Borrego Springs Water District: Less Water Flows In, More Money Flows Out

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.

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.

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In his article Dorian Hargrove quotes me, accurately, as saying that Rich Williamson, BWD’s General Manager called the water district’s attempts to secure Borrego’s water future a “shotgun approach” which I characterized as “trial and error.”

He quotes Williamson, however, as saying “he [Williamson] never called it a ‘shotgun approach.’”

But an article in the Borrego Sun (“BWD compares costs of 2 water conservation, importation projects,” May 27, 2010, pp. 3 & 23) quotes Williamson as saying “the district is utilizing a ‘shotgun approach,’ simultaneously examining multiple options to find a way to ensure a stable, long-term water future for the valley.” That’s just a euphemism for a trial and error approach to problem solving; the same approach used by BP on the gulf oil spill – and we all know how well that went.

The veracity of the rest of Williamson’s utterances should be considered in light of this obvious contradiction. D. W. Dickinson

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