depletes - the Valley's sole-source aquifer. Sadler, who often poses as an expert on groundwater, should know better even if he isn't. A letter to the editor in the same issue entitled "Beam Me Up Sadler" takes issue with a "nutty statement" that Sadler made in an article about astronomy - another of his self-ascribed areas of expertise. At least he is consistent if often wrong.
The process by which the Borrego Valley will attempt to reduce water use from the current 19,000 acre feet per year to the maximum of 5,700 a/f per year allowed under the State Groundwater Management Act of 2014 and reallocate that reduced amount across all current users has already begun. There is, however, a very high risk that Borrego Water District ratepayers will face a water shortage, unaffordable water rates, or, more likely, both unless the District aggressively negotiates for a fair share of the allowable maximum use. The Borrego Water District board, however, shows no inclination to do that. (For the full-text of this article click here.)
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