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The Borrego Basin

A Case for State Control of Groundwater and Water Agencies in California

Digger - January 7, 2008

The situation in the Borrego valley is both a leading indicator for and a microcosm of that in which the city and county of San Diego, the state of California, and, indeed, the entire southwestern U.S. find themselves There is much to learn from local efforts to deal with it - none of it encouraging.

The Borrego valley aquifer is a sole-source aquifer; i.e., residents of the valley have neither access to another source of water nor any realistic hope of gaining such access in the foreseeable future. The aquifer has been in overdraft for more than 60 years, and residents of the valley and others have been aware of that fact for nearly as long. In all that time, however, efforts to solve the problem have been few, feeble, fiercely resisted by special interests and sometimes a recalcitrant populace, and almost completely ineffective.

The Borrego Water District (BWD), largest of two water agencies in the valley, has alternately demonstrated disinterest in the problem and incompetence in solving it. The second, smaller agency, Borrego Springs Park Community Services District (BSPCSD), has been on the verge of insolvency and disintegration almost since its inception, is effectively controlled by a single large land-owner/developer, has shown little awareness of and no interest in the problem, and contributed nothing toward a solution.

Given that BWD and BSPCSD are likely typical of most of the 40 or so water agencies in the county of San Diego and many more throughout the state, it is increasingly clear that local efforts to manage and conserve groundwater by individual water agencies will never be successful. Without powerful incentives and/or sanctions, people simply will not change their behavior in order to conserve water, and small water agencies seldom possess the will, competence, and moral courage to implement such incentives and sanctions.

On the one hand, these agencies are reluctant or fail to use the regulatory powers they do have. For instance, the BWD may soon put into place a tiered water rate structure, also known as conservation pricing, whereby the more water a ratepayer uses, the higher the unit cost. It has, however, taken more than four years of false starts, back sliding, and hard-fought battles to finally force the BWD board to get serious about even this simple but effective conservation measure. It is not over yet; but if and when the tiered rate structure is implemented it will marginally reduce water use within BWD service area.

On the other hand, the regulatory and enforcement powers vested with agencies like the BWD are inadequate to deal with coming water shortages. While necessary, the effects of measures like tiered rates are nonetheless more symbolic than real and do not get at the root of the problem in Borrego - corporate farms and golf courses that use 90% of the groundwater pumped each year and pay nothing for it. These entities do not fall under BWD jurisdiction, and nothing prevents them from pumping as much water as they wish - which they do - or compels them to participate in a solution to the overdraft - which they don't

Water agencies in California enjoy a unique legal status and are essentially unregulated utilities. The deleterious effect of this lack of regulation is most evident in small water agencies, many or most of which do not receive water from the Colorado River or the California Water Project, but rely on groundwater which is also unregulated in the state. Even those small agencies that do receive water from external sources are too small, under funded, poorly managed, and subject to small town politics, cronyism, and conflicts of interest to support effective conservation efforts even if their rate-payers were in favor of doing so - which they usually are not. To successfully participate in conservation efforts, these small local agencies will need help with everything from funding to technical expertise; but, most of all, they will require strict regulation, close monitoring, and rigorous enforcement to ensure that they operate in a manner that is open, conscientious, effective, and fair.

Unfortunately, the California Department of Water Resources has a stated policy of "looking for locals to make the decisions" on groundwater regulation that is largely responsible for the failure of groundwater management in the state. It has amounted to leaving a hog to guard a cabbage patch. The result is increased overdrafting - taking more groundwater than is replenished each year. The state itself estimates that, statewide, the groundwater overdraft may be as much as 2 million acre-feet a year. Borrego is a poster-child for state management of groundwater resources to prevent their mismanagement by unqualified, incompetent, and conflicted local officials and exploitation by greedy, short-sighted interests.

Ground water, properly managed, could be one of California's best defenses against inevitable water shortages. The state, however, lacks both the authority and an overall plan to take advantage of it. Even a precise accounting of how much water is actually in underground storage is lacking because groundwater is under local control. Thanks to California's antiquated water laws, local water agency managers and land owners reign supreme over precious groundwater supplies and resist change to keep the state from usurping a valuable, if fast diminishing, asset.

Borrego's water problem is soluble; but Borrego and many other communities similarly situated will never deal effectively with impending shortages until and unless they are subject to the state's regulatory and enforcement powers to prevent the chronic waste and mismanagement that is now occurring and will be aggravated by water shortages to come. What is required is a formal, standardized, regulatory process that ensures individual agencies act responsibly and provides a venue to pursue complaints and impose sanctions against them if they don't.

This is a problem that cries out for a legislative solution; but given the fate of California's so-called "Mega Water Bill" (SB820), a modest proposal that was vetoed by the governor in 2005 and seems to have disappeared from the legislative agenda, there is little hope of such relief in time to prevent potentially disastrous water shortages in the Borrego valley, if ever. The only realistic hope for Borrego is for the state in one way or another to intervene and assume control of the entire basin before it is too late. How that will or can happen is not clear; but unless it does, and soon, Borrego has no future.

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