Stephen Kent

Borrego Springs, a small town in the harsh desert of Southern California, is an example of how denial, competing interests and a lack of urgency can block solutions to a critical public problem.

The town is depleting its desert aquifer and is in danger of running out of water unless its use is greatly curtailed. Located in the desert mountains and badlands, it has no source of water other than the underground supply.

Water levels in many wells have fallen 20 feet to 30 feet and, in an extreme case, 50 feet in the past 10 years. A team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, is looking at what it would take to achieve a sustainable water balance.

A significant question in the study is this: Why didn’t the stakeholders in the community, who have had data on the over-pumping of water for about 30 years, come up with a plan before?

The same question might be asked on the federal level: What has blocked a comprehensive immigration plan? What more needs to be learned before action?

In Borrego Springs, agriculture uses 70 percent of the water supply, golf courses 20 percent, and 10 percent is domestic use.


The solutions: let land now used for citrus groves lie fallow. But who pays for the lost fruit production? There are five golf courses in the area. Greatly reducing water to them would result in bone dry dead grass. Property values of homes built near the courses would crash.

“We know that we have to do something different and either we can essentially fight each other over limited resources or we can get together hopefully as a community and say we’re all in the same boat here,” said Lyle Brecht, vice president of the Borrego Water District. “So it’s not a matter of having the golfers against the farmers or the farmers against the residents. It’s a matter of is there some way we can work together to move forward into the future so that we build a future worth living in?”

Borrego Springs finally has come to grips with its problem. It now sees the light and is motivated for action. Time for indecision is over. The town is drying up. Something must be done. There are known and immediate consequences.

This type of thinking could be used in the stalemate over creating a comprehensive immigration plan for the United States.

Congress has neglected the issue for years. President Barack Obama recently said he is seeking ways to “conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the laws.”

The House then passed two bills to block this type of executive action. House Speaker John Boehner said anything Obama does to bypass Congress could severely damage the prospect of passing comprehensive immigration reform.

As water levels in Borrego Springs continue to sink, pressures to reform immigration continue to grow. Immigrants being held in detention centers are engaged in hunger strikes. Advocacy campaigns involve fasting, prayer and public action.

The fight for immigration reform is on a path to the next level, employing the assertive tactics it took to enact civil rights laws. The parallels are becoming more and more apparent. Fasts and vigils escalated into sit-ins, marches and violence in the streets against an intransigent Congress.

Borrego Springs is running out of water. The country is running out of patience.

It is time to act.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: