Digger - January 11, 2016
Highlights of articles about or related to groundwater in the Borrego Valley of California and efforts to manage it.
The first in a promised series of articles that explore water conservation efforts at each of Borrego's five golf courses reports on efforts at the Road Runner Club golf course. There is little doubt that the Wright's, who own the Road Runner, are way ahead of the other four courses in town when it comes to irrigation efficiency and deserve recognition for their efforts. If they are able to further reduce usage to 150 af/yr as promised, so much the better. They will be well positioned to survive the cross the board cuts that soon will be required to make water use in the Valley sustainable.
This article covers a hodge-podge of statewide water issues, e.g. the California drought, el Nino, the Governor's mandate to reduce water consumption by 25%, the Cochella Valley Water District's failure to meet the reduction target and penalty for same, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, information about which is easily available from any number of sources. It ignores completely the serious groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley which should be of primary concern to readers of the Borrego Sun and is not available from any other source. Nor is there any mention of the local water situation elsewhere in the issue. It is a singular, regrettable failure for a local paper in an imperiled but indifferent community.
This article should never have been written. It begins with a failed attempt to illustrate what 20,000 acre feet of water, roughly the amount extracted from the Borrego Basin every year, would look like by describing a column of water 6,700 feet high with the diameter of Christmas Circle including a lengthy, esoteric, and opaque reference to Star Trek IV that only further muddies the waters. All this by way of demonstrating that Borrego is drawing down its sole-source aquifer at about four times the rate of recharge - a fact that anyone who gives a fig about the Valley should already know and be properly appalled by.
The article is apparently intended to introduce a " just-released final document" from the USGS with a title only a bureaucrat could love. The USGS document is a much anticipated comprehensive study of the dire groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley brought on by the aforementioned overdraft, but the article provides no new information from or about the study beyond its mere mention. It effects a breezy tone and strains to be humorous, at times resorting to excruciating puns, while regurgitating the long known but much ignored fact that agriculture, golf courses, and residences in the Valley use 70, 20, and 10 per cent respectively of the groundwater pumped each year. At long last, it arrives at a painfully obvious conclusion: "agricultural options must play a major role" in any solution, but "other sectors... must contribute savings as well" because "we're all in this together, right?" Brilliant.
Worse than being redundant, pointless, and condescending, the article trivializes Borrego's serious groundwater problem and offers Borregans another reason to dismiss it - which they don't need.
In a discussion of AAWARE's letter to the California Department of Water resources at the 28 October meeting of the Borrego Water District board, BWD's General Manager reported that "DWR determined that there is enough sound evidence to prove we are overdrafting our basin and pushing it to a critical overdraft situation" and believes that AAWARE's letter provides no evidence to justify a change in the critical designation of the Borrego Basin. The benefit of a "critical" designation is that BWD will be required to have a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) in place by 2020 vice 2022, for what that's worth, and will improve it's chances of receiving grants to defray some of the very significant costs of preparing the GSP. Director Brecht asserted that loss of the critical designation could add an additional $1 mil. to the cost of developing a GSP for which farmers would be responsible. Brecht has proposed that costs of developing a GSP be apportioned among agricultural, golf course, and residential users based on a "blended share" incorporating "acreage involved, assessed value of the land, and amount of water used." Exactly how these "blended shares" are to be calculated, however, is apparently still undetermined - or at least undisclosed.
The first step toward a GSP is to formally redefine the basin by separating Borrego's portion from that in Imperial County which is not in overdraft, but that process for some reason will not begin until 1 January 2016. The case for separation must be presented to the "California Water Commission" no more than ninety days later for a decision on the boundary change. Brecht said that the redefinition is necessary because Borrego's portion of the basin "is not in critical overdraft... [it] is in uber-critical overdraft."
The board voted to refund money that was paid for Tier 2 water rates because a previous board failed to provide an "analytical base" for the tiered-rate structure when enacted. Director Tatusko expressed his opinion that "this board is overly generous in returning this money" because the charges could be justified as "a regulatory conservation fee," but apparently his prudent argument did not prevail. As of 28 October 2015 the District already had received requests for a total of $24,250 in refunds.
BWD's GM reported that for the period June - September BWD achieved only a 10% reduction in water use when compared with the corresponding period during 2013. Preliminary figures for October were only slightly better and would bring the five-month average to 11% but still far short of the 25% required by the Governor's order. The District must report its progress toward the mandated reduction to the State on 15 December and failure to meet the goal will open it to the possibility of significant fines. It doesn't help that 51 of the BWD's customers use more than two acre-feet of water per year yet the bleeding-hearts on the board can't bring themselves to sanction them.
BWD's GM reminded everyone that Borrego must reduce its water use by 70% within 15 years and Director Hart disclosed that in order for the District's water credit policy to achieve its goal a 4:1 reduction would be necessary. At present the reduction is only 1:1.
