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Crisis Feared For Borrego Water Supply

Vast Underground Source Is Being Heavily Tapped

By Steve LaRue
The San Diego Union Tribune, July 3, 2000

BORREGO SPRINGS -- Just off a dirt road in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a place where it seems like the Earth itself is sighing.

The gentle chorus of rushing air that county hydrologist John Peterson hears at the head of a 400-foot well there is the sound of a half-century of exploitation of the valley's most vital resource.

"The underground water level is being drawn down, and the well is sucking in air to replace the water," he said. "We have been monitoring wells in the Borrego Valley since 1982, and water levels are falling significantly."

Mark Jorgensen, senior ecologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, said the lack of water is killing desert lants, including this honey mesquite. Photo by Scott Linnett

Except for a few rare years of heavy rain, this desert crossroads has been voraciously gulping down its precious water supply -- 90 percent of which goes to irrigate crops and keep local golf courses green.

Now, some residents fear this relentless consumption is pulling the valley closer to a potential crisis of fallow fields, damage to the desert ecosystem, salty water flowing from spigots, and dashed dreams of big-time tourism blossoming in this town with no stoplights.

The vast water basin that lies beneath the 140-square-mile Borrego Valley could be considered a desert miracle.

The basin of relatively pure water is under a remote valley where rainfall hovers around 3 to 4 inches per year, and average summer temperatures exceed 105 degrees.

Composed of gravel and fractured rocks, the basin holds much less water than a lake of its size. But it is immense.

Tens of thousands of Qualcomm Stadiums could fit inside it. The basin collects rainwater from a mountain watershed of 450 square miles. The water enters the basin in a trickle.

Federal hydrologists estimate that, when growers and developers began to aggressively pump it in the early 1940s, the basin probably held more than 5 million acre-feet of water -- more than 10 times as much water as urban San Diego County imports each year to meet about 80 percent of its water demand.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough for the domestic use of two average families for one year.

Since the 1950s, however, much more water has been pumped out of the basin -- for crops and golf courses and to slake people's thirst -- than has trickled into it.

The water level in the well that Peterson visits in the state park has fallen about 30 feet over the past 13 years, he said.

The same tumbling line can be seen on charts recording levels at monitoring wells across the valley, and this means that water levels also are falling in nearly all of the valley's 85 active wells, he said.

Not this year. Not next. Maybe not in 20 years. But at some foreseeable time, water from the underground basin is expected to become difficult and costly to pump, and to become more heavily laden with salt and other plant-killing minerals.

That's what typically happens when desert aquifers are pumped dry, geologists say.

What makes the problem potentially critical is that no other water supply is available to this isolated area. And projects to secure and import water from elsewhere often take a decade or more to complete.

"We have ranchers in this valley who are using 50 gallons per day per tree on citrus trees....It's madness" Don Robidoux, co-owner of the Borrego Valley Inn

The desert environment already may be a casualty, said Mark Jorgensen, senior ecologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

He said sinking water tables are leaving some desert trees literally high and dry.

"A mesquite forest is showing what many of us consider very high levels of mortality, and some of these individual trees that are dying are hundreds of years old," Jorgensen said.

"Even though it has among the deepest roots of any plant in the world, going down 100 feet or more, this is a sign that the ground-water basin is declining faster than the trees can keep up with it."

Original Springs Gone
Meanwhile, the original springs that gave Borrego Springs its name -- a hand-dug well used by the Spanish De Anza expedition to water its stock in 1774 -- are long gone, as are many more recent springs, Jorgensen said.

Valley tourism has not withered for lack of inexpensive ground water, but Don Robidoux, co-owner of the Borrego Valley Inn, fears it might.

"Here we have all these signs that the water is decreasing, and we have ranchers in this valley who are using 50 gallons per day per tree on citrus trees," he said.

"They have been doing this for 50 years," he said. "It's madness. Sooner or later we are going to have to face the reality that this can't continue."

Others believe the enormous underground basin still contains plenty of water, so there is time to make a master ground-water plan, and no need for radical conservation measures.

"In my well, the water has been going down a foot to a foot and a half every year, but we have about 700 to 800 feet of water below that, so we aren't going to get too excited about it," said Sam Fortiner, a director of the Borrego Water District who farms 415 acres of citrus crops.

Water in Fortiner's well has fallen from 170 feet below the surface in the 1940s to about 300 feet today, he said.

"No one really knows until you poke a hole in the ground, but I am guessing that the bottom is around 1,000 feet, and that there is about 700 feet of water left there. Just how good it will be is something else. As it draws down, I would expect higher salinity."

Image by Brian Cragin
Lower Cost
There's no financial reason to use less water, he maintains.

