What Is that Sucking Sound?

Thirsty Barona casino angers its neighbors.

Barona Creek Golf Course. "The sod went in the end of June, and Steve's well went dry in the middle of July."
  • Barona Creek Golf Course. "The sod went in the end of June, and Steve's well went dry in the middle of July."

Despite the fact that we live in an area that receives very little rainfall, most of us never worry about water. We may not know where the droplets issuing from the shower first fell as rain, but we know they'll be there when we want them. Those San Diego County residents who live in areas where piped-in water is not available don't have that comfort. They dig wells until they find water, install pumps, and hope it doesn't run dry.

That's what the residents of Old Barona Road (off Wildcat Canyon Road, just south of the Barona Indian Reservation) in Lakeside have been doing for years, and, for the most part, they've had enough water to live comfortable lives. "We've been able to water a lawn and keep a swimming pool full," says Susan Hillson, whose deck -- which we're sitting on -- overlooks the Barona Indian Reservation to the north and San Vicente Reservoir to the west. "Steve, here," she points to her neighbor Steve Holloway, "has a pool too."

But their days of watering lawns and refilling pools are over. Holloway's well has run dry and Hillson's is nearly dry. Bob Coffin and Dave Landry, who are also sitting on Hillson's deck, still have water, but not as much as they used to. The four of them, part of a coalition of area residents calling itself the Wildcat Canyon Conservancy, think they know why they're experiencing water problems. "The Indians are pulling out an unprecedented amount of water," Coffin explains, "to water their new golf course."

The Barona Band of Mission Indians began construction on their new golf course, visible from Hillson's property, in May 2000. "The sod went in the end of June," Hillson says, "and Steve's well went dry in the middle of July. As soon as we could see the sprinklers down there going all the time, that's when the wells started going dry." Holloway adds, "They're using a tremendous amount of water. Construction, watering roads... It takes a lot of water to do that. Plus, the plants. If you take a drive down there, you can see they're doing a lot of planting. And you can't believe the watering. It goes on continuously."

Coffin continues, "It takes a million gallons a day to keep a golf course green. That's pretty standard for golf courses. That's a huge amount of water for this area, because, as you can tell, this is an arid area. It's a fractured-rock water system too. There are two types of groundwater systems in San Diego County. One is an alluvial, where you have a bunch of silt and clay, usually found in an old riverbed. It collects water and it holds it like an underground pond. Wells that are tapping from that resource are generally very reliable because they know the water is collected down there and it regenerates. In a fractured-rock system, the water is moving through fissures in the rock. The rock underground looks a lot like it does up above," he points around to the bus-size boulders protruding from the surrounding hills. All have deep cracks running through them. "So the well-drillers try to find an area where they think there's a fracture, and they try to drill into that. They try to capture the water that flows through. These aren't underground rivers by any stretch of the imagination. They are just small fissures and you hope you're lucky to find one of them and get the water out of there. We've spoken to the county hydrologist and he says he would never have signed off on a golf course using only well water from a fractured-rock system."

David Barons, director of government affairs for the Barona Band, says the million-gallons-per-day estimate is "not true at all. I keep hearing Bob Coffin and those guys say a million gallons. I've never heard of any golf course that uses a million gallons a day. And, in fact, our golf course is a desert-style course. What that means is, between the fairways there is no irrigation. There's just going to be the natural habitat. We're irrigating the least amount of land possible for the golf course. Besides, I don't think any golf course uses a million gallons a day. They keep throwing that million-gallon figure out there, and it's nowhere near that."

Barons also points out that part of the golf-course construction project is a $3.5 million water-treatment plant, where wastewater from the casino and other buildings on the reservation will be treated for irrigating the links.

John Peterson, the groundwater geologist for the County of San Diego, says a million gallons a day to water a golf course is "not out of the realm of possibility during a very hot Santa Ana. But it certainly would not be the normal daily water use. If we want to put some numbers to it, a small 18-hole golf course will have about 80 acres under irrigation. Their rate of application will probably be about 3.5 feet of water in a year. That's a conservative estimate. We come up with an applied 280 acre-feet of water per year. That would be equivalent to 250,000 gallons per day. That's an overall average; some days will be zero, some days will be twice that."

Peterson does say, however, that he wouldn't have approved the Barona course, had he jurisdiction over it, because of its total dependency on groundwater. "To put it in perspective, we have no groundwater-dependent golf courses within San Diego County, with only a couple of exceptions. One is in Warner Springs, but that is a huge groundwater basin. And we have a number of golf courses that are groundwater dependent in Borrego Valley. The deal is, the ground in the Barona area, there's some water in it, but it's pretty limited in terms of storage. It's not like Borrego Valley, which has a big pool of water down there. It's a fractured-rock system, which is totally different."

Is the watering of the new golf course draining nearby wells? Peterson says it's possible, "Because they are pumping a lot of water, and their water production -- as well as some of the well problems in the area -- seems to be concurrent. Also, we plotted up the location of many of the wells that were having problems, and there certainly is a cluster at the north end of Old Barona Road," the end closest to the reservation. But Peterson also points out that there are multiple groundwater basins in the area, not just one; he says that wells in that area, residents' claims notwithstanding, have had problems as recently as ten years ago. Another factor, Peterson says, is below-average rainfall in the county the last few years. "And we know that we have dry wells throughout the county as a direct result of those dry meteorological conditions."

In the meantime, Hillson has installed a new 5000-gallon water tank at a cost of $4000 plus $120 every time a water truck delivers 2000 gallons. Holloway is leaning toward digging a new well -- a 50/50 proposition, Peterson says, in a fractured-rock groundwater system -- at a cost of around $10,000. "If I don't get water," Holloway says, "I don't know what I'm going to do."

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