The State Water Board compares every urban water supplier's water use each month with their use for the same month in 2013 to ensure they are meeting conservation goals set out in the Governor's Executive Order. The Coachella Valley Water District and the Indio Water Authority, among others, have fallen short of required reductions and face fines of $61,000 each imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board.
Despite the goofy and misleading title that may put readers off, this article contains information that should be of interest to anyone who is concerned about the Valley's water supply - both of them. At their meeting on 23 September the BWD Board held a public hearing on proposed ordinances establishing penalties for violations of District ordinances and conservation enforcement measures for customers. The board's persistent but naive hope that voluntary conservation efforts would suffice to achieve a 25% reduction in water use mandated by the Governor's executive order were dashed when the BWD General Manager reported that a spreadsheet error showed the reduction for both July and August as 26% when, in fact, the reduction for August was only 10%. That, coupled with a 6% increase in water use during September 2015 over September 2013 (the base year), yields only an 11% reduction for the four months June - September when compared to use during the base year. Upon learning that the District had fallen far short of the required 25% reduction Director Hart allowed that "[w]e [BWD] are kind of in jeopardy then." Well, yes.
During a discussion of creating a Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the Borrego Basin it was disclosed that of the three agencies eligible for such designation - Imperial County, the County of San Diego, and the Borrego Water District - Imperial County had already made application but only wanted jurisdiction over that part of the basin within their boundaries and the County of San Diego "is in no real hurry to apply." Director Brecht suggested that BWD begin the application process as soon as possible, but stressed the importance of imposing a "regulatory fee" on all pumpers in the valley to defray the very substantial cost of developing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP). Director Hart suggested "[t]here are lots of ideas circulating about ways to provide philanthropic assistance" to the District. That is a noble sentiment, but funding a multi-million dollar effort on goodwill and bake sales is on a par with achieving a substantial reduction in water use by depending on the collective conscience of the community. We now know how well that works in Borrego (see above).
John Whalen is right in arguing that "California was just not meant to have as many people living in it as were" even in 1974. He is also correct that the selfish actions of myopic politicians in the state led to uncontrolled and unmanaged growth with all its deleterious consequences not the least of which is a severe and intractable statewide water-shortage that is growing worse all the time. Whalen speculates that California politicians will seek to depopulate parts of the state as a solution to the problems they have created. He implies that Borrego will be one of the communities that will be sacrificed and suggests therefore that Borregans should follow the example of coastal residents, i.e. live large and ignore pleas to conserve water for as long as the supply lasts.
This argument will have particular appeal to Borregans since it is merely a variation on an old, familiar theme in this superannuated community: "Why should I care about the water problem? I'll be dead before it runs out." These sorts of arguments, however, give new meaning to "self-centered" - even among Borregans.
This article reports on the BWD Board Meeting 15 September 2015 at which Directors discussed efforts by BWD to obtain designation as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) under California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Development costs alone for a required Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the Borrego Basin could run as high as $2 million. The district's "idea is to spread the cost among all of the basin users." As a GSA, "[t]he state requires the District to meter every pumper." Borrego is required by the Governor's executive order to reduce its water use by 25% "from the baseline period of June through November of 2013 to June through February 2016." (sic) In June 2015 the District achieved only a 16% reduction from water used in June of the baseline period. The BWD General Manager reported that reductions in July and August had been 26% "for a rolling average of twenty-three percent" over the three months and pronounced the District to be "in good shape" with respect to meeting its mandated reduction target.
The executive order also requires that the District have a mechanism to penalize those who use "excessive amounts of water," but the District desperately hopes that voluntary compliance will obviate the need to impose penalties. Director Delahay explained that the Board hopes to avoid using the "sledgehammer" of penalties because Borrego Springs is "a small community. We [Board members] have to live here." Delahay is to be commended for his candor, but his comments make explicit what has for many years prevented any effective measures to address the steadily worsening overdraft: Board member's abject and paralyzing fear of any negative reaction from community members. Nothing will happen until voters elect a board with the moral courage to do their job.
Director Lyle Brecht was merely stating the obvious when he admitted that the District could not meet the long-term goal of a permanent 70% reduction in water use to bring the aquifer into an equilibrium state as mandated by the GSA by simply reducing the amount of water used by BWD ratepayers. The BWD is responsible for only 10% of all water use. According to Brecht, the majority of the required reduction will have to come "from somewhere else." Although he was loath to be more specific for the reason cited above, the vast majority, if not entirety, of such reductions can only be achieved by drastically curtailing water use by agriculture and golf courses.
Tom Weber was the General Manager of the Borrego Water Distirct and during his tenure was responsible for producing the first and only Groundwater Management Plan for the Borrego Basin published in 2002. The plan was never implemented because of resistance from pumpers and the cowardice, incompetence, and misfeasance of "just plain, self-centered fools sitting on the [BWD] Board." Tom knows whereof he speaks, and his opinion piece calling for action to "bring reality and real solutions to the increasingly grave water situation in the Borrego Valley" should jolt somnolent Borregoans from their torpor- but probably won't. Maybe, as Tom suggests, when "homes in Borrego are served water by private tank trucks" for the first time folks will wake up? Or not.