It costs growers such as Fortiner about $80 per acre-foot to pump irrigation water that farmers closer to the coast buy for $350 to $500 per acre-foot."It isn't a crisis at all at this state of affairs," he said.

Spectacular sunsets and crystal-clear vistas that draw the eye for miles have always enticed visitors and retirees to Borrego Springs.

That's one big reason the valley's planning group envisions a tourism mecca here in 20 years, with about 12,000 permanent residents -- four times the current population.

"We have literally not scratched the surface in terms of our tourist potential," said Linda Nordstrand, outgoing president of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce. "If you don't have water, you don't have tourists. It is an issue that just has to be dealt with."

But how?

The Borrego Water District, which covers about 43 percent of the valley and serves nearly all of its homes, has launched a two-year planning effort to study the basin and ways to bring in water from nearby areas to replenish it.

This will not be easy.

One big reason is that the water district has no authority over the private wells that irrigate valley citrus groves and fairways -- and account for 90 percent of the valley's water use.

Last year, some 22,297 acre-feet of water were pumped from underground and consumed in the valley -- two to four times the amount of water believed to seep into the aquifer each year.

Borrego Valley Inn owner Don Robidoux, standing next to a grove of grapefruit trees just north of downtown Borrego Springs, said he was worried that the large amount of water used to irrigate citrus trees was depleting the water table under the desert community. Photo by Scott Linnett

`Fossil Water'
Agricultural irrigation wells consumed 15,590 acre-feet, or 70 percent; golf courses consumed 4,435 acre-feet, about 20 percent; and residences and other businesses consumed 2,272 acre-feet, about 10 percent.

The "fossil water" being pumped out of the basin could have rested among the aquifer's deep, porous rocks for as long as 14,000 years, state officials say.

Irrigated plants in the desert require much more water than plants in cooler climates because the high heat and strong sun cause water to evaporate much faster.

The citrus trees that carpet the northern end of the valley, and make up about half of the valley's 4,300 acres of crops, are water-intensive plants, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Mature citrus trees need 45 to 50 gallons each per day in the summer in Borrego's desert climate, and a yearly average of around 30 gallons each per day, the service says.

The 400 acres of turf that cover golf courses in the valley consume as much as or more water per acre than citrus trees, the service said.

"Turf is the worst crop you could possibly grow in a desert area," said Carl Hauge, chief state hydrologist.

Even so, the valley's most recent golf course development, the Borrego Springs Resort, has computerized temperature and heat monitors that shave water use as much as 30 percent, said co-owner John Cameron.

Other Courses
"When the humidity or other aspects of the weather change, it automatically changes the sprinkler system" to reduce consumption, he said.

Other golf courses in the valley could install similar systems, but they would have to weigh the costs against revenues in a competitive golfing market, Cameron said.

He agreed with Fortiner that the ground-water basin is not close to being exhausted.

"We are drilling one well right now and hitting water at a little over 100 feet, and we have drilled down to 700 feet and still get very good water quality," he said.

"It is still cheaper water than practically anyplace."

And, he said, this water supports 75 jobs at the resort and hotel, and will make it possible to build 840 homes on 1,100 acres surrounding the course.

The opinions of growers and golf course operators are going to be important because, to be effective, a new ground-water plan is likely to need their agreement and participation.

For the Borrego Water District, finding a new water supply to replenish the ground-water basin promises to be just as difficult as finding a consensus about the valley's water use.

And Borrego 's 3,000 permanent residents may find it difficult to afford whatever project is launched to bring in more water.

No Such Authority
Some desert districts, such as the Coachella Valley Water District, are empowered by state law to tax wells on private property and levy pumping fees to finance pricey projects to restore their ground-water basins.

But the Borrego Water District has no such authority. It would have to ask growers' permission.

Fortiner predicted their reaction. "They wouldn't like it," he said.

Peterson, the county hydrologist, looked on the bright side.

"I think they have made great strides in Borrego, No. 1, in admitting they have a problem. We have spent 10 years trying to get the valley to that point, and now there is a consensus," he said.

"Everybody is using a common pool of water, and the residents should not be pointing a finger at agriculture or the golf courses."

In 1984, a state report suggested bringing in water from the Colorado River, but river entitlements shared by seven Western states already total more than the river's long-term average flow. California is under pressure to cut back its use of river water.

The Borrego district is considering tapping water under Clark Dry Lake to the east, but there's a catch. Early tests suggest that this water is nearly twice as salty as the ocean.

It could cost $13 million to obtain about 4,000 acre-feet of this water, a study says. The cost of pumping and desalting it, and piping and pumping it to where it would be used, would jack up its price to six or seven times what the district currently pays.

Said Fortiner, "It is costly, but water is going to get costly."

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