From Super Bloom to Super Bust: The Water Crisis that Could Kill Borrego Springs

by on March 11, 2019 · 2 comments

in Environment, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

The formal beginning of spring is just around the corner, but an unusually wet winter already has visitors flooding into Borrego Springs in search of desert sunflowers, verbena, lupine, poppies, and primrose.

Thanks to a chain of storms, the desert is green and bursting with the promise of a rare “super bloom” that will likely carpet its floor with wildflowers in and around Anza-Borrego State Park. For local Borrego Springs businesses and hotels, this event is an economic boom that floods the town with a wave of commerce and full hotel rooms.

While the town is bustling and full of life, it’s not unusual to see travelers walking past the windows of the handful of real-estate offices in town fantasizing about buying an affordable winter retreat in the sun.  Wouldn’t it be nice to retire there? So, the story goes.

But like the short-lived beauty of the super bloom, the well-being of Borrego Springs may prove to be equally transient.  Why?

As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last November, Borrego Springs is in the midst of an existential crisis:

Mostly lost in the hubbub surrounding the Nov. 6 election was the defeat of Proposition 3, an $8.8 billion state water bond.

Had it passed, Borrego Springs would have received $35 million to fallow most of the 3,800 acres of citrus and other farms in the northern part of the community.

The farms would have been purchased, the trees cut down, and the land eventually would have become part of the huge Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which surrounds the unincorporated town like dough surrounds a doughnut hole.

Those farms, some in existence for more than for 50 years, have been sucking between 70 percent and 80 percent of the groundwater from the town’s lone aquifer. Golf courses, businesses and residents use the rest.

There’s no way to pipe water into the Borrego Valley. It’s groundwater or nothing.

At stake is the very future of the community.

To add insult to injury, the main perpetrators of the water crisis aren’t even residents of Borrego Springs but agribusinesses from out of town that, despite years of knowledge about this impending disaster, have resisted pressure to surrender to the basic fact that their overconsumption of water will kill the future of the town.  As The Borrego Water Underground notes:

Less than seven percent of the agricultural land is used by families living in the valley, the rest is owned and farmed by interests outside of the valley, some being national and international corporations. The two major golf course projects, Ram’s Hill and the Borrego Country Club, only have limited occupancy and are owned by development firms. The De Anza golf course, which is a membership golf course, is owned by people who only spend the winter months here.

In fact when you break the water usage down even further than the SDUT piece does, it’s even starker, with the lion’s share of the rest of the town’s water being consumed by the golf courses and, according to The Borrego Water Underground, “Only 10% is consumed by residential users and that is well within the annual natural recharge rate of the aquifer.”

Nonetheless, absent the resources that the failed water bond would have delivered, the town’s residents (overwhelmingly composed of Mexican immigrant workers and retirees) have little political or economic clout and have been largely relegated to bystanders in their own looming local catastrophe.

Recently, the world watched in horror as Cape Town, South Africa, the country’s largest city, nearly ran out of water and served as an instructive lesson about water scarcity in the era of catastrophic climate change.  While drastic measures, saved Cape Town for the time being, it required a drastic rethinking of agricultural and other uses of water. As one farmer in the Guardian piece on the crisis described the new reality of warmer temperatures and fewer resources, “There isn’t going to be more water. We’ll have to make do with what we’ve got.”

In the case of Borrego Springs, the only reasonable response to the water crisis is to bring an end to their non-essential agribusiness and unnecessary golf courses.  If that doesn’t happen, then San Diego County’s quaint desert oasis may end up as a ghost town, a harbinger of what is to come if we continue putting our heads in the sand in response to the hard realities of the Anthropocene.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Duerksen March 11, 2019 at 2:44 pm

Oh no! Thanks for the info, Jim. This seems like a harbinger of what we Anthropoceners will have to deal with in many places. Can we redo that water bond with you writing the info for voters? And, seriously, to hell with golf!

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Chris March 11, 2019 at 6:42 pm

“In the case of Borrego Springs, the only reasonable response to the water crisis is to bring an end to their non-essential agribusiness and unnecessary golf courses. If that doesn’t happen, then San Diego County’s quaint desert oasis may end up as a ghost town, a harbinger of what is to come if we continue putting our heads in the sand in response to the hard realities of the Anthropocene.”

I wouldn’t hold my breath. I don’t see either of those entities voluntarily giving up their respective business nor do I even see them doing it under government mandate.

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