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The Borrego Water Underground is a no-frills, reliable source of information about the increasingly serious groundwater situation in the BorregoValley. Its purpose is to inform and warn residents, potential residents, property owners, those considering buying property or starting a business and anyone interested in this unique community and its fragile desert environment of the dire and rapidly deteriorating groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley. From time to time The Underground will also publish information and opinions about community affairs, local politics and events that will or may have material consequences for groundwater in the Valley or are otherwise water related. Watch for frequent updates. If you have information that would be appropriate to, suggestions for improving, or questions about this site, please give us a shout. Hey Digger!
Borrego Springs is located in the Borrego Valley, a seventy square mile area in northeast San Diego County, CA surrounded by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP). It is the County's only self-sufficient, desert community. The Valley is a remote, isolated basin and importing water is not an option. The Borrego Valley Aquifer is, therefore, the sole source of water for the Valley
The aquifer is being drawn down at a rate nearly five times the recharge rate. The water table has been dropping over two feet per year for the past twenty years. The loss rate is increasing over time. Water quality is already adversely affected. Wells near the periphery of the aquifer are running dry and being abandoned. At projected extraction rates, the aquifer may reach a critical point in as few as 30 years.
It is a classic zero sum gain situation. Simple arithmetic demonstrates the hard truth that no solution can satisfy all, or even most, of the conflicting interests involved. Yet there is no willingness to compromise; so all attempts to find a solution have failed. The future of Borrego Springs, the Valley, and significant portions of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are bleak indeed. For additional information:
To visualize and put into perspective Borrego's groundwater problem, consider the following:
The Vista (CA) Irrigation District in northern San Diego County serves 120,000 people in the city of Vista and portions of San Marcos, Escondido, Oceanside and nearby unincorporated areas. The District uses approximately 24,000 acre feet of water a year. The Vista Irrigation District receives water from Lake Henshaw which it owns, and from Northern California Colorado River and the The Borrego Valley, on the other hand, has a population of less than 3,000 yet uses almost the same amount of water each year. Its sole source of supply is the Borrego Valley aquifer. Ninety per cent or more of water pumped from the Borrego Valley aquifer is used by agribusiness and golf courses.
The Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir in San Diego County was completed in August 2003. It cost over $300 million to construct and has a capacity of 24,000 acre feet of water; just about the same amount as is used in the Borrego Valley each and every year.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2000 census), the total population of Borrego Springs is 2535. Of this population, 1,125 people 16 years and older are employed. Of these, at most 17 persons or 1.5% of the total is employed in agriculture. The average American household uses about one-half acre foot of water per year for all purposes. That means that the water required to support just one agricultural job in the Valley is enough to supply 2000 households; or that all of the water required by agriculture would support a medium sized city of 31,200 households.
AAWARE is a well-financed Mutual Benefit Corporation. Its membership is restricted to representatives of twenty or so agribusinesses in the Valley. Despite its innocuous name, AAWARE's only purpose is to protect member's access to unlimited free water from the aquifer at all costs. Formed in 2002 and active for several years thereafter, it has been largely dormant in recent years. With increasing pressure from a new Borrego Water District Board to drastically reduce water use in the valley, however, AAWARE is once again rearing its ugly head and making threatening noises. Tragedy Of The Commons.
The ABDSP has or should have a significant interest in preserving the Borrego Valley aquifer. Unfortunately, the California Department of Parks and Recreation deems Borrego's groundwater problem a local political issue in which it is loath to become involved, apparently for fear of adverse political consequences. The local ABDSP employees, for the most part, follow the lead of their Agency and remain dutifully silent.
The BSCSG has no direct responsibility for groundwater management, but is an advisory body to the San Diego County Board to which it makes recommendations regarding planning and development in Borrego Springs. To the limited extent possible within its mandate, however, the BSCSG, to its credit, has been active in reducing the threat to Borrego's sole source aquifer. BSCSG Mitigation Policy
Although called the Borrego Water Coalition, this group is actually a cabal formed in the fall of 2012 when Borrego Water District directors Beth Hart and Lyle Brecht began meeting secretly with a select group of high-profile pumpers, plus a smattering of others to provide a veneer of legitimacy, to divvy up what little water remains in the Borrego Valley aquifer. In March of 2013 the existence of the The Borrego Water Cabal (BWC) was finally revealed in a Chamber of Commerce press release worthy of the name. The cabal continues its secret conclaves but has recently deigned to publish minutes of its meetings. It's hard to tell what they they thought they had to hide.
