Resort town thirsts for solutions

Share via
Times Staff Writer

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. -- In a flat desert valley filled with cholla, creosote, citrus and golf, far from any major highway or state water project, residents are struggling to deal with an impending water shortage, highlighted by the failure of a public well this past spring.

Borrego Springs is a small unincorporated resort, retirement and agricultural community in northeast San Diego County, surrounded by 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Aside from the 6 inches or so of annual rainfall, the sole water source is an aquifer whose groundwater has been declining by 1 to 2 feet a year for more than half a century and has an expected useful life of only 30 more years.


At that point, according to the Borrego Water District, the water will be half gone, and pumping from the district’s 12 working wells and other private wells will become much more expensive and less productive. More recent studies this spring by the California Department of Water Resources worsened the prognosis: “There may be substantially less water in storage in Borrego Valley groundwater basin than previously interpreted.”

Preserving this area’s way of life may require dramatic changes, and water experts say some of the choices facing Borrego Springs -- whether to fallow farmland that uses most of the water or allow desert flora to wither and die, starving wildlife -- will increasingly be confronted elsewhere in the state as water sources become less reliable.

Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and the author of “Water Follies,” calls the Borrego Valley a microcosm of California. Agriculture, which “is a small part of the overall California economy, uses something like 80% of the water,” he said. “If you expect to have water for high-value uses in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, you have to figure out how to reallocate the water.”

In the Borrego Valley, neither the state park nor the fields of citrus have shown many signs of distress thus far. The most conspicuous indication of groundwater decline is a forest of dead and dying mesquite trees. Farmers, most of whom do not live in the area, are particularly anxious about their future. They accuse community leaders of conspiring with developers to turn Borrego Springs into a bedroom community for San Diego.

County officials have “decided that the only thing they’re interested in is removing agriculture from the valley,” said Reuben Ellis of Ellis Farms. “I really do believe that part of what is behind the emphasis on decreasing water use in Borrego Springs is the desire of certain development and regulatory interests to move farmers out of the way.”

In fact, Aaron Barling, a San Diego County planner, said that in most places, the county strives to preserve agriculture by lowering residential density. But in Borrego Springs, he said, “the community” has asked for a higher allowed residential density on farmlands to make it more profitable for farmers to sell out.


But merely replacing farmland with houses won’t solve the water problem if there are no curbs on population growth, experts warn. Glennon pointed out that predicted growth in San Diego may lead more people to discover the area -- “and then you’ve really got trouble.”

The Borrego Water District estimates that agriculture uses 70% of the water, golf courses 20% and residences 10%. In addition, agriculture and most of the golf courses depend on private wells, meaning the water district cannot regulate their use.

The aquifer’s total yearly overdraft, or how much more water is pumped out than is replenished by rain or snowmelt, is about 14,000 acre-feet. Coincidentally, agriculture -- mostly citrus farms -- uses about that much water. (One acre-foot is roughly equivalent to the amount of water a family of four uses in one year.)

The water district has adopted a measure designed to allow growth while protecting the aquifer. For every acre-foot of new water to be used, two more must be found, whether through recharge projects or the fallowing of farmlands. If this cannot be done, an in-lieu fee of about $4,000 per house must be paid to the district to assist in its efforts to obtain more water.

But recharge projects, which would involve capturing surface runoff, could have a serious effect on natural areas of the park and valley, which depend heavily on runoff from rain, said David Law-head, an environmental coordinator for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Several years before the community well ran dry, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Supt. Mark Jorgensen wrote a letter to the district warning that the overdraft could spell trouble for the park’s wildlife, including several species of toads and frogs and the endangered least Bell’s vireo and peninsular bighorn sheep. Jorgensen was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.


Lane Sharman, a San Diego computer scientist who is related to one of the area’s pioneer farming families, has formed the Borrego Water Exchange, in part to formulate a “sustainability” ordinance that would enable a public agency to require certain water use reductions each year, even from private well owners.

Still, Sharman and others believe the valley must find new sources of water -- no easy task in a state gripped by drought.

One possibility is nearby Clark Dry Lake, but tests have showed limited water of poor quality. Another long shot -- finding a source somewhere in Northern California, exchanging it through the Metropolitan Water District and sending it through the Imperial Irrigation District from the Colorado River -- is not only complicated but, for now, too expensive for the district even to study.

A third option would be to store other people’s water in the Borrego aquifer in exchange for a portion of the water. The district tried to do that a few years ago with the San Diego County Water Authority, but the lack of local infrastructure put it at a competitive disadvantage with other districts.

Sharman and others worry that public apathy may be an even bigger obstacle.

Eleanor Shimeall, a water district board member, said that despite the well failure, many people are still unaware of the problem. The area, she said, is filled with older “ultraconservative Californians who move away to the desert to not be bothered.”

Nonetheless, Robert Mendenhall, president of the water district board, remains optimistic: “If I was discouraged,” he said, “I would probably resign tomorrow.”