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In Borrego Springs Tourism, Farming Industries Face Uncertainty With Looming Water Cuts

Owner of California Overland Joe Raffetto takes people on a short hike in Anz...

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: Owner of California Overland Joe Raffetto takes people on a short hike in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to look at wildflowers, Feb. 28, 2019.

GUEST: Geoff Poole, general manager, Borrego Water District

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Although part of San Diego County, Borrego Springs is definitely off the beaten path. The small community is a two-hour drive from downtown San Diego.

"The remoteness of ourselves — there’s no freeway coming here," said Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce President Patrick Sampson, who is also general manager of the La Casa Del Zorro resort. "If you’re going to Borrego Springs — you’re coming to Borrego Springs."

"It’s a very special place, it’s a little desert town in the middle of nowhere," said Joe Raffetto, who owns California Overland, a company that takes people on guided tours through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park using a fleet of old military trucks. "The draw for Anza-Borrego is that you’re getting away from the tourist — basically the madness of maxed out tourist destinations."

California Overland is one of two tour companies that does business inside the state park.

"This is still ... I’m fine even as a business owner being this way — but it’s still a well-kept secret," Raffetto said.

Tourism a key industry in Borrego Springs.

"San Diego primarily is our source of business and we have always been San Diego’s favorite desert destination," Sampson said. "Speaking on behalf of the chamber's 140 businesses registered in the town of Borrego Springs. The resorts, the golf courses are the predominant entities ... Food and beverage, wining and dining and the spa industry is also big here."

Locally there are 3,500 permanent residents in Borrego Springs.

"Then in high-season a lot of snowbird activity," Sampson said. "Second homeowners come back to Borrego Springs and the population grows to between 10,000 to 15,000."

Borrego Springs is surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. One of the towns biggest challenges is businesses surviving during the off-season in summer when temperatures soar to upwards of 120 degrees.

"When you go from 15,000 to 20,000 people, down to 3,500 — a lot of people close," Sampson said. "So, it’s an ongoing constant promotion of the destination."

Reported by Kris Arciaga

Businesses like California Overland rely on the high-season.

"March and April are the big months and then yeah, summer definitely tapers off and that’s the thing, is to build up those shoulder months for everybody in town," Raffetto said.

Raffetto said he wants to see Borrego Springs grow but keep its small-town feel.

"I think the future is tourism and we have to really measure it against like trying to keep out things that are the great homogenization in the rest of civilization," he said. "Like we had to battle some giant transmission lines and we want to keep chain stores, I think, out of here."

And there is another key issue Borrego Springs is dealing with.

"We’re facing a challenge with the water situation," Sampson said.

There are a handful of tree and citrus farms in Borrego Springs. The Borrego Water District reports 70 percent of the water in Borrego Springs is used for agriculture, 20 percent is used for recreation including golf courses and hotels and the rest is used by residents. But there’s a problem, the groundwater supply for Borrego is being overdrawn. And over the next 20 years water usage has to be cut by nearly 75 percent.

"That is the challenge — it’s how do we fit into the new levels of water production," Sampson said.

Sampson hopes there is a solution that would allow the farming and tourism industry to continue operating here.

"From the chamber of commerce perspective we hope there’s room for everyone as there should be," he said. "The agricultural community is the most threatened by a 70 percent anticipated reduction."

Sampson said if the tourism and farming industry were to leave there would be a drastic ripple effect in Borrego Springs.

"Let's think of the alternative — without agriculture and without golfing and without a significant role of those businesses in the economy of Borrego Springs, where will we be?"

Later this month the Borrego Water District and county of San Diego will release a draft plan on how water levels will be reduced over the next two decades.


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Matt Hoffman
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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