Yay! San Diego reservoirs filling up

Aquifer-dependent Borrego Springs doesn’t have much to cheer about

Font’s Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest park in California
  • Font’s Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest park in California
  • Image by David Corby

On January 26, San Diego County’s water authority exulted that the drought was over. On March 22, the New York Times wrote, “We have some good news on the California drought.” The huge snowpack in the Sierras portends more water. Countywide, San Diego’s reservoirs are filling up. People are cheering.

Anza-Borrego Desert Creek emanates from a natural spring...but there are no reservoirs to collect it.

Anza-Borrego Desert Creek emanates from a natural spring...but there are no reservoirs to collect it.

But there’s little joy in tiny Borrego Springs, in the northeast portion of the county. It doesn’t have reservoirs. It gets its water from an aquifer, or permeable rock that can transmit groundwater. It once considered buying water stored in county reservoirs, transporting it via a long pipeline, but that would have been too expensive.

In recent months, Borrego rainfall has been running 137 percent of the average, but how much of that water gets into the aquifer “is hard to quantify. It’s still a mystery,” says Geoff Poole, general manager of the Borrego Water District. Borrego is working with the United States Geological Survey to come up with a model that can estimate how much rainwater winds up in the aquifer.

There be dragons in the desert (Borrego Springs sculpture)

There be dragons in the desert (Borrego Springs sculpture)

Some Borregans are celebrating the rains, but scientists aren’t: “A few people have their heads buried in the sand, thinking everything is fine,” says James Dice, reserve manager for the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, run by the University of California Irvine. “At least half [realistically favor] cutting back on water use.”

The author of the Borrego Water Underground, a publication that has been warning the town of its water problem for a long time, flays the “overweening, hedonistic, self-interest” of a citizenry whose motivation is making a buck instead of protecting the environment. The purpose of the unsigned publication is to warn residents and potential residents and businesses “of the dire and rapidly deteriorating groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley.”

Some politicians representing Borrego aren’t helping: “Fifth District County Supervisor ‘Bulldozer Bill’ Horn is radically pro-development and openly and adamantly opposed to county involvement in managing groundwater.”

For a long time, Borrego has been drawing 19,100 acre-feet a year from its aquifer, and the inflow is only 5700 acre-feet. (One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre with one foot of water.) To comply with state laws, by 2020 Borrego has to come up with a plan to match outflow and inflow. Then it will have 20 years to put the plan into action.

Borrego has about 3500 people, half of whom vamoose in the summer, when the temperature reaches 107 degrees or higher. (It hit 122 on June 25, 1990, and 122 on June 20 of last year.)

It is a tourist town surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. Hikers, bikers, birders, golfers, and lovers of deserts, mountains, and wildflowers flock to Borrego. There are more than 100 large sculptures of animals that once lived in the area and some that still do.

But some tourists and part-time residents are losing enthusiasm, and water is a major reason. San Diegans tell me of their disappointment: “I love Borrego and visited three times the past nine months. I never travel without bottled water because many areas have nasty-tasting tap water, which often smells of sulfur,” says Reenie Shea.

“The water in Borrego now tastes terrible,” says Don Jones, who goes to Borrego each year with his wife. “I don’t remember that being a problem two or three years ago, but now I say it tastes like horse piss.”

“I have a home in Borrego Springs and spend about 40 percent of my time [t]here,” says David Lewis. “I have no problems with the water, but my wife does.”

The water quality depends greatly on the water’s location in the aquifer, says Kathy Dice, superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and wife of James Dice. The aquifer has three levels. “The really good layer is the top one. The middle is a bit more mineralized. In the lowest level there has to be treatment,” she says.

Kathy Dice is on the advisory committee trying to come up with a plan to match inflow and outflow. “If we fail to do that, the state steps in and we go to court,” she says. “We have been in overdraft since the 1960s, when people first came here; they would dig a well and within a few feet get water. It gave the impression the water was unlimited.” Farms sprung up in the area, and now they use 70 percent of the water. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Borrego realized the water situation was critical.

Says Poole about the citizens’ group seeking a solution, “The very existence of our community depends on what we are working on. Nobody else is in our position.”

An obvious solution is to shut down farms; that is already happening. “One of the strategies is to fallow land,” says Poole. A large water user, such as a golf course, pays to fallow farmland and gets a water credit.

If Borrego doesn’t come up with a sustainability plan, water could become so expensive that people, businesses, and farms “could be forced out,” says James Dice.

