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Borrego's Thirst

Desert town is pumping itself dry

The San Diego Union Tribune, July 6, 2000

It's called Borrego Springs, but there are no springs. They dried up long ago due to extensive pumping of the ground-water aquifer beneath the baking desert floor.

The Borrego Ground Water Basin is being drained faster than it can be replenished by nature, a situation called overdrafting. It's mostly caused by heavy pumping for citrus and other water-intensive crops in the northern part of Borrego Valley.

Actually, there's overdrafting in most ground-water basins in agricultural areas in California. The Golden State pumps more ground water than any other in the nation, twice as much as the next state, Texas.

Not only does California pump more ground water, but it also has the fewest controls on ground water. In Colorado, for example, ground water belongs to the state and can be regulated to reduce overdrafting. But in California, any landowner can drill into a ground-water basin and pump as much as he wants, even if the aquifer spreads out beneath other landowners, businesses and residential areas that also use it.

So, even though the underground water level in wells around Borrego has fallen 30 feet in the last 13 years, causing desert trees that once dipped their roots into it to die of thirst, you can't tell growers to pump less.

Palm Springs has a similar underground aquifer, and the Desert Water Agency there pumps out huge amounts of water for dozens of sprawling golf courses and a growing population. But the Desert Water Agency also recharges its basin through water it buys from the nearby Colorado River Aqueduct. The Borrego Water District currently has no such opportunity to recharge its aquifer.

The district recently began a two-year study to figure out how to protect the Borrego Ground Water Basin. Currently, the water district has no authority to tax landowners who pump ground water, although that could change once a plan is completed to protect the aquifer.

All the options for Borrego are expensive. Building a pipeline from Borrego to the Imperial Irrigation District and buying Imperial Valley water might be prohibitively expensive considering that Borrego has such a small tax base. Another idea is to tap a nearby ground-water basin, although that water would have to be desalinated -- again at a very high price.

That leaves another proposal, one that might be the most economical but not very palatable to growers. The Borrego Water District could buy up the heavily water-dependent farms and fallow them. In some areas of the state with major imported water supplies, like the Imperial Valley, such talk would be considered heresy. But in Borrego, it may be a realistic alternative.

Whatever the answer, the people of Borrego Valley should realize that the current overdrafting of the ground-water basin can't continue indefinitely. Not without Borrego Springs becoming a dried-up ghost town a few decades hence.