Borrego: build a home, lose a farm

Dry “lake” next to the 18th hole
  • Dry “lake” next to the 18th hole

Tiny, water-deficient Borrego Springs (population 3500) may be a microcosm of what San Diego will be if the water crisis worsens. Borrego is betting the farm — actually, betting on leveling farms — for its survival. San Diego County may not have enough farms to adopt Borrego’s strategy, but it certainly could learn something from the little town in the northeast part of the county.

The only question is whether Borrego’s plan will work. For more than half a century, Borregans have said their town would be “the next Palm Springs.” But since the 1980s, financially troubled developers and asset flippers have pumped more than $100 million into the town while taking big losses.

Now, Borrego is making real estate developers buy and fallow farmland if they want to build homes. Fruit farms, nurseries, and the like use 70 percent of Borrego’s water. Once they have drilled a well, their basic water cost is electricity to pump the stuff out. “These are industrial conglomerates, not mom-and-pop farms,” says Borregan Ray Shindler. “They came to Borrego in the 1950s and 1960s because they saw cheap water.”

So, a developer building a home has to obtain a farm, cut down the trees, restore the desert landscape, and shovel out other funds to make the place presentable. With leveled farms using no more water, there is some available for homes being constructed. So, what do you suppose is happening to farm prices? Zoom! “Farmers aren’t dumb. They are smart,” says Shindler, pointing to a potato farm that is on the market for three times what it is worth.

On the other hand, says longtime resident Lane Sharman, San Diego Gas & Electric costs are so high “that farming is becoming less and less economical.”

Farmers might sell their land at reasonable prices. If there is demand for new development — and that is a very big “if” — Borrego’s strategy might work, although Sharman thinks the water-use ratio of fallowed farms to new homes should be 3 to 1 or even 5 to 1, instead of roughly 1 to 1 or 2 to 1.

“Pardon the pun, but the water-mitigation policy here has been watered down; at one time the ratio was 3 to 1.”

According to the United States Geological Survey, the Borrego Valley pumps 19,000 acre-feet of water per year. Only 5600 acre-feet is replaced through, mostly, rainfall. That creates “an overdraft of 13,000 to 14,000 feet per year,” says Jerry Rolwing, general manager of the Borrego Water District. At this drawdown rate, big trouble hits Borrego in 50 years, he says. Some say 45 years is more like it. “Other options may be possible but, at present, are too expensive for the residents of Borrego Springs.”

In one sense, Borrego’s plan is old hat: throughout the world, over many decades, farms have been sold for real estate development. In another sense, the approach seems counterintuitive: a town running out of water is counting on economic growth — residential development and tourism — to keep the taps flowing.

Borrego is not near a freeway and is so hot in the summer that many (if not most) residents do not stick around. July temperatures range from nighttime lows of 75 degrees Fahrenheit to daytime highs of 107. People have to go elsewhere to do much of their shopping. The town hardly has “luxury” written all over it.

First hole of the Rams Hill golf course

First hole of the Rams Hill golf course

But optimists are counting on two facilities to power the expected growth. One is Rams Hill, a residential development that has been through bankruptcy twice, with myriad financial problems. The other is La Casa del Zorro, a resort that was closed and is now being resuscitated. Its guests have always played on the Rams Hill golf course, which reopens next month.

In recent years, the championship course has been closed and gone to seed, as winds blew over dead and dying trees. Rams Hill housing values plunged from a 2006 high of $270 a square foot to $63. Prices are coming back, but there is controversy on how much.

First fairway, before...

First fairway, before...

...and after watering

...and after watering

In July of last year, Denver developer Terry Considine, who once owned the El Cortez briefly and is a member of a prominent San Diego family, joined with Bill Berkley to buy Rams Hill’s 3000 acres, the golf course, and the clubhouse for $842,000. They paid off long-defaulted bonds and homeowner fees, settled a dispute with the Borrego Water District, drilled wells that Berkley says are not tied in with the main aquifer, set up a solar energy system, and brought the golf course back to life. “We spent $10 million, and we’re not done yet,” says Berkley.