This editorial, beginning with its curious title that seems divorced from the text, is puzzling. It starts with a manifesto: "Your personal involvement is imperative to help with decisions both locally and globally as the population of the earth and the behaviors of its inhabitants seem to threaten our survival. Stand up and get involved now." It then presents what appears to be a randomly selected parade of horribles that includes only a tangential and, for Borrego, inappropriate reference to water shortages and concludes with a warning from "The Lancet Report" that, according to 'the global health community. we are in real danger of undermining the core ecological systems that support human health.' Bewildering as it is, however, the piece implicitly makes a point that cannot be stressed too often in Borrego: We are each of us responsible for the evil we might have prevented.
An op-ed by Kevin Christie of Borrego Springs alleging that "this valley allowed private interest to come in here and stir up the landscape" starting in the 1990s when the Cameron Bros. "cleared and left unprotected" land for what would eventually become the Borrego Springs Resort golf course. The result was "sand storms that continued for years." Christie argues that when residents of the valley "did not take umbrage at something so disturbing" it showed "how little. the community is aware of itself." He goes on to point out that, more recently, the Sonora Energy Solar project "laid bare" over 300 acres with the same result but "no one around here is going to admit the seriousness of what they've created, in that they've allowed, maybe even encouraged private interest to come in and mess with our delicate eco-systematic environment." Christie is right, of course, and an even more egregious example of Borregan's destructive ecological apathy is the dewatering of the Borrego Basin which nearly everyone has chosen to quietly countenance for more than sixty years.
A letter from John Peterson, retired San Diego County Hydrogeologist, announcing formation of and seeking volunteers for "[a]n ad hoc citizens group. to advise the Borrego Water District" in the design of a new tiered rate structure "to promote water conservation in the community." The letter makes abundantly clear, however, that the conservation pricing will apply to residential users only. Agricultural and golf course irrigation, as usual, is specifically excluded from consideration.
A report on the Special Meeting of the BWD board on 14 July 2015.
Because of a history of large projects that have created serious dust problems as described by Kevin Christie and the likelihood that there will be more as predicted by Christie the board relented and approved up to $15,000 for monitoring airborne dust levels with the UC Irvine Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in Borrego.
The BWD is required by Governor Brown's April 1st Executive Order B-29-15 to cut residential water use for the six months from June to November 2015 by 25% from the amount used during the same six month period in 2013. In June the District managed to achieve only a 16% reduction from the same month of the baseline period. The BWD hopes to improve their performance by sending a letter to some fifty "high-use ratepayers" to put them on notice, but the results for June should cause the board to question its blind faith that relying on carrots without a stick will produce the result mandated by the State.
Director Tatusko indicated that BWD must "proceed quickly" with its application to become a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSP) for the Borrego Basin in conjunction with the County of San Diego and that it is "necessary to have adequate representation from the public as well as from the BWC" to meet the state's requirement that the process be transparent and stake-holder driven to be eligible for GSP development grants. The BWD and County must meet certain interim mileposts toward completing their application(s) and the GSP development grants will be awarded on a first come first served basis. But the county is not be prepared even to begin the application process until September - illustrating once again why the words "County of San Diego" and "proceed quickly" should never appear in the same sentence.
This brief article corrects a report in the previous issue of the Borrego Sun that Ellis Farms, Inc. would be planting avocados in the Borrego Valley. Farmer Ellis says it will not. It will, however, continue to grow ornamentals in the Valley - at least for now.
Farmer Ellis also told the Sun that he was "dismayed and disheartened by the increasingly hostile sentiment towards farmers in Borrego Springs." Ellis Farms, Inc. has been sucking free water out of the Borrego Valley aquifer for 45 years, but now has its property in Borrego Springs for sale. Apparently Farmer Ellis can read the handwriting on the wall and wants to get out before the rush. The question for him is: Who is going to be fool enough to buy the property in light of the increasingly hostile sentiment towards farmers in Borrego Springs that he alleges? Quite apart from such sentiment - for which, unfortunately, there is little if any evidence - the historical appeal of Borrego to farmers, i.e. free water, is fast coming to an end. Either the BWD will summon the courage to end agriculture's profligate water use or, far more likely, the economic water in the basin soon will be exhausted and farmers along with everyone else will have to leave the valley.
The Borrego Sun posed the following question about Governor Brown's Executive Order (B-29-15) to ten randomly selected individuals: "What are you doing to conserve water in your home or business and how do you feel about this mandate?" Apparently none of those approached wanted to answer the first question. Their answers to the second question varied substantially from completely unintelligible to fairly reasonable but probably unworkable with the majority lumped together at or near the unintelligible/unworkable end of the spectrum. Most answers suggested in one way or another that the cost and other burdens of water conservation should be borne equally by all water users. Half of the respondents at least seemed to indicate that they disagreed with the exemption of farmers from state mandated conservation measures. Several expressed concern about higher water rates. While there is obviously nothing definitive about the results of this small, unscientific survey, it does nothing to counter the notion that most Borregans know and care little about the serious groundwater situation in the Valley.
