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"In this water-starved California town, one citrus farmer is trying to hold on"

Ian James, Palm Springs Desert Sun, Jan. 11, 2019

This is a summary of the much longer article cited above. For the full-text of the article click here.

Borrego Springs, its farms and its golf courses, rely completely on groundwater pumped from an aquifer. The aquifer beneath Borrego Springs has been declining for decades due to overpumping. Under California's 2014 law regulating groundwater, the community needs to reduce pumping by an estimated 75 percent over the next 20 years. Farms in the Borrego Valley use more than 70% of water pumped from wells and mandatory restrictions compounded by climate change eventually may put many farmers out of business.

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which for the first time requires local agencies in some groundwater basins to come up with plans for halting overdraft and achieving sustainability by 2040. The Borrego Springs' groundwater basin is in "critical overdraft" so the community is in line for some of SGMA's most aggressive measures.

Stopping aquifer depletion will require a radical remaking of the town's economy. Borrego Springs has no access to imported water and in an average year receives only 5.8 inches of rain. Because farms use more than 70 percent of the groundwater, people in Borrego Springs have been talking for years about the role of growers in shrinking the community's water footprint but they've delayed taking steps to reduce pumping.

A federal report laid out the situation in stark terms: "The aquifer has an estimated life expectancy of 30-50 years. However, as the upper aquifer is depleted, the lower aquifer geology will require increased pumping to sustain current production rates and will result in reduced water quality." Climate change may adversely affect recharge of the aquifer which is already sporadic and varies greatly each year. For years people have been pumping out three to five times the amount that has flowed into the aquifer. Wells will go dry and it will become uneconomical to keep pumping, especially when water treatment is required as the water quality deteriorates as naturally occurring contaminants such as arsenic and nitrates become concentrated deeper underground.

Other unresolved questions revolve around funding. If California voters had passed Proposition 3 in November, the statewide bond measure would have freed up $35 million to shelp buy up farmland. Since the ballot measure was rejected, it's now unclear where local agencies will find the funding. Borrego Water District General Manager Geoff Poole said "We're looking for every possible alternative funding source" including water rates and well-pumping fees.

Mark Jorgensen retired as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Superintendent in 2009 after 36 years at the Park. Jorgensen is concerned that with the water table dropping fast, the state law's timetable for full implementation by 2040 is far too long. He worries that the longer it takes to reduce pumping, the worse the problem will become. "In a lot of ways, it's not too much to say we are in a water emergency. it's extremely clear that all agricultural pumping has to come to a halt to reach anything close to sustainability," Jorgensen said. He also worries that the community has only an estimate of the aquifer's natural recharge and thinks the latest estimate is overly optimistic.

Jim Seeley's father founded his farm in 1957, and Seley has been farming here since 1964. He is now 77 and lives in the affluent community of San Marino. He and his son manage the business from an office in South Pasadena. They have no intention of walking away from their farm before trying to meet the challenge of making the business work with much less water. Seley disagrees with Jorgensen's description of Borrego's situation. He doesn't consider it a crisis but simply "something that needs correction" and advocates an incremental approach to solving the problem. He also believes the community's different sectors should share equally in the water cutbacks, and the burden shouldn't fall disproportionately on agriculture. Seley acknowledges that unknowns remain but says he's not worried, he'll take things as they come. The farmers have lawyers watching the process, but Seley hopes the matter never ends up in court.

One resident who has been calling for rapid action is Ray Shindler, who moved to town in 2003. When he started speaking up at town hall meetings, he soon made enemies. Shindler said on the positive side, the legislation will force the community to become sustainable for future generations, which is what he's been advocating for years. But the process will be difficult, Shindler said, and the water issue is one of the reasons he's now planning to sell his home and move away. Shindler is thinking of moving to Sedona, Arizona, which offers a milder climate - and, as he puts it, "no water issues." "The uncertainty about Borrego's water will last, in my opinion, for many years," Shindler said. "Home values will suffer." He hopes he's wrong but doesn't want to take a chance.

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