A full 93 percent of Rams Hill residents, suffering from the steep decline in home values, voted to pay a $1200-a-year special assessment to help run the golf course and the clubhouse. “I would say 70 percent of present homeowners do not play golf,” says Berkley — proof of how much home values mean to residents. However, even before the course was closed, few were playing.

Berkley says he has seen some home resale values come back to $170 to $180 a square foot, but, says Joe Tatusko, who joins the Borrego Water District board December 5, “Checking the online home price services, I am not convinced prices are up. It is too early to say.”

La Casa del Zorro, the former money-losing Copley family property, was purchased last year by a group including former San Diego city manager Jack McGrory. The resort “still has growing pains” but is going forward and even experienced a profit — a rarity for the facility — in March of this year, says Linda Haddock, executive director of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.

“Tourism is key for the long-term success of the Borrego Springs community,” says Tatusko.

The newly formed Borrego Water Coalition is searching for ways to build a groundwater-sustainability plan, as required by state legislation passed in August.

Berkley is an optimist: “There are probably in excess of a thousand lots that can be built on and sold. So if we can restore the value of those lots by driving demand with a high-quality golf course and clubhouse,” the investment will pay off, despite previous failed attempts.

But Borregans “don’t have the will power” to put enough teeth in plans to fallow farms, says Shindler. “We’re pretty insular.”

Says groundwater geologist John Peterson, who warned in the 1980s of Borrego’s problems, “We know Borrego will never be a Palm Springs. We have water and access problems. Palm Springs has the I-10. Borrego will never have a freeway, and we don’t want it.”

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Borrego Springs will never be the "next Palm Springs". Just look at the Salton Sea. End of story.

AlexClarke: Yes, the Salton Sea was once a tourist haven, attracting Hollywood movie stars, among other dignitaries. Best, Don Bauder

Don, you've done a great job of summing up the situation in Borrego Springs. In some ways, it is surprising that it isn't showing a bit more prosperity, but there is no doubt that the economy is very weak. The last thing resembling a supermarket closed some years ago, a wretched thing in its later years, and hasn't been replaced. The residents and winter visitors have to drive all the way to Alpine on I-8 (which isn't close to Borrego Springs) or up through Julian and onward to Ramona for something that basic.

You are right when you say that there's no sign of luxury in town. The Casa del Zorro is now and long was an oasis of luxury, but the other golf-related operations were far from luxurious. All of them struggle because there just isn't enough tourist/golf business to go around. So, instead of a fancy desert resort community, it looks more like the typically impoverished backcountry town.

Water-intensive farming has no place in that climate. Oh, it's a great spot for growing Seeley Red grapefruit, with the scorching summer temperatures making them as sweet as can be. But the water it takes is just ridiculous, especially when it involves pumping an aquifer dry.

Resurrecting that Ram's Hill golf course sounds dicey. Oh, the Casa guests want to play golf, and that's the natural choice, but again the disinterest of the residents there and the huge amount of water and labor necessary to keep it up running and attractive may well prove prohibitive once again.

I am skeptical of the claims of these developers and operators in regard to the size of their investments. The sums supposedly spent on the Casa after Copley sold it sounded very high to me, and that happened twice in the past few years. Still, there's no doubt that it has sucked up many millions in recent years with little to show for all the outlays.

Visduh: One has to be skeptical, given Borrego's history. Rams Hill has gone through one financial disaster after another. Casa del Zorro lost a bundle of money every year when the Copley family owned it, but it was kept open because it had sentimental value to both Helen and David.

I like Borrego. I would love to see it succeed. I would like to see the new Rams Hill owners succeed. But I don't think that restoring the golf course to championship condition (and it is a championship course), is going to stimulate sufficient development at Rams Hill or tourist visitations at the Casa del Zorro. I hope I am wrong.

I do, however, think that the plan to fallow farms to allow for more development is a good one. But, again, that plan depends on the development and growth of tourism, and I see only mild success at best in those endeavors. Best, Don Bauder

When I first heard about the fallowing scheme, it didn't seem to do anything to stop the overdrawing of the aquifer. For each home built, it was necessary to take a specified number of acres out of production and save enough water for that home. That's what Sharman was calling 1 to1. And 1 to 1 just shifts the overdraft from farming to household use. To slow and/or stop the exhaustion of the aquifer, each time there's a transfer, more water needs to be saved than is switched to a home. Hence his desire for 3 to 1 or 5 to 1. The higher that ratio, the sooner the water coming out will equal the annual recovery, and get to a point of balance. All that will make homes in the area far more costly than they are today, and may nip the growth in the bud. On he whole, folks didn't head to Borrego for costly luxury housing; they wanted a second home that was affordable. When the cost of new homes increases there, I doubt they will sell many.