At the BWD board meeting on 24 June audience member Bob McKee questioned the existing qualifications for BWD board members and requested they be changed to specifically require that a BWD board member be a BWD ratepayer. The BWD General Manager suggested that "there usually has been a farmer on the Board." Farmers in Borrego have their own wells and pump their own water for household use so are not ratepayers but historically have been represented on the BWD board. That does not however make it right and, as McKee pointed out, in effect amounts to representation without taxation. The board took McKee's suggestion under advisement.
A representative from the UC Irvine Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in Borrego Springs offered a low-cost opportunity for BWD to participate in an air quality monitoring program in anticipation of dust control problems caused by fallowing farm land to save water. The BWD General Manager and the Chair of the BWD Board "realized the value of the offer" but want to delay action on the matter until 2020 when a Groundwater sustainability Plan is in place so the cost could "be spread out to everyone in the valley and not just ratepayers." Yet another opportunity lost to the board's timidity and unwillingness to act responsibly and in a timely manner while waiting for the State to do their job for them.
There was a lengthy discussion about ordinances concerning establishment and enforcement of water conservation measures the gist of which was that while the State requires that the BWD enact such measures the board will bend over backward to avoid actually enforcing them. Ironically, the last sentence of the article declares: "The time to conserve is now." Wrong! The time to conserve was 30+ years ago, but better late than never - the option that the BWD board would obviously prefer.
Ellis Farms, which converted water from the Borrego basin into profit for many years as a wholesaler of palms and succulents, now intends to bring "the water saving Dan Brokaw method" of growing avocados to the valley. But Borregans should beware of Ellis' facile claims about low-water agricultural methods. Far more significant than Ellis' switch from ornamentals to avocados, however, is the fact that they are willing to make a substantial investment in a project that will begin using water for irrigation immediately but have no pay-off for some years. The owners are clearly convinced that agriculture of whatever type has a future in the valley at least long enough for them to recoup a substantial investment and make a profit from it. There is little doubt that other growers in the valley share this belief for the BWD has done little or nothing to disabuse them of it and they control the Borrego Water Cabal which in turn dictates BWD policy.
This is a brief article describing Nestle's plans to bottle 1.6 mil. liters of water per day, about 472 acre feet/year, from a Canadian water-shed that provides drinking water for Elora, Ontario, a community of 4,500 already under water restrictions. The Friends of Elora Water was formed to "protect the water supply as the most precious resource of the community" and their meetings are reportedly "packed with concerned citizens prepared to fight for water rights."
Nestle might better have targeted Borrego for its bottling plant. Borrego is short of water too, but their proposal would be welcomed in the valley - if anyone even took notice. It could easily be peddled to the indifferent populace under the conjuring rubric of "economic development" - always a winner in Borrego irrespective of deleterious consequences. Moreover, they could be guaranteed no organized opposition from concerned citizens prepared to fight for the community's most precious and endangered resource - its water supply.
The article almost certainly was intended to provide a model for Borregans to emulate, but most readers probably just wondered why a very local paper in southern California chose to write about a water war in a small Canadian town. It's a fair guess that is exactly the reason it was published. Sadly, it is casting pearls before swine.
This article summarizes Governor Brown's Executive Order (B-29-15) that requires "immediate action to safe guard the state's remaining potable urban water supplies" and calls for indoor water use to be kept at or below 55 gallons/day/person.
The Borrego Valley aquifer is the sole-source of potable water for the community of Borrego Springs. Reducing only domestic water use, no more than 10% of total use in the valley, will do next to nothing to protect its fast disappearing remaining supply. It will therefore be impossible to safe guard Borrego's remaining potable water supply by focusing entirely on domestic water use as Brown's executive order requires. The only way to accomplish that is to severely restrict pumping by agriculture and golf courses that together use 90% of the water pumped each year. The BWD board, however, is agonizing over curtailing even domestic use in any meaningful way and simply ignoring the 90% used by pumpers.
There is some rationale for the board's reluctance to impose extreme restrictions on domestic users alone given the minuscule benefit to be derived from doing so. There is no excuse for giving the pumpers a pass since it can be argued that they are responsible for the entire overdraft. Were they to cease pumping altogether demand on the aquifer would be immediately reduced to less than one-half the average annual recharge. Regrettably, the board appears to have no intention of facing this reality. Directors instead prefer to lie in the weeds biding their time while desperately hoping the state or someone - anyone - relieves them of this odious responsibility before the aquifer, for all practical purposes, is destroyed.
