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The following appeared as a letter to the editor of the Borrego Sun on April 18, 2019, and is the third in a series.
It appears here by permission of the author.

Communal Irrigation Systems

Gary A. Haldeman
BWD Ratepayer Representative to the Borrego Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee

The Draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan is before us, and how this is to be implemented is now in our hands. We've just suffered through yet another negative story in the San Diego Union-Tribune about water and Borrego Springs. Things have been framed to make this all look pretty dire.

At this point, however, it's not a bad idea to consider our situation from the vantage point of history; it's often comforting to know folks have been there before us, and better, that there are viable and reasonable solutions to what might seem almost tragic.

If you've not heard of the "tragedy of the commons" - our long-term and dysfunctional approach to water management in the Borrego Basin is a clear example of this scenario - please let me describe it briefly, why it's important, and how a special political scientist and Nobel Prize winner has demonstrated that there is a clear solution to this dysfunction.

So, first, a definition of "tragedy" as it's used in the expression. The Englishman, Sir Alfred North Whitehead, stated that "the essence of . tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." When another Englishman, Willian Forster Lloyd, referred to the "tragedy of the commons," a term that was revived in the late 60s by the American Garrett Hardin, they were talking of this: how events work through remorselessly and relentlessly . when left unchecked. Lloyd was referring to the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (known as commons.)

The hero of this story is Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, for Governing the Commons, where she demonstrates the concept that where members of a community with access to a common resource cooperate or regulate the use of that resource prudently, the system does not collapse due to overuse.

Borrego Springs is at a crossroads. We need to come together and make the right decisions in order to save our common resource and renew our town.

Importantly, Ostrom, a long-time professor at the University of Indiana, did all of her graduate work and research in California, where she spent many years studying the water wars and pumping issues that were taking place in the 1950s. What she does in her work is to show situations throughout history where humans have been able to manage their supplies: of water and other renewable resources. In Governing the Commons she outlines irrigation systems in Spain, Nepal, Switzerland, Japan, the Philippines, and fisheries in Maine and Indonesia.

Huerta irrigators in Valencia, Spain, in 1435, gathered "at the monastery of St. Francis to draw up and approve formal regulations. Those regulations specified who had rights to water from the [Faitanar and Benacher] canals, how the water would be shared in good years as well as bad, how responsibilities for maintenance would be shared, what officials they would elect and how, and what fines would be levied against anyone who broke one of their rules."

irrigation communities in the Philippines - records only go back to the Spanish Empire, in the 1600s - operate on principles similar to the huerta method: small-scale communities of irrigators determine their own rules, choose their own officials, guard their own systems and maintain their own canals.

There are other, similar communal systems in Törbel, Switzerland; Hirano, Nagaike, and Yamanoka, Japan; Murcia, Orihuela, and Alicante, Spain.

The attempts to bring water usage in check in the Borrego Basin date back decades, at least to the efforts of people like Jim Rickard, Jack Laughlin, John Peterson and others who understood the science and the need to control what was the unbridled over drafting of our common water source. As the years passed and the aquifer continued to be depleted, we heard from other people, like Dennis Dickinson and Ray Shindler. But the pumpers have held sway through thick and thin.

Over the years, we - and by "we" I mean BWD/ratepayers, as we are essentially one entity - have reduced our water consumption significantly, whereas other pumpers have increased theirs; as a result, our groundwater storage has been steadily reduced since the mid to late 1990s.

The time has come to regulate the use of our aquifer prudently, so the system does not collapse from overuse.

At issue is the starting point, the baseline from which reductions are to take place. We, the ratepayers, have reduced from a high of approximately 3500 AFY to a current 1700 AFY. We are willing to set our baseline at 1700 AFY and at the same time, pursue funding to purchase additional water in order to allow Borrego Springs the opportunity to thrive and grow. We represent some 3000 water users (and during our Snowbird Season, more than double that number, some estimates are closer to 10,000.)

After all is said and done, Borrego Springs ratepayers, through BWD, have significantly curtailed water use, shouldered cost increases, borne the expenses involved in countless studies and surveys, and from the sidelines, watched ever-increasing agricultural expansion, with little visible reinvestment from these water-based profits into our community. Granted, there are a few ag-related jobs - unofficial figures estimate some 50-60 jobs in total. I have not confirmed this, but I hear La Casa del Zorro alone employs that many people, if not more.

It is fair and reasonable that the remaining pumpers bear the responsibility for the overdraft, for the precipitous reduction in the water table over recent years. Once these pumpers bring their usage into compliance under SGMA, we can all come together as proper stewards of our sole and common resource so as to ensure its long-term sustainability and a bright future for Borrego Springs.

Previous letter in this series

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