Borrego’s water situation could do two things to real estate values: optimists who think the rainfalls are boosting the town’s future might pay more for homes than they would have during the drought. Contrarily, those educated on the reality might be less willing to pay for Borrego homes. Actually, home prices have been rising moderately. However, David Cragoe, broker-owner of Road Runner Realty, doesn’t think prices are rising because of the rain. Those values were going up before the rainfall. “People are feeling better about the economy and have more equity in their [coastal and inland] homes,” he says. So they are buying more second homes in Borrego.

Through recent decades, Borrego has been a victim of asset flippers trying to make the town into Palm Springs. Projects have lain barren. Bankruptcies have abounded. Jack Giacomini, president of San Diego’s HMG Hospitality, was in a group that bought La Casa del Zorro, the resort that drained Copley Newspapers and subsequent owners. When new partners came in, they bought Giacomini out, “Thank God,” he says. He had told them what they didn’t want to hear: they were trying to appeal to “the upscale, the elite.” But Borrego is not near a freeway, does not have “accessibility to feeder markets, and has a remote location.” And with its water problem, it will never be a Palm Springs, and enlightened citizens don’t want it to be.

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In the article above, Don Jones says that the water, "...tastes like horse piss." Just kind of wondering how he would know that...

aardvark: Don Jones is a skillful writer who comes up with apt analogies. I had breakfast with him one morning and didn't notice that he consumed any unusual food or drink.

I will bet that you have many times shouted, "This tastes like shit!" But can you honestly make such an analogy if you haven't sampled horse manure? Best, Don Bauder

"This tastes like shit!" followed up with, here you try it.

Murphyjunk: Touche! A great comeback. Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: I am sure you have heard the joke about Speedy Gonzalez If you haven't heard it, don't expect me to post it here. Best, Don Bauder

Promoters in Borrego Springs whistled past the graveyard in the fifties; they are whistling in the graveyard now.

The fundamentals can be understood with an IQ somewhere around 92--If you dig a well and the water level keeps dropping and never rises, you're not in an aquifer that recharges--at least enough to ensure a stable, sustainable supply. It takes a larger IQ to be capable of slinging enough bullshit to build golf courses and grow alfalfa under such conditions.

Any sale of real estate should recite the facts about water supply.

And on and on . . .

And oh, yes, Borregoeños are lucky to have the Dice’s—and that they haven’t been rolled yet. Ignoring them is a bad bet in this case.

Flapper: Borrego citizens, in general, know about the water crisis. Some prefer to look the other way, of course. Best, Don Bauder

We have been conserving water which deprives the water companies of income. They raise the rates so we conserve more and the rates go up. Now that the drought is "over" and there is plenty of water we are forced to conserve because the water is too expensive. When we had gas guzzlers gas was cheap. With the advent of cars that get 20 - 60 mpg gas prices have risen blamed of course on (pick one) Summer/winter blend, refinery fire, OPEC, war in the Middle East and when all else fails labor problems. (for those that have been around for a while remember when the bridge to Coronado would end the tolls when the bridge was paid for?)

We're getting a bit off-topic here. Don reports that the Casa del Zorro" w[as] trying to appeal to “the upscale, the elite.” The place isn't pulling it off. It may be expensive enough, but if you knew it under Copley ownership when it was a posh and polished operation, the contrast now is stark. Offerings there for well-heeled tourists are not that good. The restaurants generally are pedestrian and overpriced. Good times there should lead to improvement, but on the whole the town is sliding backwards.

Visduh: I have heard that from several sources. The story is that the Rams Hill golf course has been brought back from the dead, and is now doing well, thanks to the water it now gets. However, La Casa del Zorro still has a long way to go, I am told. One person said she saw a mouse run across the floor of a restaurant there. Best, Don Bauder

AlexClarke: Oil and gas prices have been plunging for many months. In this case, much if not most of the blame belongs to one source: tracking in the U.S. We caused this price plunge. We keep fracking even though it is clear that fracking causes earthquakes. Best, Don Bauder

Mike Murphy: Maybe there will be a pause in the sharp rise of water bills. I guess I am a Pollyanna. Best, Don Bauder

The more complacent the more vulnerable.

Flapper: Crooks have taken advantage of that truth for centuries. Best, Don Bauder

Goof courses are enough of an insult to the earth and its life anyway. But on the desert they are an abomination.

Flapper: Mark Twain said that playing golf was the perfect way to spoil a nice walk. Best, Don Bauder

I like Borrego Springs except for the winding mountain roads getting there. I've stayed at Casa Del Zorro. This story makes me wonder where they get all their water to fill and replenish their swimming pools. There are at least 20 small private pools and a couple of large swimming pools in their recreational area.