On 7 May 2015, Beth Hart, President of the Borrego Water District Board, told the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group that the California Governor's Emergency Order (Executive Order B-29-15) limiting water use gave water districts in the state only two choices: limit domestic irrigation to two days per week or reduce overall domestic water use by 25%. Hart suggested the BWD chose the latter, adding that the District had no clear idea "what the penalty will be if we fail to meet the reduction." She went on to explain that the BWD board "considered various ideas" for enforcing compliance with the mandated reduction but rejected them. Instead, the board "decided we would prefer to take a different path" that is "constructive for Borrego" and will not derail the board's aspirations "to build a plan under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act [SGMA] to address the overdraft." BWD admits that, in any case, ratepayers will pay more for water, but maintains that "we can plan a controlled process so that state mandates don't divert our resources and create a crisis for our community." End of sermon followed presumably by the benediction: "We as a community have the opportunity to take control of our water future."
Hart's comment about penalties for non-compliance was not gratuitous. Clearly the BWD board intends doing as little as possible to comply with the letter of the Governor's order. BWD ratepayers account for only 10% of total water use in the valley. Even if BWD succeeds in curtailing its water use by 25%, which is highly improbable, it would reduce overall demand on the aquifer by only 2.5% - a far cry from the 70% reduction necessary to achieve sustainability. Directors obviously want to delay meaningful action to address the overdraft until the State fleshes-out SGMA in hopes its mandate will shield them from responsibility for difficult and unpopular but critical decisions that should have been taken long ago; i.e. "The Devil made me do it!"
Instead of bold action, therefore, they dole out meretricious reassurances while continuing their naive quest for a solution to the overdraft that is cheap, easy, painless, and popular. They would as well search for a pink unicorn.
Another spot-on cartoon by Saul Miller illustrating why Borrego will likely never come to grips with its increasingly serious water problem.
At its April 22 meeting, the board asked Ocotillo Wells Solar Farm to purchase an additional six water credits to offset construction water sales, an increase from two to eight, to cover the actual amount of water used. The representative from the solar farm agreed to purchase the additional credits. It appears that the BWD was originally taking the path of least resistance and following the county's lead in setting the number of credits required but suffered an attack of responsibility after the fact.
The District will send a "comment letter [to DWR?] regarding certain restrictions that don't make sense for Borrego Springs. regulations that might make sense in metropolitan areas [but] have no relevance here." The specific restrictions and regulations were not identified, but Director Lyle Brecht "thinks reductions can be achieved more effectively through incentives, encouragement and rates, rather than by command and control tactics." That may be, but in Borrego the carrot of inducements will achieve nothing without an accompanying stick. According to the BWD, tiered rates have resulted in a substantial decrease in domestic water use. If the BWD wants to decrease use in that sector still further it will have to implement the more robust tiered rate structure that was considered but rejected years ago to get the attention of "extreme water users [who] don't conserve at all and need to reduce a lot more than 25 percent." The Agenda for the Borrego Water District Board of Directors Special Meeting on May 19, 2015 contains an agenda item captioned "Discussion of Prop 218 for future tiered water rates in the Fall." Now if the Board can just muster the gumption to pass it this time around.
It is noteworthy that BWD can act with such alacrity to forestall imposition of restrictions and regulations that, while admittedly ill-advised in this case, would save water, but refuses to take any initiative to expand its own authority to the same end. Several requests that the District seek authority from the State to require pumpers to meter their wells and impose and collect a pump tax now rather than waiting until a Groundwater Sustainability Agency is formed have either been ignored or rejected out of hand. A sceptic might question just how serious the agency is about achieving sustainability in the Borrego basin.
Director Beth Hart said "we [BWD] are now required under the sustainability plan to have some kind of measured AG [agricultural] water usage." This quote is puzzling. It cannot refer to the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) that the BWD will have to produce pursuant to the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014(SGMA ), because the GSP does not exist. Indeed it will not exist for some time because the guidelines for producing it are not expected from the State for at least another year. It is possible that Hart is here referring to Governor Browns April 1st Executive Order B-29-15 regarding a 25% reduction in water use. If so, then the BWD already has the authority to require metering of all water use in the basin and should do so immediately, if not sooner.
The Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association brought Jay Famiglietti, a senior NASA JPL water scientist and professor at U. C. Irvine, to Borrego on April 10 to speak about using satellite imagery to study groundwater depletion.
Famiglietti, who is recognized world-wide as an expert on the future of water resources, offered a simple, understandable, plain-language definition of "aquifer" as "a geologic unit of soil or rock that is porous and can store enough water that you can justify drilling a well into it to pump the water out" which by itself might help the uninitiated understand that an aquifer is a more complex entity than simply a large underground lake as often envisioned.
He explained that water laws and water rights were established "before we really understood how water moves around and how the water cycle works," and that this allowed "some inequities to come into play" that have caused a serious decline in groundwater in storage. What needs to happen now that we do understand, he said, "is to stop the decline" of groundwater stored in aquifers.
In the Borrego Valley, according to Famiglietti, that means that the amount of water withdrawn from the aquifer must decrease by 70%. He said he was "shocked" by the amount of agriculture he found in the Borrego Valley because Borrego Springs is in a desert and "it isn't clear whether it can sustain agriculture or even golf courses. We're really at the tipping point of water availability here." He warned that if the water in the upper aquifer is exhausted, "it will take about four times as many pumps to draw the same amount of water from the middle and lower aquifers, and studies are not yet complete to show how much that water will be degraded," i.e., if it is potable.