The Borrego Water District is a political entity (special district;) with a five member elected Board of Directors that has nominal responsibility for managing groundwater in most of the Borrego Valley. In 2002 the BWD approved a groundwater management plan that has never been implemented. Until recently, the district board has shown no interest in doing so, even though it has considerable power to regulate groundwater use and is under pressure from some quarters to do so. In November 2011 three new board members were elected on a reform platform that promised to turn around the BWD's disastrous financial situation and make progress on groundwater management. They are working hard to do so, but it is a Herculean task and the outcome is still far from certain.
BWD Website Gonzo Summaries of BWD Meetings Sustainable Water Systems Status of Work on Groundwater Overdraft June 2003
Founded in 2006 by Lane Sharman whose family has been in the Borrego valley for generations, the Borrego Water Exchange (BWX) was modeled after the Chicago Climate Exchange. It applied a free market approach to preservation and replenishment of the critically overdrafted Borrego Valley aquifer. Only a couple of years after its founding, the Borrego Water District withdrew its cooperation from the enterprise, appropriated Sharman's model, and is now attempting to run its own version of the Water Exchange with indifferent success.
The de facto land use authority for the Valley is the County of San Diego. The County Board of Supervisors, through its land use and zoning powers, has the ability to influence and regulate groundwater use in the Borrego Valley, but has not done so. Fifth District County Supervisor (Borrego's), "Bulldozer Bill" Horn is radically pro-development and openly and adamantly opposed to County involvement in managing groundwater. Requests to his office for assistance in doing so have been summarily denied.
County Policy on Groundwater
For several years prior to the bursting of the housing bubble, Borrego Springs experienced dramatic and uncontrolled growth. Increasingly, developers and their ilk came slithering into the valley drawn inexorably by the lure of a fast buck. Most of them reflexively opposed any kind of regulation of ground water for fear that it would reduce even marginally the huge profits they lusted after Never mind that without such regulations the water would run out long before the mortgages on the houses they built were paid off, leaving them and everyone else's worthless. Now development in Borrego has ground to a halt; but, make no mistake, these fat-cats will be back as soon as the market turns around.
Not represented by any formal organization, the five golf courses in the Valley have been conspicuously absent from the fray until very recently. They account for approximately twenty per cent of the water pumped from the aquifer each year. Substantial amounts of water could be saved by redesigning and retooling the courses; but only one has shown any inclination to do so. Let Them Play Golf
In addition to agriculture and golf courses, there are several small, unincorporated communities and a number of individuals in the Valley but outside the BWD's service area that also engage in unregulated pumping from the aquifer for their own use. Although not an organzed group, these folks join with the agribusinesses and golf courses in reflexively opposing any kind of diminution of their right to pump unlimited amounts of scarce groundwater.
SOAC is a grassroots, California Public Interest Association that represents the broad community interests in preserving the aquifer through rational groundwater management and sustainable use. SOAC Introduction SOAC SOAC Q and A
The foregoing list of "Players" may seem extensive, but in fact includes a disturbingly small number of people in Borrego. The majority of residents are simply stumbling toward a cliff they will never see before it is too late.
The reason for this is not far to seek. According to The Borrego Water District Groundwater Management Plan:
A significant factor... in the history of water use in this valley... is the land ownership pattern and demographics of the valley. Since... the late 19th century, most of the land has been owned by state agencies or by individuals or corporations not living or located here... Much of the remaining private land in the valley has been purchased by individuals or groups at very low prices speculating on enormous increases in value due to future growth. Therefore, in the past there has been a strong emphasis on growth by landowners, but not necessarily by local residents who are few in number...
Less than seven percent of the agricultural land is used by families living in the valley, the rest is owned and farmed by interests outside of the valley, some being national and international corporations. The two major golf course projects, Ram's Hill [most recently known as "Montesoro," now bankrupt and closed] and the Borrego Country Club, only have limited occupancy and are owned by development firms. The De Anza golf course, which is a membership golf course, is owned by people who only spend the winter months here...
Probably more than half of the permanent residents in the valley are immigrants from Mexico that work on golf courses, at the resorts or on the farms. They do not participate in the political affairs of the community.
Finally, this is overwhelmingly a retirement community and most people in retirement, even if they stay all year, did not come here to get involved in such complex issues as water rights and water use.
All this places severe limits on what can be done by a local water agency with no land use authority using only local cooperation, which is the basis for groundwater management planning under existing state legislation.
(Excerpted from Borrego Water District Groundwater Management Plan 09/25/2002, pp. 3 - 4.)
More on the culture of Borrego Springs: Borrego: Good, Bad, Ugly Borrego: Butt Ugly