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Planning, Pipelines & Pipedreams

Digger - March 7, 2013

For several years the Borrego Water District board pinned its hopes for a painless solution to the critical overdraft of the Borrego Valley aquifer entirely on receipt of an $849,000 planning grant from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in chasing after it. According to the Borrego Sun those hopes were "dealt a death blow" in December 2012 when DWR denied the District's final appeal for funds to design an Integrated Regional Water Management Plan(IRWMP) for the Anza-Borrego region. Formation of an IRWMP is necessary to receive state funds for projects to solve the region's water problems. If the district now wants to apply for state funds, it will have to develop a plan for an IRWMP without assistance from the state to cover the daunting costs involved in doing so. ("Planning grant hopes are dealt a death blow," Borrego Sun, p. 8, 12/20/2012)

The District had no Plan B, but, as luck would have it, just when hopes for the DWR grant were finally dashed another Pied Piper appeared offering a veritable free lunch. On the day before the district learned that their final appeal for a planning grant had been denied, a representative of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) attended a BWD board meeting to update Directors on the Bureau's ongoing Southeast California Basin Study that, among other things, seeks to identify "potential water supply solutions to the Borrego Valley aquifer overdraft." He told the board that the USBR would pay 65% of the cost of a pipeline capable of delivering 5,000 ac/ft of water per year to Borrego under its Rural Water Program. The remaining 35%, amounting to about $17 million, "could perhaps be partially offset with state funding," the USBR official said. An earlier U. S. Geological Survey study that concluded a pipeline would cost about $1 million per mile or a total of $51 million and therefore cost prohibitive for a small population center such as Borrego, failed to take USBR's Rural Water Program into account, according to the USBR official. BWD director Lyle Brecht thereupon pronounced the District's $17 million share of the cost 'totally doable' with long-term financing.

The USBR official acknowledged that the "trick" would be "finding affordable water to purchase." Even if he could find 5,000 ac/ft/yr at an affordable price, however, that is still well short of one-half of the annual overdraft; so the USBR official also "recommended working to eliminate agricultural pumping." Without agriculture, he averred, 5,000 ac/ft of imported water plus another 4,000 to 4,400 ac/ft annually of natural recharge would be enough to support residential use, golf courses, and tourism, and provide "a nice economic base" for the valley. ("Official says pipeline could solve water woes," Borrego Sun, p. 1, 12/20/2012)

Thus, even on the highly optimistic assumptions that a pipeline is built and, against all odds, affordable water is available for purchase, agriculture in the valley remains incompatible with preservation of Borrego's sole-source aquifer. But the overwhelming preponderance of evidence weighs against at least the second of these assumptions. There is virtually no water available for purchase today, as the USBR official intimated, and water will clearly become increasingly scarce and consequently more expensive and less affordable over time. That being the case, building a pipeline is itself an exercise in futility. The prudent course of action, therefore, is to eliminate agricultural pumping straight away because doing so is a necessary if not sufficient condition for any realistic solution to the overdraft, and the sooner begun the sooner done.

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