Dennis Dickinson takes his dogs for a hike off Borrego Valley Road in Borrego Springs at 6:30 in the morning to avoid the heat. From the trail, Dickinson looks west toward San Ysidro Mountain. In the foreground, on most mornings, he sees sprinklers spraying water on the fairways and greens of the Borrego Springs Resort, one of five golf-course resorts in the tiny desert oasis.
The water comes from the same source as the water that irrigates the citrus groves and supplies the homes of the valley’s 2600 permanent residents: the Borrego Valley basin.
On an average year during the rainy season, 1.7 billion gallons (5200 acre-feet) of rainwater flows down the mountains and through the canyons to recharge the three aquifers beneath the valley floor, two of which — the upper and middle aquifers — are the sole source of water to the area. (Pumping water from the lower aquifer is cost-prohibitive.) The aquifers are now running dry.
Water levels inside the basin have been dropping since the 1950s, when engineers from the United States Geological Survey first recorded an overdraft — when more water was pumped out than was replenished by rainfall. Engineers working for the Borrego Water District estimated in 1999 that the upper and middle aquifers held 1,685,000 acre-feet of freshwater (one acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons), nearly 446,000 acre-feet less than was there 65 years ago.
Current estimates indicate that users are pumping 23,800 acre-feet per year— approximately the amount that would fill a tank the size of a football field with walls three miles high. Although some irrigation water seeps back into the basin, the water extracted is four times more than is replenished by rainfall.
Seventy percent of the yearly water output is used on citrus farms, palm tree nurseries, and potato farms. Golf courses and landscaping account for 22 percent, and the remaining 8 percent goes to homes and other municipal uses.
Engineers predict the aquifer will become desiccated in 50 years. Until then, they fear that declining water levels could degrade water quality and possibly cause the land underneath the golf courses and large developments to subside. What Alphonse Burnand Jr., sometimes called the father of Borrego Springs, once called the “Palm Springs of San Diego County” could evaporate.
“I knew the water situation was bad, but when I moved here I found out it was a lot worse than I thought it was. And nobody is doing anything about it,” says Dickinson, who moved to the valley in 1999 and began attending Borrego Water District board meetings shortly after. In 2006, he launched borregowaterunderground.org, a website that chronicles the valley’s dwindling water supply, and he now considers himself an expert on the Borrego Valley’s water woes.
Currently, engineers from the United States Geological Survey, the California Department of Water Resources, and the Borrego Water District are working together to obtain a better understanding of the groundwater basin and the long-term sustainability of the groundwater supply.
“In terms of the suggested usage, the goal is to use no more water than is being supplied naturally to the basin plus any additional supply that may be found,” writes Dr. Timothy Ross, a senior engineering geologist for the Department of Water Resources.
Without some additional water supply, writes Ross, the groundwater use in Borrego Valley is “untenable.”
And much like the dwindling upper and middle aquifers, the Borrego Water District’s bank account is also drying up, as is the trust of many residents in the community. Residents now accuse district management of wasting cash reserves on legal fees and on pipe dreams, like constructing a 46-mile pipeline to import water. The accusations flood the monthly water district meetings. This November, three reform candidates are running for the board of directors.
The Borrego Water District, established in 1961, pumps and supplies water for 2015 customers. In recent years, money has gushed from the district’s coffers. Total cash on hand in 2007, according to the July 28 agenda packet, was $7,475,241. At the end of July 2010, that number had dropped to $2,537,940.
Two changes occurred in 2007. The district’s lawyer retired at the end of 2006, and a new firm was retained. About the same time, the general manager became ill. He died in September 2007. The new manager, Rich Williamson, was hired the following February; in the interim, the board’s chair acted as general manager.
“[The water district] spent a total of $4,147,162 since they hired the new general manager in 2008 — that’s a lot of money spent in less than two short years,” said Judith Burzell, a 29-year former assistant manager for the district.
Burzell stopped working for the district in the fall of 2007, amidst the turmoil; she says she was constructively terminated but that the district says she quit. She sued, and the case was settled.
At her home in Vista, Burzell speaks about one of the district’s actions that concerned her. In 2007, the district refinanced Mello-Roos bonds for Montesoro, a troubled subdivision previously called Rams Hill. Bonds to pay for the development’s water infrastructure were originally issued in the 1980s. The cost of refinancing bonds on the aging infrastructure was $400,000.
Three years later, the grass on Montesoro’s golf course is dead. The developer and other investors have stopped making payments on the bonds, and the special district that administers the bonds is in foreclosure proceedings on the golf course and undeveloped property.
Burzell knows the valley like her own hometown. She talks about the water district as if she is discussing the inner workings of a family business. In a sense it is. Burzell’s father, Linden Burzell, developed wells in the valley during the 1950s for the first large developers — the Burnands, the Copleys, and the DiGiorgios, who first developed Rams Hill. Linden Burzell was the district’s water engineer for more than 20 years.
“It is so sad. It was a beautiful place just struggling along, and then a combination of greed, mismanagement, a bad economy, and a lot of really poor choices by the board and management may just turn it into a ghost town,” says Judith Burzell.