When BWD Director Lyle Brecht declares that "[t]he issue. is not running out of water. The issue is running out water that is high quality and inexpensive as we currently have," he is making a distinction without a difference and offering false hope to a largely uninformed population eager for reasons to avoid confronting reality. If you doubt that, ask the people in Fairmead, CA where only large corporate farms growing high-value, water-intensive crops have the wherewithal to drill wells deep enough to reach water after many years of overpumping. Others must rely on water that is trucked in and have seen their property values approach zero.
In answer to the question "What do you do to save water?," eight people in Borrego Springs responded as follows: improved irrigation practices and equipment; don't run water while brushing teeth, shaving, peeling hard boiled eggs; take shorter and fewer showers; native landscaping; no pool; "live simply;" "do the dishes all at the same time;" low-flow faucets, toilets, showerheads, etc. The most effective suggestion came from someone who does not live in Borrego who said she saves water [from the Borrego Valley aquifer] "by not living here." All of these efforts are well intentioned and appreciated, but they are not nearly enough to make a significant difference and are overwhelmed by the massive amounts of water pumped by agriculture and golf courses as cleverly illustrated by Saul Miller's "Bunny & Hare" cartoon on p. 7 of this issue.
The account of the meeting suggests that there was little new information presented; for the most part it appears to have been just the usual Annual Meeting boilerplate.
BWD General Manager Jerry Rolwing opened the meeting by reciting what is apparently the BWD's new mantra: "We as a community have the opportunity to take control of our water future." Mantras are utterances believed to have religious, spiritual, or magical efficacy. The BWD had better hope they do because it doesn't seem to have much else going for it in that regard.
Jim Bennet, San Diego County hydrogeologist, reiterated what should be the BWD mantra: Chronic lowering of groundwater levels and reduction of storage are not sustainable in Borrego Springs. He also pointed out, however, that the County general plan and zoning for Borrego Springs are "not even close to something you would call sustainable" and that the California Dept. of Water Resources' (DWR) template for a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) - the basket into which the BWD has put all of its eggs - "should be available by June 2016." The tentative nature of this latter prophecy is well founded. Bennet said that although the Borrego Valley basin extends to Imperial County, "Borrego Springs is pumping most of the water by far from the shared basin." According to Bennet, the DWR is considering sub-dividing basins and Borrego Springs and San Diego County would both qualify as Groundwater Sustainability Agencies for the Borrego Valley basin which will undoubtedly further complicate and delay creation and execution of a plan to manage the basin. Om!
Director Lyle Brecht made a surprising and radical departure from positions he has long held regarding adjudication and finally admitted that "although it's not terribly expensive (perhaps he finally did an honest comparison with the outrageous cost of the Borrego Water Cabal's recommendations for purchasing and fallowing agriculture land) and does produce a definitive outcome where everyone knows his water rights," he continues to argue that the outcome is uncertain and "wouldn't be speeding anything up" because courts will still require a management plan which would cost $1.5 mil. This, of course, ignores completely the fact that adjudication will limit the demand on the aquifer to no more than the basin's safe yield and force the pumpers to consider seriously how they will continue their operations with less - perhaps considerably less - than thirty per cent of the water they now use. That will have the immediate and salutary effect of focusing their minds and simplifying and accelerating the planning process. Brecht maintains, however, that the "only defensible approach is to ask all of the basin users to pay their fair proportionate share of planning development costs - but has a problem even defining the latter. How about: agriculture 70% + golf courses 20% + BWD 10% = 100%? (Saul Miller's "Bunny & Hare" cartoon in the same issue of the Borrego Sun (p. 7) does an admirable job of graphically depicting the logic of these ratios.)
Director Beth Hart's presentation was almost entirely sunshine talk. It was larded with high-sounding words and phrases like "the necessity of preserving the unique character of Borrego," "work cooperatively to plan our future and retain... local control," the GSP will represent "a shared,ss community vision," "goal is to share equitably" in the costs of implementing a vision "reached through a collaborative process. [that] creates an economically sustainable solution," etc. Noble sentiments all, to be sure, but wholly fanciful and totally lacking in specifics or concrete proposals.
Jay Famiglietti is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, the Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, and regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on the future of water resources. According to Famiglietti, in order to cope with the statewide water emergency California must:
Adopt "mandatory water rationing across all of the state's water sectors."s
Accelerate implementation of the State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014. The law's mandated deadline for achieving sustainability is 2042, but "[b]y then there maybe no groundwater left to sustain."
Form a task force "right now" to brainstorm water management strategies to accommodate the long-term water needs of a perennially water-stressed state. "Today, not tomorrow is the time to begin."
Encourage public ownership of the issue. Water is our most important commonly owned resource, but the pubic remains detached from the issue. They must demand that planning for a secure water future is an honest, transparent and forward-looking process.