Visduh: Absolutely. To trade a few new homes for a farm -- a 1 for 1 swap of water usage -- does no good. Water is still being overdrawn. For the long term survival of Borrego, I think a 3 to 1 ratio, or maybe 5 to 1, would be good. Best, Don Bauder

You make several good points, but we do have two grocery stores in town. Also, we have been enjoying a lot of improvements around town, for instance, the really beautiful Art Institute right on Christmas Circle, as well as the lovely improvements in landscaping (yes, basically xeriscaping) up and down Palm Canyon Drive. I've lived here ten years and absolutely love this town. There is so much art, music, a performing arts center, poetry groups, classes, and the people are so accepting and tolerant. We have a deep love of nature, and especially the peace and quiet of our gorgeous desert. A mere 45 minutes away you are in the beauty of the mountains. Please don't sell us short....this is a rare and exquisite little town where people truly care about each other and our environment. I wouldn't live anywhere else. And, yes, we have a terrible water situation, most of which would be solved by fallowing the ill-conceived farms, built when the myth of plentiful resources was going strong. But, we all feel wealthy, living in such a place.

The problem those developments in Borrego Springs face is after the golf, after the scotch and sirloin, and after mama is finished baking out by the pool, the copacetic couple wants to take a ride into town, and once they do that, they realize they've made a dreadful mistake.

You rarely hear golf and mountain sheep in the same sentence and unless they are outdoorsy-type Republicans, an extremely rare breed, they are not going to be satisfied with a tour of the Visitor's Center at Palm Canyon and a little eye-to-eye with an actual ram. They quickly discover It takes less than two hours to tour the whole town, and that includes a visit to the antique shop and a stop at the coffee house/ice cream parlor.

Once the "resortists" leave the resort they will soon discover in Borrego Springs, there is just no there, there... and they've got five more days to go. The lack of water is the least of the problems right now. The best thing that could happen to Brego, is that it gets adopted by an Indian tribe and they build a mega casino.

Javajoe25: Very well expressed. I have -- and had -- friends who lived several decades in Borrego, and found it delightful. However, your point is well taken. Will many tourists looking for golf, socializing, and shopping find Borrego delightful? I doubt it.

The people who love Borrego are ones interested in science, the desert, a quiet life. They don't want to be near a freeway. They probably don't play golf or tennis. There may not be enough of such people to generate an economic boom there. Best, Don Bauder

Many years ago, some developer created that Mall in town. A resort community would have filled it with chi-chi little shops, a few trendy eateries, and it would have reflected the "good life." But it didn't work out that way. Now it houses some rather marginal shops, and one American-style cafe, which isn't bad. B-B-But that's all folks!

There is also the collection of metal sculptures spread around the valley that is unique. Representing creatures from the prehistoric and some fanciful things, it is worth seeing. Even though the sponsor of the work, who bought the land where they are displayed, has passed away, the exhibits seem to grow. In any event, those could bring tourists there, but it is a one-shot deal. You see them, you photograph them, you go home.

Borrego Springs is a sleepy place, and much of the charm is in its quiet and dark skies and yipping coyotes. Those things do not an economy make.

Visduh: Yes, and that sleepy calm does attract some people. But I fear it will not attract as many as some expect. Best, Don Bauder

Tricia Gerrodette: Yes, many San Diegans fought Borrego development such as Rams Hill. The developers won the fight against environmentalists, but lost a bundle of money. Best, Don Bauder

I see looking under golf courses for Borrego Springs that 5 are shown, and none of them are named Rams Hill. So if Rams Hill reopens, why in the world would there be at least 5 courses in Borrego? It's obviously not because there is a demand for them--I've played 3 of the courses over the years, and, let's just say that reservations were not necessary.

Just to clarify: our summer population is about 3,500. From November to April or May we have about 12,000 residents.

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