Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Rebecca Falk 

Viewpoint: Let's Talk Water


Last updated 1/23/2020 at 12:11pm

By the time you read this, the Stipulation Agreement (AKA Stipulation Judgment) will have been released to the public. We are told by the Borrego Water District (BWD) that it is very good news that we have agreement amongst the major pumpers, including BWD, about how to bring our aquifer to sustainable use by 2040, as the state law (SGMA) requires.

So why don’t I feel like celebrating?

As someone who agreed to serve as the representative for our local land use planning group (Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group) to the advisory committee for a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP), I served from March 2017 to October 2019, attending long public meetings, reading and trying to follow relevant documents, attending BWD meetings, and in general trying to take my role seriously in providing a voice for the community in the shaping of our water plan. The thoughts that follow are my own as an individual, though of course informed by that experience.

I have been disheartened that the public process for discussing and shaping a water plan for Borrego in compliance with state law was abandoned in disdain of the kind of public participation that had begun in 2017. By early 2019, private talks with representatives of farmers and golf courses about their “water rights” were happening and they quickly ended up becoming private talks about all potentially controversial parts of a water plan. Plans for water reductions, water trading, fallowing, conservation, water quality and transfers of water within the basin (intrabasin transfers) were now the subject of private negotiations instead of being publicly discussed and decided.

BWD and the County of San Diego formed a partnership in 2017 to address our critically overdrafted basin and to hold a public process to create a Groundwater Sustainability Plan for our water use. They received funds from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to help with that public process. But when the farmers decided not to cooperate publicly, not to release data on their water use publicly, and in general not to agree to discuss issues publicly, that process was abandoned, and those of us volunteering our time and concern on the committee formed to create our water plan through a public process, were left with no decisions to discuss or make. Instead we became witnesses to presentations about hydrogeology and information about our basin setting – all important as documentation for and from experts about our basin – but not the same as the decision-making process we thought we had volunteered to join. We were finally informed about the extent of these private negotiations in July of this year, and we had only one meeting after that July meeting. The group was disbanded at the next, final meeting on October 4.

Why does this matter? Why isn’t it good enough that an agreement has been reached?

Think about it for a minute. In a room with lawyers and representatives of AAWARE (the organization that represents farmers in the Valley), Rams Hill, La Casa, and BWD, decisions about how water will be assigned, traded, held, reduced, and how fallowing (cutting down trees of farms no longer in business) will occur, how related environmental issues will be handled, and more, have all been negotiated and decided by a handful of people with no public input. BWD says it represents members of the community who buy water from it, but BWD has shut out community input during this process.

But isn’t the Stipulation Agreement that was privately negotiated, a good plan nevertheless?

After all, it includes as an attachment a somewhat modified Groundwater Sustainability Plan that was mostly worked on in public.

We won’t really know the impact of this plan until we read the documents once they are released. But we’ve been told some things about it. Every time proposals have been made to include safeguards for Borrego in a water plan, we are told by this group of negotiators and their lawyers that there could be an expensive law suit if we press the matter, or that it would be difficult legally to follow those proposals. For instance, the idea of setting aside enough water for the town’s residences and businesses before considering water reductions has been dismissed in this way. Substantial anti-hoarding and anti-monopoly provisions for water were not included, although there is some provision that requires some amount of land holding that must accompany water holding, we are told, but this sounds like a weak provision given current land costs.

Do we really have any other choice?

Yes, we do. We could allow the state water board to step in to start enforcing mandatory metering and reporting of water use by major pumpers, as a preliminary to either continued enforcement and imposition of other measures by the state, or an insistence that there be cooperation to come to a publicly informed agreement. BWD could hold firm on more benefits for the town, instead of compromising in order to get agreement from all pumpers and instead of giving in to the threat of law suits.

Did you ever hear the expression “If you aren’t at the table, you are likely on the menu”?

That is what I think has happened with our water plan. The public wasn’t, in the end, at the table, and our water and therefore what happens in our town in the future, is on the menu of the private negotiators and their lawyers. And they seem to be already making agreements and plans to act on the knowledge they have that we haven’t had – accumulation of water rights, lucrative sales of water rights, and plans to develop that might seem counterintuitive for a desert town with a sole-source aquifer that has to reduce its water use by 75% over the next 20 years.

But won’t it all balance out because we can only use 5,700 acre feet per year by 2040 instead of the approximately 20,000 acre feet per year that is pumped now?

Our town matters, not only the number of acre feet per year that is pumped from our aquifer. Do we as a town want to have 1/10th of the total water we can use in 2040 for the whole town go to a new golf course? What happens to the existing golf courses, the communities built around them, the people that work there, and the school district that the attendance of those workers’ children makes possible? Shouldn’t community members’ perspectives play a part in how water is traded, held and assigned (allocated) and who gets to own the rights for big percentages of our water? Don’t we get a say in matters that will affect our water rate increases? The already-negotiated Stipulated Agreement decides the rules for water matters and we will be left scrambling to deal with its consequences.

Full article in the Nov. 28 issue of the Borrego Sun.

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