All of these imperatives, i.e. ration water , accelerate implementation of long-term water sustainability strategies, and, most especially, encourage public ownership of the issue to ensure that planning for Borrego's water security is honest, transparent, and forward looking, apply in spades to the Borrego Valley. The Borrego Water District should pay attention.
Director Brecht announced that, while the board had "a recommended policy from the Borrego Water Coalition to reduce our withdrawals by seventy per cent over twenty years," some members of BWC now have "a fair amount of concern" that 70% is too high because it fails to take into account return flows (see p. 5). This is a tactic that has been trotted out by the pumpers many times before when they believe it is to their advantage to lower estimates of their water use. When, however, they see an advantage to raising those estimates, as when setting the per acre usage for conversion to water credits, they will argue that return flows are negligible. Nonetheless, Brecht suggested the issue be resolved "with an independent analysis" by a qualified third-party and said the costs of obtaining needed data are necessary for development of a plan and should be "spread across all the water users" and not borne entirely by district ratepayers. There is nothing wrong with this suggestion so long as the pumpers agree before hand to (a) the retention of a truly independent and qualified third-party to do the analysis, (b) bear 90% of the cost of the analysis, and (c) accept the findings as dispositive - conditions that, based on passed performance, they are unlikely to accept. The BWD board learned that GSP related costs to the district YTD are approximately $120k and agreed to start moving costs from the district ratepayers to all basin users. As a show of good faith, they should start immediately with the cost of the return flow analysis.
The BWD Public Meeting on17 February 2015, was again touted as a discussion of the Borrego Water Cabal's (BWC) recommendations for implementation of the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA ), but again, as at the January meeting, there was not so much as a single mention of any of the BWC's recommendations. One question from the audience seemed to set the dominant theme for the meeting, i.e. whether the District had "any notion about funding mechanisms for the [Groundwater Sustainability] plan]." Another audience member politely suggested that "if you [BWD board] get around to explaining dollars. it will help get community support" for a plan. It was all about the money.
Director Lyle Brecht chose not to answer the question and ignored the suggestion, choosing instead to belabor the obvious, i.e. that it is necessary to have a plan before 'creating any cost analysis.' and deducing from that platitude that since the District has no plan "we don't know how much it will cost." But the question wasn't "how much it will cost" and so did not require a "cost analysis" to answer. By the board's own admission implementing a GSP will be expensive. The question was: Where will the multi-million dollars to fund it come from? Jerry Rolwing, BWD's General Manager, did try to answer it, suggesting there might be grants available to help defray the costs of a GSP, but the possibility of the BWD receiving any outside funding, if it ever materialized, was unknown. Brecht added that "he didn't think it was reasonable to depend on funds that may or may not materialize" but that he "never imagined the plan as a completely rate-payer paid for activity" because there are "a lot of water users [in the valley] that are not ratepayers that should be liable for their fair share of costs." He did not explain how he would collect these water users' fair share of costs. Director Beth Hart insisted, despite the dearth of information about how a plan might be funded, "cost is an issue for all of us," and explained that if a plan were to be funded by water credits, seemingly the District's current method of choice, the ratio would have to be raised from the present 2:1 to 4:1.
Brecht also acknowledged that requisite DWR guidelines for Groundwater Sustainability Plans will not be "available until approximately July 2016," but stopped short of admitting that therefore work on a GSP would not even begin for at least another year and one half.
Despite the lack of any visible progress toward a solution or the timely prospect thereof, Brecht warned that the overdraft of the Borrego Valley aquifer is an "existential threat." He went on to say, however, that "finally, after thirty years... people are willing to show up at meetings and ask questions" and Beth Hart assured the audience that "[n]obody wants to just kill the town." Apparently, in Borregoville, those trivial and iffy assertions count as reassurance.
This article characterizes the BWD public meeting in January touted as a discussion of the Borrego Water Cabal's (BWC) recommendations for implementation of the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA ), but all of the discussing appears to have taken place only among three members of the BWD (Directors Beth Hart and Ray Delahay and GM Jerry Rolwing) and Trey Driscoll, a hydro-geologist identified only by name in the article, but likely a representative of Dudek, an environmental consulting firm in San Diego. There was no mention of if or by whom he was being paid to attend the meeting. There were also no reported comments by any member of the public nor so much as a single mention of any of the BWC's recommendations, the putative subject of the meeting. But never mind.
Driscoll "advised getting the community involved in writing a very compelling story" for a grant. Sounds like a plan except that (a) every applicant for every grant, if they have the sense God gave geese, will do their utmost to tell the same kind of "compelling story" and (b) the apparent lack of public turnout for the meeting or active participation therein bodes ill for any strategy that relies on community participation in Borrego. At the same time Driscoll, the hydro-geologist, warned that Borrego was "already running into some of the issues that occur with over draft, such as water quality issues, which are beginning to be seen in portions of the basin" and that the District's mitigation ratio of 2:1 is too low to get the basin to sustainability within the twenty year window allowed by the SGMA. (It is fair to point out here that not long ago the BWD board lowered that ratio - a move the Borregowaterunderground strongly opposed.)
Most of whatever discussion that did take place concerned known shortcomings, omissions, and deficiencies of the SGMA, and difficulties working on implementation with San Diego county which, according to Director Beth Hart, "doesn't recognize the overdraft" and has land use and development policies that exacerbate it. The outcome of the discussion, such as it was, seemed to be that "[b]asically, the Groundwater Sustainability Act is a huge unfunded mandate," and there exists considerable uncertainty about where outside funding might come from and BWD's chances of receiving any of whatever there is - if any.
In the end Director Ray Delahay appears to have spoken for, but more honestly than, everyone else when he said of the new legislation: "How's it all going to work out? I haven't the slightest idea." How could he? How could anyone?
This Viewpoint was submitted by Hi Lewis who introduces himself as a "geologist from Kansas" who for the past two years has "been involved with the state of Kansas' efforts to draft a fifty-year water plan" but, curiously, disclaims any expertise in "water matters." He then spends the rest of his rather lengthy piece substantiating the disclaimer.
Lewis unintentionally demonstrates just how much trouble Borrego is in when it comes to solving its groundwater problem. That someone who ostensibly has the background to understand Borrego's situation should put forward such simplistic, wildly unrealistic, and reckless suggestions for dealing with it is indicative of just how difficult it will be to bring a willfully ignorant and disinterested local population up to speed on the formidable task of staunching the overdraft and then convince them to support action to correct it. Although perhaps well-intentioned, Lewis' counter-factual, unfounded, and irresponsible opinions severely damage sincere efforts to persuade a reluctant populace to do what must be done to save Borrego's sole-source aquifer. Because the opinions come from someone who appears to have relevant qualifications - never mind the disclaimer - residents will be encouraged to continue ignoring the problem when they should, in their own self-interest if for no other reason, be marching around Christmas Circle en masse demanding an immediate solution to it.
Lewis asserts that residents "should all be very comfortable pumping from our current aquifer, conserving where we can.," seemingly confident that if everyone will just turn off the tap while brushing their teeth the water will last until as yet unknown solutions for the valley's self-inflicted water woes appear as if by magic in the indefinite future. When he says "Bottom line - we are not going to run out of water" he is technically correct, but also misleads a gullible and largely ignorant audience eager for any sort of excuse to continue doing nothing. Most will quickly jump to the conclusion that they need not bother themselves about the overdraft, heave a huge sigh of relief, and totter off to pursue less dreary diversions - or take a nap.
While most of the piece is fantasy fiction based on magical thinking, Lewis does make one crucial point: whatever the solution, "[t]he issue is. money. Who will pay for what." That is a question the BWD and the Borrego Water Cabal (BWC) have disingenuously and assiduously avoided and for which they consequently have no answer. Lewis suggests that each ratepayer accept a five-dollar a month increase in her/his water bill to pay for an unspecified "reliable, renewable fresh water supply" that will somehow eventually become available. Rather than try to sell an imaginary pig in a poke to ratepayers, however, the District would be far better off imposing a surcharge of five-dollars a month per ratepayer to fund adjudication of the Borrego basin. Even after the recent passage of California's cumbersome California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA ), adjudication remains the only certain and timely remedy for the valley's groundwater woes; a fact residents and decision makers in the Valley ignore at their peril - Lewis' facile assurances aside.
At the Borrego Water District board meeting on 12.17.2014 audience member Ray Shindler urged the board to reject The Borrego Water Coalition (BWC) Recommendations for a groundwater management plan because they contain loop holes that will permit pumpers to continue draining the aquifer unimpeded. He suggested that BWD use language in the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that permits Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to 'limit or suspend groundwater extractions from wells" to force pumpers to restrict water use to the safe yield of the basin as soon as possible. Audience member Dick Walker voiced strong support for Shindler's comments. The foregoing notwithstanding the board turned to discussing a series of meetings to take public comment on BWC's Recommendations, "how they will be used for a GSP," and how to fund the Plan in the sanguine hope of reaching decisions as soon as April 2015.
The GSA will likely involve BWD and San Diego county working together to implement a plan "if money materializes to pay for it." The operative word here is "materializes" for while Director Brecht said "he would not feel comfortable having the rate-payers absorb the cost" neither Brecht nor anyone else offered any suggestions for where the approximately $1.5 mil. might come from. Moreover, work on the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) has already been delayed awaiting implementing regulations from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) that aren't even expected to be issued until "around June 2016." Anyone who remembers the protracted negotiations with the county necessary to reach agreement on the relatively simple issue of water credits will surely realize that waiting for regulations from the State and then trying to work with the county on complex issues of groundwater management puts any meaningful action well over the horizon while Borrego's groundwater situation needs action today.
Finally, Director Beth Hart announced that the District intends to "maintain as much local control as possible" over the Borrego basin out of a primal fear of "large government," adding that ratepayers were "all along for the ride." Apparently the District not only "wants 'what's best for Borrego'" but also knows what's best. Comforting isn't it?
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