Ponzi: I don't know where it gets its water, but it has been going for many decades and doesn't seem to run short of water. Perhaps it is paying to fallow farms to get what it needs now. Best, Don Bauder

The Speedy Gonzales joke must be pretty bad, but this one is no worse than the preceeding comments.

Cowboys hate to cook, but one bunch's cook died, and the duty had to be done by someone. Nobody volunteered. So the boss had them do a shooting competition to decide who the victim was to be. He added, however, that whomsoever uttered a disrespectful word about the food would have to assume the duties.

The loser assumed the duty but soon grew so tired of it that he started sloughing off. He put rocks in the beans and sand in the meat, but nobody complained. After numerous other attempts to encourage complaints without success, he got an idea; he made biscuits out of cow pies.

"This tastes like $hit!" said one cowboy, "but the best damn shit-biscuits I've ever had!"

Flapper: I heard that when I was in high school in the early 1950s, but the characters were different. The message was the same. Best, Don Bauder

Ponzi et al: An acre of farm in the desert requires at least 6 acre-feet per year, and it could go as high as nine or ten, in round figures around two million gallons. That's enough for about three olympic pools. The water loss from said pools is about 80,000 cubic feet, or about two acre-feet per year. Up to about double those amounts, depending on the variables.

Flapper: I can't argue with your numbers because I have no idea how much water a farm acre in the desert requires. Best, Don Bauder

I'm glad you challenged me on this, but I assert that my bottom figure is not particularly exaggerated. The doubling, however, probably is.

I'll accept the CIMIS website' figures as honest ones, but that does not mean that every farm field or orchard uses that much or that little; still, the Class A evaporation pan may not always reflect reality either. When irrigation malpractices are figured in, the exaggerations may not be exaggerated. Other studies (buried in some dusty box in storage or gone for good) showed much higher actual water use figures than I cited, as much as 16 acre-feet applied per year, even in coastal regions. In other words, applied water tends to exceed actual water demand.

In terms of actual usage, transpiration studies tend to use grass; that may not apply to trees that get more wind, for example.

The devil is in the details, and well and water-meter studies could settle a lot of such questions, but for some reason tend not to be done--or at least I haven't found them yet. I used to get paid for this kind of stuff, and with an overflowing cup (heh, heh) going much further isn't my inclination right now. However, I can hope that someone will challenge me on the specifics, and provide evidence to back herorhimself up. I will be delighted to be corrected on the numbers.

Yes, this is still inadequate, but not, I hope, misleading.


Flapper: One person who will not challenge you on these numbers is I. I have written Borrego water stories (and crook stories) for at least ten years, but I haven't had to know this information you provide. Best, Don Bauder

I pixeled a response to Mr. Bauder, but it somehow never got posted. I will try to re-create it here and hope once again for the best.

I appreciate your calling me on the numbers. A good answer goes beyond a byte a bit, but they are derived from CIMIS data ( http://missionrcd.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/CIMIS-Reference-Evapotranspiration-Zones.pdf ), which indicate an annual evapotranspiration of about six feet. That's the theoretical MINIMUM amount of water required to keep grass green all year.

After that, one needs actual data from actual cases, meaning actual APPLIED water. Various inefficiencies of the applied (irrigation) methods and procedures make the reality part of the picture go up from there. Sprinklers, for example, atomize a significant fraction of the water, which evaporates before it hits the ground. Simple "overwatering" (applying more than the amount actually required) is even more significant. I remember, but cannot cite, research that revealed that applications rates of two or three times the CIMIS minimum were common; hence the (conservative?) doubling of the base requirement of six feet. Big trees, with their heads up high were the winds are stronger can add to the actual base rate in any give situation.

I know this isn't perfect, but I hope it's better than my previous attempt to put some numbers on the situation.

Flapper: I am not smart enough to have challenged you on these numbers. I couldn't possibly have said that you are all wet because I can't begin to tap into your water knowledge. Best, Don Bauder

You're smarter than I am, but perhaps don't have as much water on the brain as I.

I was trying to clarify the issue for Ponzi, but I suspect he wasn't interested in my scheme.

Flapper: I am not smarter than you. As I get further along in my 80s, the shingles keep coming off the roof. Do you have any smart pills? Best, Don Bauder

I somewhat resemble that remark!

Take my advice; don't take my advice.

Think young. Cultivate young friends. STOP LOOKING AT THE G0DDAM CALENDAR!

Flapper: How can I stop looking at the calendar when I love dates? Best, Don Bauder

Dates are closer to being a "suitable" crop on the desert, but only around oases. They still need lots of water.

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