During 2007, months before the board ordered her to turn in all documents and property of the district, Burzell had noticed an increase in legal fees coming into the office.
In fiscal year 2005/2006, legal fees amounted to $47,000. Two years later, in fiscal year 2007/2008, they swelled to $220,000, a 368 percent surge.
“This is a level of government that flies under the radar,” says Burzell. “In this economy, it’s just horrific. You look at this tiny, tiny little community with this few people and the ratio of that legal cost, it is completely unreasonable.”
Dennis Dickinson shares Burzell’s concern about the rapid flow of money jettisoned from the Borrego Water District.
“There is absolutely no plan to govern the spending of this money,” says Dickinson. “As of late 2007, the district had a significant surplus. They applied for a grant, and the Army Corps of Engineers told them they were too rich to receive any aid. A few months later, Rich Williamson proceeded to spend most of that. He’s done a pretty good job in two years, a good job of spending money. He calls it a shotgun approach, and I call it trial and error.”
Williamson says he never called it a “shotgun approach.” During an August 16 phone interview, Williamson, who left Tucson’s water department for the general manager position at the Borrego Water District, defends the allocation of millions of dollars since coming to Borrego.
“The fear is bringing this economy to a halt by getting rid of agriculture and the golf courses,” says Williamson, going on to say that the water district does not control the amount of water that the farms or three of the golf courses use, as they have their own wells.
“We have to have a multiprong approach, not a shotgun approach,” he says.
The water manager defends the increased expenditures since he took office in 2008. “During the economic boom of the last decade, unfortunately the water district didn’t do a lot to the system in terms of repairs and replacement. Nor was any work done to alleviate the groundwater problem. There were a lot of repairs that were put off, and we started those repairs and started studies. It doesn’t do anyone any good to have a million dollars in the bank but no water.”
As for the legal costs, Williamson points to the San Diego County Grand Jury’s report this spring. The grand jury found that additional legal counsel was needed to oversee bond issues, including refinancing the Montesoro bond; to help after the death of the district’s general manager; to aid the new general manager, who was “not familiar with California State laws and regulations”; and to address the aquifer overdraft situation by pursuing the establishment of a special tax-assessment district, which voters ultimately rejected.
Williamson’s three-prong approach focuses on land management, conservation, and importation strategies.
Importing water to Borrego would be costly. According to the district’s “Integrated Water Resources Management Plan,” constructing a 46-mile pipeline — with two pumping stations — from the Imperial Valley into the basin would cost around $51.7 million. Other possibilities include a 40-mile pipeline to the Coachella Valley and a 38-mile pipeline to the Imperial Valley.
Williamson is also looking into running a two-way pipeline. The district would bring Northern California or Colorado River water into the Borrego Valley basin, store it until it’s needed, then export it to Imperial Valley or Coachella Valley farms. The plan, says Williamson, would not only address Borrego’s water deficit but also bring billions of gallons of water to the region.
On August 11, the district manager received word that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had awarded $425,000 to a study of water systems and management in southeastern California. One strategy that will be investigated is banking water in Borrego’s basin. Preliminary studies, says Williamson, indicate that Borrego’s underground aquifer could store as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water, over 30,000 more acre-feet than all ten of the City of San Diego’s impounding reservoirs can hold.
“The study is important because the Bureau of Reclamation is the water master for the Colorado River,” says Williamson. “And Borrego can’t afford to do the project on its own. To provide recovery for this aquifer, we’re going to have to import water. The best way to do that is so it benefits other entities that are far wealthier than our district.
“The thought is to look at adjacent water basins and divert water to the district.”
Dickinson, however, favors a simple, one-prong approach to prevent the desiccation of the basin: adjudication, or allowing a court to appoint a water master to allocate water to users.
“Farmers and golf course owners just water the hell out of their land,” says Dickinson. “You can’t shut the farmers and golf courses down, but if you get the basin adjudicated, then they will be allocated some portion of 4000 acre-feet of water per year.”
For adjudication to occur, a lawsuit would need to be filed by landowners or the water district.
“It really is the only solution,” says Dickinson. “[Williamson] wants to bring in water from the outside. There’s very little water on the market, and it’s getting harder and harder to find it.”
Williamson agrees that adjudication is one solution, but it’s one that would likely parch the valley’s economy and be a costly court venture.
“If you do that,” says Williamson, “the golf courses will basically be driven out of business. Everyone loses in that scenario.”
Borrego Valley’s scarce water resources will continue to be an issue. Last year, the county board of supervisors approved 3725 additional dwelling units for the valley, and the county’s general plan provides for the potential future development of 9400 more residences.