By J. David Garmon M.D.
President, Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy 

Desert Pipe Dream


Last updated 12/2/2020 at 11:18am

“Oh, what a wondrous thing – all the free water we could want in the middle of the desert. Brought to us by that beneficent colossus of water, the San Diego County Water Authority. We can have more golf courses, green farms will carpet the valley, businesses will bloom, and Borrego will at last become San Diego’s Palm Springs,” some in Borrego might muse.

“Oh, what a wondrous thing – to be free at last of the avaricious grip of the Metropolitan Water District, that malicious monopoly of water transport that gouges us egregiously to move our Colorado River water through their pipes! With our own pipe to the Colorado River we will finally be free of their chokehold,” dream some at the San Diego County Water Authority.

But these glittering pipe dreams are very different from the harsh reality of the Regional Conveyance System (RCS) being proposed by the San Diego County Water Authority and described previously in these pages (“Chinatown” comes to Borrego; Borrego Sun, September 15, 2020). The reality is that the RCS is an enormous industrial-scale construction project that would forever change and degrade the character of the Borrego Valley, and that Borrego Springs is a pawn in the decades old struggle between the titans of water in southern California – the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the San Diego County Water Authority (CWA).


Through the Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003 the CWA secured the rights to 280,000 acre feet per year (AFY) of Colorado River water, a sizeable portion of the 450,000 AFY it wholesales to its 24 Member Agencies. The problem for the CWA is that its Colorado River water is transported to San Diego through pipes owned by the MWD, for a price. The current wholesale rate for transporting Colorado River water through MWD pipes to San Diego is $482/acre foot, or about $135 Million Dollars per year, when/if the CWA receives its full allotment of water. Thus, CWA’s dream of having their own pipe.

In June 2019, the CWA took the first step toward making its pipe dream a reality when it authorized $3.9 Million Dollars for a two-phase study of the feasibility of building its own pipe from the Colorado River to San Diego. The first phase of the study – Phase A – was released in August 2020 and identified a route that passes through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the community of Borrego Springs – the “Northern Alignment,” or Route 3A – as the preferred route because it would be cheaper to operate than other routes that do not go through the State Park or Borrego Springs. Route 3A begins near the Salton Sea and passes through the State Park and Borrego Springs before entering a 47-mile-long tunnel to the CWA’s Twin Oaks facility near Escondido.

The Hook

The CWA would like to attract “partners” to share some of the cost of the project. The Phase A report identifies Borrego Springs as one of those potential partners and mentions the possibility of building the RCS big enough to accommodate 20,000 AFY of water for Borrego Springs. The prospect of getting Colorado River water has caused a few in Borrego to have pipe dreams of their own.

Borrego becomes an Industrial Construction Site

Far from the beautiful dream of a verdant Borrego Valley awash in plentiful, cheap water, the RCS would transform Borrego into an industrial construction site for 15 years. The authors of the RCS report estimate it would take 25 years to complete this project – 10 years for planning, permitting, and land acquisition and 15 years for construction. If the RCS were to be built along Route 3A, much, if not the majority, of the construction would occur in the Borrego Valley.

Borrego’s transformation into an industrial construction site would begin with the digging of a trench from near the south end of the Salton Sea to Tubb Canyon (Fig. 1), or to Palm Canyon (Fig. 2), or to Glorietta Canyon (Fig. 3), or to Rams Hill (Fig. 4). This trench would be 38 miles long, 20 feet deep, and a “minimum width” of 35 feet. The trench would contain a pressurized pipe 8.5 feet in diameter. Miles of this trench would pass through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park before entering the community of Borrego Springs.

Once at Tubb, Palm, or Glorietta Canyon, or at Rams Hill, the next section of the RCS would be a tunnel 14 feet in diameter that would extend for 47 miles under the Coastal Mountain Range to a CWA facility near Escondido. Digging this tunnel would produce approximately 1.5 million cubic yards of rock waste. The authors of the Phase A report propose to truck this waste to the Salton Sea. Transporting 1.5 million cubic yards of rock waste through Borrego would require one dump truck rumbling through town every hour of every day and every night for 13.5 years.

Because the RCS would be pumping water uphill from the Salton Sea to San Diego, it would require three enormous pumping stations, one of which would be in Borrego Springs. (Figs. 1 – 4) The pumping station in Borrego would have its own electrical substation and would occupy a 10-acre site, of which four acres would be a forebay, or pond, to store water before it is pumped into the tunnel. The pump house itself would be by far the largest building in Borrego. It would house four 12,500 horsepower pumps that would run night and day sending water to San Diego.

Because Borrego doesn’t have enough electricity to power such a pumping station, a 230 kV powerline would have to be built to bring electricity to Borrego from the outside. This new line would transect the Park like the Sunrise Powerlink proposed to do over a decade ago.

The Cost of Colorado River Water

The CWA is not a charitable organization. It is not in the business of giving away water, nor is it in the business of transporting water for free. The Phase A report is explicit that Borrego would have to find “a third party” willing to sell 20,000 AF of Colorado River water. Because the Colorado River is over-allocated and because Climate Change is expected to reduce the annual flow of the Colorado River, senior rights to Colorado River water are not available and junior rights are not reliable over the 40 – 50 year time frame Borrego would need. Nevertheless, if water rights to 20,000AFY could be purchased, the price would be in the range of $10 – 30 million per year. Additionally, Borrego would have to pay CWA to transport this water through the RCS at a cost estimated to be in the $5 – 10 million per year range.

Because Colorado River water is of such poor quality compared to the water from our aquifer, Borrego would have to build, pay for, and treat it at a new multimillion dollar water treatment facility before it could be put into the Borrego Water District’s existing distribution pipes. Alternatively, this essentially non-potable River water could be distributed to farms and golf courses through a new distribution system that could be built at the cost of many millions of dollars.

So, Borrego would be looking at capital costs of $5 – 10 million for either a new water treatment plant or an alternative distribution system for the River water. These capital costs would be in addition to the $15 – 40 million required annually to purchase and transport 20,000AF of Colorado River water.

Time Frame

If Borrego were to endure the environmental devastation this industrial construction would bring to the Park and to the community, if Borrego could pay tens of millions of dollars annually to purchase and transport Colorado River water, if Borrego could spend millions of dollars to make Colorado River water usable, the RCS would not deliver the first drop of water to Borrego until 2047, which is seven years after Borrego will have reduced its water consumption to its “sustainable yield” of 5,700 AFY, as mandated by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.

The Path to Sustainability

Because of its geographically fortuitous location in the middle of a thousand square miles of wilderness, Borrego can thrive and compete as a destination community and preserve its special ‘sense of place’ without selling out to anyone’s pipe dream. Borrego has already begun implementing its plan – the Stipulated Agreement – to achieve water sustainability. Borrego’s wells are now metered, a WaterMaster Board has been empaneled, and the lawsuit required to enforce the Stipulated Agreement has been initiated. The Stipulated Agreement is a workable plan that provides enough water for recreation and accommodates reasonable population and economic growth for our town’s future.

Future Menace

At its November 19, 2020 Board meeting, the CWA received a preponderance of public comment, both from civic leaders in Borrego and from rate payers in San Diego, opposing further expenditure of taxpayer money to study the RCS proposal. Nevertheless, the motion to spend an additional $1.3 million to fund Phase B of the study passed by one vote. Staff of the CWA have 12 – 18 months to complete Phase B.

J. David Garmon, M.D.

President, Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy