Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Taking control of our water future

14th Annual Town Hall Meeting

 

Last updated 5/22/2015 at 3:24pm

When the Borrego Water District (BWD) held its 14th Annual Town Hall Meeting on March 25, Martha Deichler, BSUSD superintendent and Borrego Water Coalition (BWC) member, introduced the speakers. Deichler then set the tone of the meeting with a quote from 'The Big Thirst,' a book by Charles Fishman. "Water is one of those unusual substances that cause people to tell each other how to behave."

Jerry Rolwing, General Manager of the BWD, highlighted a brief presentation on the day-to-day workings of field operations and the general direction of groundwater management. He said the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) calculates 5,600 acre feet per year of natural recharge, which is based on sixty-five years of collected data. The BWD reflects 19,000 acre feet of water is being pumped per year in the valley. The difference is an overdraft between thirteen and 14,000 acre feet per year. The water quality program is the missing link in collecting data. "There's a need for an ongoing monitoring network. The plan is to set up and maintain a program with public and private wells. We do know that Borrego cannot afford to import water. We as a community have the opportunity to take control of our water future."

Jim Bennett, Groundwater Geologist for the County of San Diego Department of Planning and Development Services spoke next. "As most of you are keenly aware, we've been in a Drought for four years." He said there are 515 alluvial basins that have substantial amounts of groundwater in storage, in the state. In San Diego County, we have four basins named as medium priority in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The Borrego Valley Basin, being one of these, stretches out to include San Diego County, Anza-Borrego park land, and carries out all the way to Imperial County.

Bennett said the Department of Water Resources (DWR) is considering the possibility of subdividing basins. Both the County and the District are interested in this idea. The reality is that Borrego Springs is pumping most of the water, by far, from the shared basin. The first step is forming groundwater sustainability agencies. This must be done by June 30, 2017. "The local agency is defined as a public agency with water supply and water management or land use responsibilities within a groundwater basin. In Borrego Springs that by and large is the BWD and the County of San Diego."

For the significant reduction in groundwater to succeed, he said it has to be a "win-win situation all around." Bennett said he was encouraged by the, "great strides taken with the BWC and the BWD under the leadership of Jerry Rolwing. "There's been a lot of good synergy we can move forward with. How the plans will work out has yet to be determined. We're waiting for DWR to develop the Groundwater Sustainability Plan template, which should be made available by June 2016."

Bennett said the plans are currently exempt from The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but not the implementation. "There is legislation afoot to exempt the implementation portion as well." Bennett said implementing the plan, under CEQA, will require expensive environmental reports that hopefully can be avoided if this legislation is passed.

Things occurring in Borrego Springs that are not sustainable are chronic lowering of groundwater levels and reduction of groundwater storage. "Degraded water quality is something of concern as we continue to pump into deeper portions of the aquifer, but land subsidence still appears to be minimal (in the millimeter range in some areas.) As you may be aware, there's a county general plan and zoning that basically dictates what are allowable uses on various lands within Borrego Valley. This plan is not even close to something you would call sustainable."

He warned there would be a radical departure from the norm in future development projects. "There's going to have to be a great deal of thought in how to structure the ultimate development plans for Borrego Valley with reduced water resources. This is a significant challenge." He said legislation is being considered to expedite the adjudication process but, "that doesn't create an escape pod for Borrego Valley. It's still a difficult, onerous process and potentially would result in the same thing that you still have to develop a sustainable plan to move forward."

As far as DWR's upcoming guidelines, he said, "there's a lot of things we're kind of in the dark on right now. The state is committed to making this process work though, and we're committed to the county and the BWD to start taking the steps to march forward down this challenging but potentially rewarding road for Borrego to have a sustainable long term groundwater resource."

Vice President of the BWD, Lyle Brecht, said overdraft isn't really about running out of water, although there have been a few basins around the world that have run out of water. Typically, the issue is cost, he said. "We're not worried about running out of water here. It will take a long time, even with our current withdrawal rates, but if we don't manage this basin, it's going to get very, very expensive." He said he's heard a lot of complaints about the studies that have been done, but says you have to spend this kind of money to get the data to prove why and how you're doing this and to find out the costs involved.

The district has spent about a half-a-million dollars to definitively prove we have an overdraft, how much of an overdraft, and what our annual recharge is – and that is very defensible strategy. Money has also been spent to lay to rest the idea of finding water over the next hill. "There are no productive aquifers over the next hill that we can somehow run a pipeline to get water from, so we know that's not an option."

In order to have a basin that will be sustainable over a long period of time, based on U.S. Geological Survey studies, we know the net annual withdrawals must be decreased by around seventy percent. "This is huge," Brecht said. "And we need to do that in no more than twenty years, according to the legislation." As far as litigation as an option, Brecht said that although it's not terribly expensive and does produce a definitive outcome where everyone knows their water rights, it is really a delaying tactic and the outcome is uncertain.

"Part of the problem with adjudication is we have no idea how it would work out, and also, while you're litigating, it eliminates all your options for state grants to implement a plan." In addition to this he said, "we've already had conversations with foundations that say if you guys are in a war, we're not providing any funding to help you out. So basically, the community would be one hundred percent on its own financially if we were to get involved in litigation."

He said we wouldn't be speeding anything up by adjudication either, because the courts will still require a management plan. The BWC had access to this information when they put together some policies which were submitted to the county and the district. The BWC represents around eighty percent of the water users in the basin. Brecht said the Plan is likely to cost around a million-and-a-half dollars to put together. "Basically, the only defensible approach is to ask all of the basin users to pay their fair proportionate share of planning development costs." That brings up the question of what is a fair proportionate share. "Ultimately, we're going to have to make a decision as a community how we are going to pay for this."

Beth Hart, president of the BWD, spoke about the necessity of preserving the unique character of Borrego, while moving forward to address the legislative mandate to establish a sustainable water supply. "How do we do that?" she asked. "We do what we usually do in Borrego. We work cooperatively to plan our future and retain as much local control as possible. The Coalition will partner with the district to generate and provide input, and the district will continue to vet those recommendations with the community as a whole. We'll also work cooperatively with the county. We already have a defensible, scientific definition of our overdraft, a community stakeholder input process in place, a policy framework for developing a plan, and available engineering and hydrological contractors who are familiar with the Borrego Basin.

This time, it's in the county's best interest to cooperate and coordinate with Borrego, if they want to be successful in meeting the mandate." Hart went on to say that while initially this was an unfunded mandate, Prop 1 has earmarked money for planning expenses associated with the new legislation. "We will apply for grants and other funding from various governmental agencies to help us pay for the expenses associated with developing a plan. But given the state's past on willingness to fund Borrego projects, our planning will provide for paying our own way and not relying on outside sources of finance."

Finally, it comes down to what plan Borrego Springs is going to use and who's vision will be followed. Hart said, "any vision to resolve the matter must be shared; a community vision. The solution may be any combination of factors, including market forces, a series of goals with set time frames, various water projects, and efficient and effective methods of fallowing farmland. It will also include funding – initially to develop the plan and thereafter to implement it.

Funding sources for implementing the plan have yet to be defined, but our goal is to share equitably in these costs. This should be a vision that is reached through a collaborative process and creates an economically sustainable solution so there's more than water in our future. Something that will enable the community to continue to grow while managing our resource. The time is short. The task is cumbersome ... but it's Borrego ... a unique piece of real estate populated by an extraordinarily generous and supportive community. We invite you, as members of our diverse community, to join us as we draft the vision and work our way through the legislative maze ahead of us."

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