Borrego Sun - Since 1949

GSP Part 2: Land Fallowing


Last updated 10/17/2019 at 11:53am

There are six "Projects and Management Action Items" identified in the Draft Final Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) made public on Aug. 30. The ultimate goal of the GSP is to serve as a successful framework/planning document for an estimated 75% reductions in groundwater pumping from the three major pumping sectors – Agriculture, Golf Courses, and BWD – making up the Borrego water economy. The fourth of the six Action Items helps to achieve that goal: Voluntary Fallowing of Agricultural Land.

Land fallowing has been used historically as both a temporary and permanent solution to water shortages, but for such a program to work smoothly and without protracted, sometimes decades-long litigation, the most effective systems are voluntary. The extent of our aquifer overdraft, plus the fact that no other source of water is currently available, makes fallowing a necessary management action to achieve sustainability by 2040.

While conservation is encouraged in the GSP, employment of a water conservation Project and Management Actions are not nearly enough. The Borrego Valley Hydrological Model (the Model) performed by GSP consultant Dudek, Inc., ran many stimulations (see example in accompanying graphic), but the bottom line is that, assuming past is prologue in reference to climate/weather between 1960 through 2019, the Model calculates that the period 2020-2040 will reveal a net deficit of 72,000 acre-feet groundwater storage during the 20-year GSP implementation phase. However, according to the GSP, the estimated potential water savings from Ag, Recreation, and Municipal source pumping is a combined 1,455 acre-feet per year, less than 7% of the current pumping volume, estimated at 22,000 a-f/y. More reductions are needed.

The overriding objective in Borrego's land fallowing program, as expressed in the GSP, is "to convert high water use by agriculture to low water use for open space, public land, or other development on a voluntary basis."

The program proposed for the Borrego Subbasin essentially involves permanent fallowing and conversion to other land uses.

In the last 30 years, approximately 2,500 acres in the Subbasin have been fallowed, leaving about 2,600 acres in production. Recently, an additional 600 acres were fallowed as part of the water credit program. The inducement for landowners to participate is their receipt of transferable (i.e., by sale or trade) Baseline Pumping Allowances (BPA's) as part of the GSP that, in turn, will encourage cultivated lands to be fallowed.

Factors that will be considered for the fallowing program include the current extent of agriculture land and water use, the intended land and water use after fallowing, and the potential environmental impacts associated with fallowing. These include airborne emissions through wind. ~GSP

Below are the fallowing criteria set out in the GSP for determining inclusion in the program. The generalized wording of the GSP appears to allow for unique solutions to "prospective fallowing opportunities," running the gamut from vacant land restoration to a Solar project. Once fallowing is authorized, water savings begin immediately and will exist in perpetuity:

Evaluation and compliance with jurisdictional regulations already in place for vacant land;

Identification of existing prospective fallowing opportunities and anticipated environmental impacts and unintended consequences from unmanaged fallowed land;

Identification of land restoration goals;

Establishment of a uniform minimum standard to be met in fallowing agricultural lands in order to qualify for freely transferable BPAs;

Land management, inspection, and enforcement procedures;

Evaluation of future land use alternatives;

Evaluation of easements and appropriate easement language;

Development of a regulatory document;

Cost – benefit analyses; and

Programmatic and/or project-based CEQA review.

Reduced pumping is the main benefit of land fallowing. But there are others:

In addition to the benefits derived directly from reduced pumping, the program will allow for a level of land use and community planning for converted properties not otherwise available. Depending on the nature of land uses implemented, the program could result in increased recreational space or potential economic benefits from conversion of land use types.

For example, the conversion of previously fallowed land to a land restoration project that is expected to improve infiltration of storm water runoff along the Coyote Creek wash is currently being evaluated.

Now we turn to the direct and indirect costs of land fallowing. First off, there's a planning-level development cost of $103,000 for a land fallowing program, separate from GSP development costs.

The initial task is to develop a fallowing plan for a given parcel, including a "minimum standard" to be determined later. Costs will include economic valuation, conformance inspections, site stabilization, and restoration.

Three levels of stabilization/restoration were identified in the GSP, and the cost per acre-foot "will depend on the historic land use and the method of fallowing or conversion:

Level-1 – Site stabilization: $1,000 – $5,000 per acre

Level-2 – Passive Restoration: $10,000 – $25,000 per acre

Level-3 – Active Restoration: $25,000 – $50,000 per acre

Note: The GSP omitted the $5,000 – $10,000 level, but we can assume its inclusion at Level-1.

Potential sources of funding for the Voluntary Fallowing of Agriculture Program components include state grants, water rates, parcel taxes, and other mechanisms. ~GSP

Also included in the fallowing requirements is well destruction. Open wells that lead directly from the surface to the aquifer/groundwater below are an accident (or intention) waiting to happen, perhaps leading to local and then perhaps widespread contamination of our potable water by harmful and/or carcinogenic chemicals.

BWD is in the process of identifying all wells, abandoned and functional, to determine which ones need to get in the queue for abandonment.

Our next installment on the GSP will very likely focus on the Stipulated Agreement, expected to be released soon for public viewing, and will include far more detail on implementation than is contained in the Final Draft GSP.

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