By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Palm farm in Borrego Springs, by Miriam Raftery
November 25, 2018 (Borrego Springs) – Borrego Springs is under a state mandate to submit a plan early next year to reduce the desert community’s water consumption by 75 percent by 2040. The town relies 100% on groundwater – and it’s using far more than is being replenished through rainfall. Citrus and palm farms use 70 to 80 percent of Borrego’s water, so the only way to meet the staterequirement and save the town’s only water supply is to eliminate some or all of the farms.
Proposition 3, a statewide ballot initiative on the November ballot, would have provided $35 million in fundsspecifically earmarked to buy farmlands in Borrego Springs, remove the water-hogging citrus and palm tree crops, and make the properties part of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But Prop 3 failed by a narrow margin, with 48.5 percent of votes in favor and 51.5 percent opposed.
An article in the Borrego Sun calls the defeat “frustrating.”
A San Diego Union-Tribune article goes further, stating, “At stake is the very future of the community.”
At a community meeting last week held by the Borrego Water District, a standing-room-only crowd included residents voicing fears over falling property values, inability to sell homes, and concerns that jobs may dry up.
If nothing is done, the town could run out of water completely and meanwhile, be forced to invest in drilling into deeper, ancient water that would require costly filtration to make it drinkable.
Geoff Poole, general manager of the Borrego Water District, told concerned citizens that a 75 percent water use reduction is “scary.”
So what are the options now for San Diego County and the Borrego Water District, the two entities responsible for coming up with a plan to show the state how that water reduction will be met?
One proposal is to put the initiative back on the ballot in 2020 and invest more money to make sure that voters know what’s at stake in Borrego Springs here in San Diego County’s easternmost area—a town that attracts snowbirds from across the nation who flock here for the warm winter sunshine. Borrego is also a mecca for art lovers, stargazers as an international dark skies designated community, fans of the Borrego Days Desert Festival and Parade, and visitors coming to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which does not operate any inns or indoor lodging options of its own. Although many residents are low income, the town has also long attractedmovie stars and titans of industry seeking a relaxingrespite in the desert.
The Borrego Sun speculates that Prop 3 may have failed because of opposition by some voters to bailing out farmers in the Central Valley, where the land is subsidizing and canal repairs are needed due to damage from largeagri-business farmers over-pumping groundwatersupplies. The bond also failed to guarantee state oversight to assure that grants paid to farmers would be used as promised, and supporters of Prop 3 may simply have not spent enough on TV ads to explain the dire need to help save the community of Borrego Springs.
Meters will be placed on all private wells to measure exactly how much water they are pumping out of the aquifer and conservation by residents and non-farming businesses will be encouraged – but that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the massive amounts of water being used to irrigate crops in desert terrain.
Other options include seeking funds to buy out farms from other sources, such as through legislation and grants. A million dollar grant was obtained last year to study the economic impacts on residents and workers as water levels continue to fall, with no end yet in sight.