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The Emperor's New Clothes: Fallacies and Fairy Tales

Digger - April 14, 2016

On March 9 the San Diego Union Tribune published a piece by Jim Seley (Seley Ranches) that portrays agribusinesses in the Borrego Valley as being at the forefront of efforts to eliminate the overdraft of the Borrego Valley aquifer. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and the piece relies on a number of half-truths and misrepresentations to make its case.

For openers, Seeley claims that "farmers are no less concerned than are the residents" about the overdraft of the Borrego Valley aquifer "because their very livelihood. their farms rely on that water." The truth is that agribusinesses in the valley use 70% of the water pumped each year and achieving sustainability will require that total water use be reduced by the same 70%. Arguably then, agribusinesses bear singular responsibility for groundwater depletion in the Borrego basin and for decades have been zealous opponents of effective groundwater management with Seley or his avatar in the vanguard.

When Seley asserts that "for several years, Borrego Springs farmers have been active members of the Borrego Water Coalition" (BWC), he is stating a fact. When he describes the latter as an organization the members of which are "united in the common goal of a locally managed and sustainable water supply," he is not. The overwhelming majority of the BWC members represent agribusinesses or golf courses, i.e. pumpers, in the valley. Their sole purpose is protecting the interests of these water intensive enterprises by forestalling effective groundwater regulation for as long as possible because it directly threatens their ability to conduct business as usual and is a more impendent threat than the overdraft itself.

Seley accurately describes California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA) as "a mandate to bring the state's over-drafted water basins [including the Borrego Basin] into a condition of sustainability." It is true, as Seley states, that SGMA requires local water agencies to step up to the task or step aside and let the State regulate the basin to achieve sustainability. But his implication that the latter would necessarily be a negative is a value judgment that reflects his bias as a pumper who profits from the weak and ineffective local regulatory environment in Borrego and seeks to prolong it. After all, "local control" of Borrego's sole-source aquifer for nearly a century is exactly what led to the crisis that the valley now faces.

Seley is correct when he says that, "simply stated, everyone in Borrego Springs will have to use less water" to achieve the mandated goal of sustainability in the Borrego Basin. But when he quotes the recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study of the basin as stating that pumping will have to be reduced across the board by 45 percent to 70 percent by 2060, he is dissembling. The USGS study is merely descriptive and will not govern what happens with respect to groundwater use in the next few years, as Seley surely knows. California's SGMA, on the other hand, is prescriptive and unequivocally dictates that water use in the Borrego valley be reduced by 70% not later than 2040 - a far more stringent and impendent requirement than Seley suggests and would like to see.

As evidence of agribusinesses' good faith efforts to bring the basin into equilibrium Seley cites, among other things, the "several farms [that] have sold or transferred their water rights" and predicts that future water savings will have to come from more agribusinesses selling their water rights. The concept of "water rights" as Seley employs it is, however, a legal fiction. Agribusinesses in the valley do not have such rights as usually understood. The over-simplified explanation is that the Borrego Basin has never been adjudicated and water rights in California legally exist only in adjudicated basins. Seley and other agribusinesses in the valley know or should know that, but assert their fictive claim in hopes of extorting exorbitant payments for their purported rights. The BWD, like the Emperor's subjects and sycophants, is loath to challenge the pumper's baseless legal theory for fear of destroying the carefully crafted, mendacious myth that BWC members are, as Seley claims, "united in the common goal of a. sustainable water supply,". Far from it.

Finally, Seley disingenuously proclaims that: "Bringing the basin into sustainability cannot be farmers vs. golf courses vs. residents." But it will be. Under SGMA the valley must reduce its overall water use from nearly 20,000 acre feet per year to a maximum of 5,700 acre feet per year. Simple arithmetic and common sense demonstrate that it is a zero sum game in which there necessarily will be many dysphoric losers. Denying that hard reality, only delays the inevitable day of reckoning - a tactic that has served pumpers well thus far.

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