VIEWPOINT: If It's To Be It's Up To Thee
Last updated 12/20/2022 at 11:54am
“The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart…” W. B. Yeats
Ensuring a future water supply is inarguably the most important issue facing Borrego Springs; it is arguably the only one for if not successfully achieved then, in a relatively short time, nothing else will matter.
The Stipulated Judgement/Groundwater Management Plan is a significant step toward that end, but only that. It is a work-in-progress and the many decisions still to be made about its implementation will determine what kind of community Borrego Springs will be; even, conceivably, if it will be. To ensure the best outcome the Borrego Springs WaterMaster Board (WMB), charged with making those decisions, must always act without fear or favor and in the cold light of day.
In April 2020, however, Rebecca Falk, who served on the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) Advisory Committee, began reporting on WMB meetings for the Borrego Sun to keep the citizenry informed of the board’s doings. She did so faithfully and well until, at the January 2021 WMB meeting, she expressed concern about lack of transparency in the board’s machinations. By Falk’s telling, the WMB Chair brusquely dismissed her concerns and “made it clear that he won’t respond to a serious inquiry from me in a public meeting and no one objected.” Falk’s reports on the WMB ended.
Minutes of the February 2021 WMB meeting reference a motion to “correct” the minutes of the January meeting by replacing language describing the above incident with: “The Chair declined to have further discussion on the topic.” The motion carried unanimously and the published minutes of the January meeting contained only the anodyne substituted language. We are not privileged to know what was replaced.
When Falk quit reporting on the WMB nearly two years ago, the Borrego Sun stopped covering its activities and it has effectively gone dark. There has been no indication of public concern about the WMB’s now nearly opaque maneuvering.
The BWM has also been slow to acknowledge and address the effect of California’s extraordinary Drought, now in its third year, on the sustainable yield of the aquifer which is almost certainly being reduced. If the basin is to stay on track to sustainability by 2040 as required by California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) recharge and withdrawals should, so far as possible, be synchronized in real time.
Given this history, the recent, inexplicable incident wherein the BWM acted against guidance from its own staff and Technical Committee, BWD, and possibly a provision of SGMA in granting a well permit without the recommended requirement to prevent contamination of groundwater is worrisome. The Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group formally objected to BWM’s action alleging that it sets a precedent inimical to groundwater quality in the Basin as a whole.
The WMB is not a democratically elected body in the usual sense. It is instead a kind of oligarchy comprising representatives of interest groups selected by those groups to protect their interests. Minutes of WMB meetings appear to be cursory, euphemistic, sanitized, slow to be published, and thus inadequate to allow, never mind facilitate, public oversight of the board.
Falk previously urged that implementation of the Stipulated Judgment not be allowed to deteriorate into private negotiations that ensure control of the process by those whose profligate use of water over more than 60 years led to the very problem the Stipulated Judgment is intended to solve, i.e., pumpers. Good advice. But if that is to be avoided, citizens of Borrego Springs must assert themselves and take direct responsibility for protecting the community’s interests. While a Judge oversees implementation of the Stipulated Judgment, she/he cannot possibly closely monitor it, so it falls to townsfolk to speak up if things threaten to go wobbly.
Borrego’s groundwater crisis developed over more than six decades despite steadily increasing, publicly available, incontrovertible, scientific evidence that the aquifer was being mined at an unsustainable rate. From time to time a member or members of the community raised the issue and tried to persuade decision-makers to address it. They were ignored – and could be ignored – because they were so few.
The Stipulated Judgment will, if successful, finally reduce groundwater pumping to the sustainable yield of the aquifer – in 20 years. But, in the oft quoted words of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Success will require a sizable cadre of informed, persistent, actively involved citizens to hold decision makers accountable. Borregans’ historical “Let George do it” attitude toward groundwater management obviously won’t cut it. The first two years of Borrego’s last, best hope is, in light of history, not an auspicious beginning.
– Florence, Oregon