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The Borrego Water Underground is a no-frills, reliable source of information about the increasingly serious groundwater situation in the BorregoValley. Its purpose is to inform and warn residents, potential residents, property owners, those considering buying property or starting a business and anyone interested in this unique community and its fragile desert environment of the dire and rapidly deteriorating groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley. From time to time The Underground will also publish information and opinions about community affairs, local politics and events that will or may have material consequences for groundwater in the Valley or are otherwise water related. Watch for frequent updates. If you have information that would be appropriate to, suggestions for improving, or questions about this site, please give us a shout. Hey Digger!
Borrego Springs is located in the Borrego Valley, a seventy square mile area in northeast San Diego County, CA surrounded by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP). It is the County's only self-sufficient, desert community. The Valley is a remote, isolated basin and importing water is not an option. The Borrego Valley Aquifer is, therefore, the sole source of water for the Valley
The aquifer is being drawn down at a rate nearly five times the recharge rate. The water table has been dropping over two feet per year for the past sixty years while the loss rate increasing over time. Water quality is already adversely affected, wells near the periphery of the aquifer are running dry and being abandoned, and the aquifer has reached a critical point.
It is a classic zero sum gain situation. Simple arithmetic demonstrates the hard truth that no solution can satisfy all, or even most, of the conflicting interests involved. There has been no willingness to compromise; so all attempts to find a solution have failed. Passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SgMA) in 2014 finally forced the issue and a Stipulated Agreement to reduce pumping in the basin to the safe yield of the aquifer is now before the court. Even if approved, however, the Agreement will not be fully implemented until 2040. Meanwhile the future of Borrego Springs, the Valley, and significant portions of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park hang in the balance. For additional information:
To visualize and put into perspective Borrego's groundwater problem, consider the following:
The Vista (CA) Irrigation District in northern San Diego County serves 120,000 people in the city of Vista and portions of San Marcos, Escondido, Oceanside and nearby unincorporated areas. The District uses approximately 24,000 acre feet of water a year. The Vista Irrigation District receives water from Lake Henshaw which it owns, and from Northern California Colorado River. The Borrego Valley, on the other hand, has a population of fewer than 3,000 yet uses almost the same amount of water each year. Its sole source of supply is the Borrego Valley aquifer. Ninety per cent or more of water pumped from the Borrego Valley aquifer is used by agribusiness and golf courses.
The Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir in San Diego County was completed in August 2003. It cost over $300 million to construct and has a capacity of 24,000 acre feet of water; just about the same amount as is used in the Borrego Valley each and every year.
The city of Poway, home to nearly 50,000 people and hundreds of businesses, distributes a bit more than 4 billion gallons of water to its users annually. Borrego pumps 50 percent more water than that, even though its population is minute in comparison. The huge disparity is attributeable to farms which use 70% of all the water pumped from the basin.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2010 census), the total population of Borrego Springs is 3,429. Of this population, 1,172 people 16 years and older are employed. Of these, at most 17 persons or 1.5% of the total is employed in agriculture. The average American household uses about one-half acre foot of water per year for all purposes. That means that the water required to support just one agricultural job in the Valley is enough to supply 2000 households; or that all of the water required by agriculture would support a medium sized city of 31,200 households.
A Wikipedia article calls the Borrego Valley Groundwater Basin one of the driest basins in the state and warns that, "with climate change predicted to have strong effects into foreseeable future, the region is viewed with a skepticism in the sustainable use of water at current rates of consumption."
AAWARE is a well-financed Mutual Benefit Corporation. Membership is restricted to representatives of twenty or so agribusinesses in the Valley. Despite the innocuous name, AAWARE's only purpose is to protect member's access to water from the aquifer. Formed in 2002 and active for several years thereafter, it was largely dormant for a few years. With the passage of California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 that will drastically reduce water use in the valley, AAWARE is once again actively pursuing its ends and has secured a significant presence on the Borrego Springs WaterMaster Board. Tragedy Of The Commons. (Updated 02/05/2021)
The ABDSP has or should have a significant interest in preserving the Borrego Valley aquifer. Unfortunately, the California Department of Parks and Recreation long ago deemed Borrego's groundwater problem a local political issue in which it is loath to become involved, apparently for fear of adverse political consequences. The local ABDSP employees, for the most part, follow the lead of their Agency and remain dutifully silent.
The BSCSG has no direct responsibility for groundwater management, but is an advisory body to the San Diego County Board to which it makes recommendations regarding planning and development in Borrego Springs. To the limited extent possible within its mandate, however, the BSCSG, to its credit, has been active in reducing the threat to Borrego's sole source aquifer. BSCSG Mitigation Policy
In California, when water users dispute water rights pumpers can ask a court to define the rights of various entities to use groundwater from a basin, a process known as groundwater adjudication. The courts can assign specific water rights to water users and compel the cooperation of any who might otherwise refuse to limit their pumping. Watermasters are appointed by the court to administer and enforce provisions of an adjudication and ensure that pumping conforms to limits defined by the adjudication. The Borrego Springs Watermaster is a committee of representatives of parties to the adjudication, i.e. The Borrego Springs WaterMaster Board.
Although called the Borrego Water Coalition, this group is actually a cabal formed in the fall of 2012 when Borrego Water District directors Beth Hart and Lyle Brecht began meeting secretly with a select group of high-profile pumpers, plus a smattering of others to provide a veneer of legitimacy, to divvy up what little water remains in the Borrego Valley aquifer. In March of 2013 the existence of the The Borrego Water Cabal (BWC) was finally revealed in a Chamber of Commerce press release worthy of the name. The cabal continued its secret conclaves but deigned to publish very brief and uninformative minutes of its meetings. It is not clear whether the clandestine BWC is still active or not.
The Borrego Water District is a political entity (special district;) with a five member elected Board of Directors that until the appointment of an Interim Borrego Springs WaterMaster Board in January 2020, had nominal responsibility for managing groundwater in most of the Borrego Valley. In 2002 the BWD board approved a groundwater management plan that was never implemented thanks to the recalcitrance of successive District boards. In November 2011 three new members were elected to the BWD board on a promises to turn around the the District's disastrous financial situation and and make progress on groundwater management. They had some success in stabilizing the District's finances, but after years of dithering and posturing made no substantive progress on groundwater management. Instead,the BWD board happily siezed upon the new California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA ) of 2014 as a way of escaping that onerous obligation and, once again, kicked the can down the road - 20 years down the road.. BWD Website Gonzo Summaries of BWD Meetings Sustainable Water Systems Status of Work on Groundwater Overdraft June 2003 (Updated 12/16/2015)
Founded in 2006 by Lane Sharman whose family has been in the Borrego valley for generations, the Borrego Water Exchange (BWX) was modeled after the Chicago Climate Exchange. It applied a free market approach to preservation and replenishment of the critically overdrafted Borrego Valley aquifer. Only a couple of years after its founding, the Borrego Water District withdrew its cooperation from the enterprise, appropriated Sharman's model, and for a time attempted to run its own version of the Water Exchange with indifferent success.
The de facto land use authority for the Valley is the County of San Diego. The County Board of Supervisors, through its land use and zoning powers, has the ability to influence and regulate groundwater use in the Borrego Valley, but has consistently failed and refused to do so.
County Policy on Groundwater
For several years prior to the bursting of the housing bubble, Borrego Springs experienced dramatic and uncontrolled growth. Increasingly, developers and their ilk came slithering into the valley drawn inexorably by the lure of a fast buck. Most of them reflexively opposed any kind of regulation of ground water for fear that it would reduce even marginally the huge profits they lusted after. Never mind that without such regulations the water would run out long before the mortgages on the houses they built and sold were paid off, leaving them and everyone else's worthless. Although development in Borrego has now nearly ground to a halt these fat-cats will be back as soon as the market turns around.
The five golf courses in the Valley account for approximately twenty per cent of the water pumped from the aquifer each year but kept a low profile and were not represented by any formal organization until 2015 when California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act threatened to severely reduce the amount of water they pump from the aquifer each year. They then joined with AAWARE in a kind of pumper's bloc to mimimize their losses. Substantial amounts of water could be saved by redesigning and retooling the courses, but only one has ever shown any inclination to do so. Let Them Play Golf
In addition to agriculture and golf courses, there are several small, unincorporated communities and a number of individuals in the Valley but outside the BWD's service area that also engage in unregulated pumping from the aquifer for their own use. Although not an organzed group, these folks join with the agribusinesses and golf courses in reflexively opposing any kind of diminution of their right to pump unlimited amounts of scarce groundwater.
SOAC was a grassroots, California Public Interest Association formed in 2002 to represent the broad community interests in preserving the the Borrego Valley aquifer through rational groundwater management and sustainable use. In the first year of its existence it attracted nearly fifty dues paying members. By 2005, however, despite generous assistance from the Endangered Habitats League and a $5,000 grant from the Tides Foundation to support community outreach, membership had declined significantly due to lack of local interest and it was no longer a viable organization. SOAC Introduction SOAC SOAC Q and A
TCDC was established to preserve habitat and biodiversity, protect native plants and wildlife, and conserve scenic vistas and historic sites in the Tubb Canyon area of the Borrego Valley and the larger Anza-Borrego Sonoran Desert in southeastern California. As such, the Conservancy took the lead in opposing Rudyville, a proposed development that threatened all of the elements it seeks to preserve in the Tubb Canyon area.
The foregoing list of "Players" may seem extensive, but in fact includes a disturbingly small number of people in Borrego. The majority of residents are simply stumbling toward a cliff they will never see before it is too late because: "There are none so blind as those who will not see."
The reason for this is not far to seek. According to The Borrego Water District Groundwater Management Plan:
"A significant factor... in the history of water use in this valley... is the land ownership pattern and demographics of the valley. Since... the late 19th century, most of the land has been owned by state agencies or by individuals or corporations not living or located here... Much of the remaining private land in the valley has been purchased by individuals or groups at very low prices speculating on enormous increases in value due to future growth. Therefore, in the past there has been a strong emphasis on growth by landowners, but not necessarily by local residents who are few in number..."
Less than seven percent of the agricultural land is used by families living in the valley, the rest is owned and farmed by interests outside of the valley, some being national and international corporations. The two major golf course projects, Ram's Hill and the Borrego Country Club, only have limited occupancy and are owned by development firms. The De Anza golf course, which is a membership golf course, is owned by people who only spend the winter months here...
Probably more than half of the permanent residents in the valley are immigrants from Mexico that work on golf courses, at the resorts or on the farms. They do not participate in the political affairs of the community.
Finally, Borrego Springs is overwhelmingly a retirement community and most people in retirement, even if they stay all year, did not come here to get involved in such complex issues as water rights and water use.
All this placed severe limits on what could be done by a local water agency with no land use authority using only local cooperation, which was the basis for groundwater management planning in the Borrego Basin until passage of California's 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and appointment of a WaterMaster for the Basin in 2020.
(Excerpted from Borrego Water District Groundwater Management Plan 09/25/2002, pp. 3 - 4.)
More on the culture of Borrego Springs: Borrego: Good, Bad, Ugly Borrego: Butt Ugly
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