By Miriam Raftery
June 8, 2014 (Borrego Springs)—For decades, Borrego Springs has been draining down its aquifer at an increasingly rapid pace. If action is not taken soon, a new report warns, the community could face dire consequences.
The Borrego Water Coalition invites the public to a public outreach meeting on Thursday, June 12 from 4:30 to 7 p.m at the Borrego High School Library, 2281 Diegueno Road in Borrego Springs.
An RSVP is requested, though not required, to assure enough handouts for everyone. You can RSVP to Dorian Fougeres at firstname.lastname@example.org or (916)531-3835. View documents here: Meeting Agenda, Meeting Presentation, Meeting Comment Form, Aquifer Stabilization Benefits Memo, Detailed Actions Memo.
The meeting presentation warns that action is needed now to protect water supplies for the future. There are no easy answers; resolving the overdraft problem will cost every resident money – but waiting could be far more costly.
Overdraft of groundwater is like mining – depleting a non-renewable resource. Depleting water through overdraft results in costs ranging from $63 to $148 per acre foot.
If nothing is done, groundwater will become more and more expensive, water quality could be diminished, some wells could run completely dry, and digging deeper wells would be expensive, as would pumping costs. Habitat loss for wildlife and subsidence of lands where groundwater has been depleted could also occur. So could dust storms, from topsoil left exposed after plants die off.
“Water saved today will be worth more in the future if we want the community to grow, the presentation states, then warns, “State regulators will not allow overdraft to continue.” If residents don’t take action themselves, the state could require wells to be metered, require water quality monitoring and force a balanced use of water within a timeframe set by the state—not local authorities or residents. The courts could even take control, adding legal costs to ratepayers’ water bills.
From 1945 to 1980, Borrego’s water levels declined by as much as 100 feet, the U.S. Geological Survey found. From 1998 to 2006, water levels dropped 2.4 feet per year – or twice the rate measured in the 1980s. In 2014, the water level is on track to drop by 2.7 feet this year.
Currently water is being withdrawn at three to four times the natural recharge rate. The rate has been accelerating in recent decades and if the current rate of overdraft continues, parts of the water system could have no water left at all.
That’s assuming current climate conditions continue – but global climate change could make things even worse.
One problem is that California does not limit how much water a property owner can pump, though courts have sometimes stepped in to protect land owners by limiting neighbors depleting a shared aquifer. Still, pumping of groundwater remains generally unregulated statewide.
So what’s the answer?
Importing water is not an option, researchers found, due to Borrego’s isolated location. Conservation measures, while desirable, would also be only a drop in the bucket toward saving the amounts needed.
But there is hope. A hydrology report commissioned by the Borrego Water Coalition found opportunities to reduce water use in agricultural, recreational and municipal use.
The report looked at 19 possible ways to reduce water use and found only a handful that were viable. Of those, just two present the potential to adequately reduce the depletion of local aquifers. One way would be to eliminate golf courses—but that would have a huge negative impact on Borergo’s economy.
The other, more feasible idea is to obtain funds to buy out large agricultural producers, particularly citrus growers. Citrus crops, particularly grapefruits, have been staples in Borrego, known for its annual Grapefruit Festival among other attractions.
But the report found that the golf industry supports about five times more jobs per acre than the citrus industry, also attracting seasonal residents and tourists who spend money to boost the economy. By contrast, nearly all of the citrus grown is export.
Funds might come from future development, recreation owners, private donors, foundations and the state. The change would need to be drastic to preserve the community – voluntary land retirement through purchase agreements to encourage agricultural growers to leave this desert region.
Not everyone agrees that agriculture should pay the price for the region's overdraft problems.
Edie Harmon, a biologist and desert resident, had this to say. "I would recommend first to eliminate the golf courses because of the adverse impacts on the basin. What good are jobs if there is no water?" she observed. "Tourism is a real drain when there are serious groundwater issues, be it in Borrego Springs or Julian. With tourism comes washing of dishes and food prep at restaurants, extra flushing of toilets and greenery, all at the expense of the local domestic use."
Harmon concluded, "San Diego county should never have permitted golf course and resort developments in the first place. Too bad the county didn't listen to the hydrologist who told them that there wasn't enough water to support the golf resort subdivisions ever so many years ago." While admittedly there are also serious questions about continued agriculture, she observed that the farms were there first, "long before the residential developments were permitted."