Tiny Borrego Springs agrees to huge water cuts to guarantee its survival
Borrego Springs, the small desert town at the entrance to California's sprawling Anza-Borrego State Park, has won a judge's approval for an agreement under which large farmers, resort owners and its own water district will slash water use by 74% by 2040. Officials say the cuts are needed to keep the town of 3,000 alive.
More than a dozen major landholders, including ranchers and developers who've long grown crops and created lush golf greens in the parched desert by pumping large amounts of water from a rapidly depleting aquifer, signed on to the settlement agreement. Together with the town, their share of water rights total more than 75% of an estimated 24,000 acre-feet of water pumped annually out of the desert floor. Within 19 years, that is required to plummet to about 5,700 acre-feet.
"It’s drastic, but it's necessary to make sure Borrego Springs survives and is a vibrant community," said Kathy Dice, president of the Borrego Water District. "It's going to be hard on agriculture and on recreational services like golf, but it should not affect small landowners out here."
Visitors and residents have long been able to grab a bag of fresh grapefruits or oranges from one of several roadside stands in town — a desert novelty. Retirees enjoy rounds of golf on emerald green courses surrounded by spectacular, heat-blasted mountains. That's been changing in recent years, with some farmers opting to fallow fields or sell and move out. One of the main golf courses has closed.
Now, with the water agreement, many landowners think they will not only be able to save what makes the place unique but also the community itself, which has struggled for decades with shrinking water supplies. Unlike Los Angeles or the Coachella Valley, there are no huge pipes or canals shipping imported water here, just a rapidly shrinking aquifer below their feet.
"We know that there's a shortage of water, but we wanted to get away from the pointing fingers and blaming each other, between all of the farmers and golf courses and the community at large," said Jim Seley, 79, owner of Seley Ranches. Seley's father first bought land here in 1953, and Seley's sons want to farm here for years to come. "The settlement agreement is an effort to put everybody together, working towards the same final result of sustaining the valley."
Under a front-loaded agreement, all large users, whether they signed on or not, will be required to ratchet down by 5% each year the amounts of water they take from the "critically over-drafted" aquifer that is gradually replenished with rainfall that flows down from surrounding mountains to Coyote Creek and below the Borrego Valley. By 2030, all will have halved their baseline amounts.
The first few years, considerable leeway will be allowed, as actual rates of water usage are determined. For decades, some farmers and other large landowners had no water meter, Dice said. They could simply pump as much as they wanted from beneath their parcels.
The voluminous agreement, signed by Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson on April 8, changes that. Every parcel will be metered, and amounts used will be monitored and limits enforced by a multi-person water master board. If it turns out the 24,000 acre-feet was an overestimate, then cuts could be relaxed a bit. Conversely, if it was an underestimate, even deeper cuts could be mandated.
State law forces solution
When Larry Gilstrap and Susan Deering retired and bought a 3½-acre lot in Borrego Springs in 2009, they were drawn by the stark beauty, forever preserved in the massive state park around them. The fact that it took hours to drive there from anywhere else, over torturously winding mountain roads or across barren, triple-digit desert, added to the appeal. It meant the town would likely never be overdeveloped.
"The fact that we saw large growth as not being a sustainable thing was definitely a desirable thing," he said. "And the fact that those natural places above us and around us will be protected in perpetuity was definitely an appeal. The mountains and the hundreds of thousands of acres of land that have never seen the hand of man, that will never see a plow or ax or bulldozer, it's amazing."
Still, there are unexpected costs.
When they began building on their lot in 2012, there was a water meter on site. It didn't mean they had guaranteed flow. By then, realizing there were finite supplies, town planners required the purchase of water "credits" in which someone no longer using their portion of the aquifer sold to someone who needed it.
"I met a guy in a parking lot ... and paid him $7,000 for a piece of paper," sad Gilstrap.
Gilstrap said he understands the need for the new agreement, and trusts Dice and other town leaders. Dice said ordinary customers who use less than 2 acre-feet of water a year should not notice any difference in water supply, or major changes in their bills.
