All of Borrego Springs water comes from rain that falls to the west on the San Ysidro Mountains. In an average year 5000-acre feet of water from Coyote and Indian Creek, water you will seldom if ever see sinks into the aquifer beneath the Borrego Valley. That’s it, try as the good people living in this desert try there is no economically feasible way to get more water to the 3500 people living in this community. And don’t think that a few of the frisky rascals in this isolated desert community haven’t spitballed this problem, one plan included piping water north from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to a mythical desalinization plant built on the Salton Sea. That almost affordable plan priced out at about $690 million dollars. This piping plan promised to produce some of the most spectacularly expensive grapefruit and knuckleheads in the world.
In the 1980’s the United States Geologic Survey estimated Borrego Springs was using 20,000-acre feet of water per year, a full 15,000-acre feet more than they are getting off the San Ysidro watershed. Pumping resulted in water wells having to be drilled deeper, until you, the devil, or the Army Corp of Engineers can’t go any further. Taking the chance of this lone isolated aquifer getting pumped dry means the town, farms, golf courses, it means the whole ecosystem collapses.
Up in Sacramento agriculture and industry have fought against legislation regulating the use of groundwater. The result of all this resistance is that for decades, the farms north of Borrego Springs pumped as much free unmetered water as they wanted and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to stop them.
Wading into water politics is known as a thankless career ending task. Better to kick trouble into the courts, look the other way, change the subject, nothing good will come of getting in the middle of a dispute over water.
Then in 2014 under the gutsy aquatic jujitsu of Governor Jerry Brown the California State Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The new legislation wouldn’t take effect until 2019, first so that political careers could clear the area prior to the— all hands-on deck— to the barricades moment this new law would foment. Then, so as not to shock the state’s water system the law only gradually goes into effect year by year incrementally until 2040. Any faster and they’ll be issuing a warrant for your water thieving arrest.
The Borrego Springs aquifer depending upon who you talk to has never been better or as others worry is freaking close to collapse. California’s State Water Resources Board is concerned, there are about 150 aquifers across the state and Borrego Springs ranks as the number one worry. We are code red by one assessment and hunky dory by another. Expert hydrologists put Borrego Springs problems at the top of not just the state, but it is at the top of the nation’s list of endangered aquifers. Here is the poster child for a community that has literally been unable to do anything about the farmers north of town pumping the whole kit and caboodle into oblivion.
After decades of fighting in court the various stakeholders have come together and created a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. That was the easiest part, coming up with a plan. Pointing fingers, blaming farmers, cursing golf courses, sharing your tender mercies for black tailed jack rabbits, demanding the miserable varmints from the local water board get there you know what over to the community hall hearing and without equivocation explain what in tarnation they plan to do about this hellacious mess.
What the plan does is spread the burden out among all the various water users. That spreading out and distribution ends up being a stiletto stabbed directly into the economic aspirations of the pumping happy farmers that have long had it going their way here.
Now the agriculture stakeholders are taking acreage out of production and investing in technologically enhanced irrigation equipment. This is the fig and the leaf, the head and fake, to a crisis of Noah’s Ark proportions.
Since the climate is getting warmer and dryer none of this is likely to make the golfers happy, the grass greener or water grabbing easier. Like a husband who has vowed, there is no alternative, at some point you must get by with less or come to the point where you can’t get by at all, because there is no more water and what remains of your love life depends upon a wife that imagines you to be strong as Hercules and as virtuous as Spartacus. If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you just haven’t been married enough.
Anza Borrego Springs State Park is California’s largest. Fully one fifth of San Diego County is comprised of this pristine place. As stakeholders go the park weighs in at 585,930 acres full of roadrunners and rattlesnakes. If the aquifer in Borrego Valley was to fail all bets are off. This is the nettlesome tangle to be found here. Nowhere does it make sense to give up on twenty percent of some of the most magnificent desertscape in the world. There are no pain free solutions for the biggest water users but there is certain agony for everyone if this doesn’t get fixed and fixed right.
At United Nation’s in 2018 the world’s leaders launched a Sustainable Development Plan. The Secretary General pointed to growing demands, poor management and climate change as having increased water stresses and scarcity of water. What our global leaders are saying is that over-pumping of the aquifer in Borrego Springs is a problem found across the world.
One of the peculiarities of the challenge’s modern-day civilization confronts is the sheer size, scale, and scope of our efforts to harmonize our use of the world’s natural resources. Our economic system exerts enormous pressure on people, politics, and nations. We fix one problem then find we’ve caused another one. I’m thinking about the hydropower systems on the Columbia River and the salmon runs that then were unable to make it back to their ancestral spawning grounds. Don’t even get me started on Fukushima.
For at least two centuries we relied upon fossil fuels to power our world only to learn we are now in a race against time to deploy a new energy system for a new century while there is still time, if there is still time at all, there’s a lot at stake, and everything to lose, like the whole planet.
Human beings are not wired up to dwell on what happens when a million-acre wildfire strikes, when a Rhode Island sized iceberg breaks off from Antarctica, or when a pristine piece of California desert is brought to the brink of collapse. What does that even mean? What can anyone do? Change the subject, gripe about the minimum wage, invade a country, fret about the stock market, become a vegan, or eat veal. Looking the other way only works so long, the time comes when action becomes necessary, and inaction would be suicidal. Borrego Springs is the poster child for a place where the time on the clock, the close shave, the near miss meets the last straw.
California is a mix of seashore and desertscape, a canvas where our doers and dreamers carve out their best lives. Our citizens imagine our world’s problems to be over there, someplace else, not here, how can the most prosperous state in the union even have so much difficulty?
We say this often but these two words bounce off, they glance but don’t penetrate, we can’t wrap our minds around what it means to be living through a climate emergency, we can’t imagine ourselves being caught up in a catastrophe that is forcing us to flee for our lives, to run from wildfires to move on from where we live because the wells have run dry. Then, one morning a volcano, Mount St. Helens ejects most of its mountaintop seven miles up into the atmosphere, a spectacular unimaginable event of outrageous scale.
Centuries long megadroughts seem inconceivable, massive climate change caused migrations are for someplace else, not here, they are for over there. This human caused climate crisis can’t be happening until we all get it through are thick skulls that anthropogenic climate change is the result of what human beings have been doing. That’s the hardest part of our journey, understanding that this is our world, this is our nature, this is what is happening, what the world is now going through, what we’re doing to the world, the world we don’t just walk on, but the world we are folded into.
Ultimately this is a head trip, all dreamed up by the turning wheels inside our minds. It is cognitive, born of imagination while failing to fully appreciate the implications, that our ability to accomplish certain things can result in blowback, that what we do isn’t just dangerous, it can be outright deadly. And once we know better, once we understand what we are doing to ourselves, and then being unable to stop because we don’t want to, it is inconvenient, we’ll lose money, go broke, our lives will have to change, even if our behavior triggers a massive extinction event, even then if we can’t stop the harm we are causing, when we’ve reached that fork in the road we have to reckon morally with the likely cognitive design flaws we’ve inherited as a species.
Borrego Springs is a mirror that’s forcing us to look fearlessly heart and soul into the abyss.