One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, to a depth of 1 foot. An average California household uses between one-half and 1 acre-foot of water per year for indoor and outdoor use. The state park and local elementary school are also guaranteed their current water supply forever.
Dice said the water district hoped to offset much of its required cuts by buying up water rights as private property owners pull up stakes. The agreement was also tailored to try to prevent out-of-town water market investors from buying rights for resale.
She also hopes to maintain the high quality of town water. Flowing down from the surrounding hillsides and through a natural creek, she said it was fantastic water. But researchers feared with underground supplies being diminished, pumpers could start pulling out water that has sat underground for thousands of years, containing both natural toxins like arsenic and manmade contaminants like nitrates.
The town has been aware for years of the dire decline in its water supplies, with experts gauging losses to its underground aquifer at between 1 and 2 feet a year, depending on the location. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation looked at possibly importing water, but concluded it would cost up to $695 million to build and maintain, and to buy water over 50 years. Those plans were shelved. Discussions about what to do foundered.
In 2014, a tough new state law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, was passed, requiring all 515 of California's groundwater basins to remain usable.
"The overarching theme of SGMA is ... you still have to have water available for the long term, for generations to come," said Joyia Emard, spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources. "You're basically not using it all up now, it's there for the future."
Most of the state's 515 basins are in good shape, but 21, including Borrego Springs' subbasin, were declared to be in "critical overdraft," meaning they are drawing out far more than is being replaced, like a bank customer withdrawing far more funds than they are depositing.
The critically over-drafted basins were required to submit groundwater sustainability plans by Jan. 31, 2020, or show they had a viable alternative. If they didn't, they faced a takeover by the state, which can legally impose draconian pumping fees until a basin regains stability. Areas that don't submit plans or legal alternatives also can't qualify for grants for infrastructure and other projects.
In the Coachella Valley, the Indio subbasin has an alternate management plan submitted by the Coachella Valley Water District, Coachella Water Authority, Desert Water Agency, and the Indio Water Authority; it was approved in 2019.
Borrego Springs opted for an adjudicated, stipulated agreement instead, a legally binding document. State water resource officials will review the agreement and likely approve it.
Dice said the state law was "a godsend" because it forced all of the parties who had been talking for years about the valley's shrinking water supply to take concrete steps to shore it up. But to get there, the water district had to take the uncomfortable step of suing all of its members and every water user in the valley to comply with the state groundwater law, and to make sure the agreement would be binding.
Seley and most other major landowners signed, and those who didn't are still required to abide by the deal. He's already reduced Seley Ranches' water usage by 5% for 2020-21, as required. He, his sons and the ranch manager have stripped out old, less productive fruit trees. Some will be replaced in a different configuration that uses less water, others will not. They're already down from 370 to 333 productive acres. They'll also try out soil amendments and new technologies designed to make every drop of water count.
And they plan to work with townspeople to increase tourism, promoting their sweet "Seley Reds" grapefruits and other premium produce.
Seley says he won't be around to see it, but he still thinks the state and federal governments — which have been promising to clean up the dwindling, polluted Salton Sea to the east — could ship in water from the Gulf of Mexico, desalinate it and supply some to this tiny but fertile spot.
For Gilstrap, a retired high school teacher, Borrego Springs is a microcosm of what's occurring globally with rapid climate change and water shortages. He's already seen native creosote on his property wilting with less rainfall and less water to tap into underground.
The constraints of the dry valley are also key to its sustainability, he thinks, and in the end could give it a better shot than cities and suburbs dependent on imports from the depleting Colorado River or Owens Valley.
For him, the future also lies with tourists, but eco-tourists respectful of nature, including birders, geologists and botanists, and "people just eager to get out and hike."
He doesn't fear it becoming another wild place overrun by visitors precisely because of its water constraints.
"Because of those limitations, there are only going to be so many motels, so many places to camp," he said. "Borrego Springs is a beautiful place because it's hard to get to."
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter with The Desert Sun. She also co-authors USA Today's Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @janetwilson66.