"The last great frontier," people called it. "The next Palm Springs." "The desert of plenty."
It was the mid 1950s, and Borrego Springs—a tiny unincorporated community located smack in the middle of the sprawling Anza-Borrego Desert—was poised to become California’s next great oasis. The town had already begun to make a name for itself as a thriving farming outpost; as Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley suburbanized rapidly to the north, the state’s agriculture had been pushed farther and farther inland, and by the 1940s the dusty plains of the Borrego Valley boasted acres of grapes, gladiolas, citrus. Now, the town’s founders sought to follow in the footsteps of nearby Palm Springs, developing the community’s tourism industry in hopes of making it a verdant playground for the urban elite. Country clubs and golf courses started cropping up left and right. To Borrego’s founders, the town’s future seemed as ripe for the picking as one of the DiGiorgio farms’ famously early table grapes.
What was it about this desert’s seemingly barren plains that allowed boosters’ imaginations to run wild? In a 1964 promotional video for Borrego, actor Gale Gordon of I Love Lucy explained the secret behind the valley’s unique appeal.
"Borrego Springs is not just any desert," he says, his baritone voice booming over a montage of luscious foliage.
For it has one highly desirable element that sets it apart from others. It makes man’s labors in the sun fruitful, and the soil rich with life-giving nourishment. It is the one single element that has brought more men to the desert throughout history than any other attraction. It is an attraction that most city dwellers take for granted, and yet without it, the desert, even this one, would be a wasteland …
As a plaid-shirted man with a divining rod hobbles his way towards a sweeping desert vista, the music swells, and Gordon’s voice reaches a final crescendo.
That attraction, that magic element, sought by explorers and robust pioneers, gentlemen farmers and scientists is—very simply—water.
For deep below the flats of the Borrego Valley lies one key feature that separates it from the barren desert that surrounds it—an enormous, multi-tiered aquifer that is capable of storing thousands of acre-feet of water. What the town’s early boosters didn’t know was that this "magic element," once their town’s greatest asset, would eventually result in one of its bitterest disputes. The future of Borrego Springs is essentially dependent on the future of its aquifer, and today, if the town’s citizens don’t find a way to cut their water use by about 70 percent, this small town is in danger of sucking it dry.
It’s been over five decades since that video was made, and Borrego has not lived up to the future that its founders envisioned. Visitors, clutching their steering wheels with white knuckles as they make their way along the treacherous curves of the Montezuma Pass, look down to see not the sprawling glamour of a midcentury resort community, but a modest system of roads sketched lightly onto the valley’s sandy plains like a half-finished blueprint.
Borrego had its moment as a celebrity getaway, purportedly attracting the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and John Wayne, but today a large portion of its 3,500 or so residents are just retired snowbirds who want a warm place to escape to for the winter, or aging nature junkies who have chosen to live out the rest of their days birdwatching and backcountry camping in the surrounding wilderness. The dusty main drag in the middle of town features a quaint array of coffee shops and small-town markets, and the architecture expresses only the faintest hint of the modernist dreams that Borrego gave up many years ago.
The town’s modest fate might be attributed to a number of factors. It isn’t on the route of a major highway, and its location in the center of a state park makes any real expansion impossible. But there is one other factor that has prevented Borrego’s growth in contemporary times, and it’s the same element that put stars in the eyes of its developers so many years ago. In November of 2015, a report conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that Borrego could run out of usable drinking water in as little as 50 years and, perhaps more importantly, that nearly three-quarters of the water being sucked out of the town’s underground aquifer—which provides 100 percent of its water—is being used not to wash dishes and water lawns, but to irrigate the nearly 2,000 acres of farmland that are cultivated year-round in the northern part of the valley.
In recent decades, around 6.5 billion gallons of water have been drawn from the aquifer every year, with only around 1.8 billion gallons replenished naturally. In addition to the 70 percent of this water that’s being used for agriculture, the town’s golf courses and resorts consume another 20 percent, meaning that residents are responsible for only 10 percent of the total water used.
While the fact that Borrego’s water supply is in danger came as little surprise to the environmental activists who have been warning about this problem since the 1980s, the dramatic nature of these USGS figures has imbued the situation with unprecedented urgency. To make things even more complicated, in 2014 California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This act, for the first time in the state’s history, allows for the regulation of groundwater on privately owned land, and requires that all underwater aquifers in a state of "overdraft" be brought to sustainability within the next several decades.
Since it has been determined that Borrego is using nearly four times more water than is replenished naturally each year, this town has a long way to go. By the year 2040, Borregan farmworkers, business owners, and townspeople must completely reorient their economy and their way of life, or else they run the risk having their tiny desert community return to dust.
Part One: The Activist
Palm Canyon, which lies just to the west of Borrego proper, is home to one of the major streams that "recharges" the town’s underground aquifer, and it also happens to be home to one of the state park’s most popular hiking trails. Ray Shindler, a notoriously outspoken water conservationist in town, takes this hike just about every week, and one breezy Friday I ask him if I can tag along.
When Ray and his wife LuAnn moved to Borrego Springs in 2003, he was newly retired and looking for a place where they could live a life that was quiet and calm—but not too calm. Ray Shindler, any Borregan will tell you, has "a lot of opinions." And, Shindler himself will tell you, a number of those opinions have to do with agriculture.
"It’s important for you to know," he cautions me, "that I am probably the biggest critic of farmers in this town."
As someone who spent his childhood on a wheat and cattle ranch in eastern Washington state, where his family has been homesteading since the 1800s, Shindler knows the agrarian way of life. For 17 years he was a lobbyist in the Washington State Legislature, working on behalf of wheat growers, asparagus farmers, and many other farming interests. Shindler says that his lifelong relationship with the agriculture industry has only strengthened his animosity towards Borrego’s farmers.
"It was very disappointing for me to come here and see all these farmers that have no regard for their environment, for the water situation, or for the other people that live here."
The severity of Borrego’s water situation first became clear to Shindler in 2004, when he started attending water board meetings to find out why the cost of installing a water meter on his still-under-construction home had just doubled. It was at one of these meetings that he met Dennis Dickinson, a longtime water activist and the founder of a website called The Borrego Water Underground, which he created to "inform and warn … anyone interested in this unique community and its fragile desert environment of the dire and rapidly deteriorating groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley." As Dickinson opened Shindler’s eyes to Borrego’s rapidly decreasing well levels, Shindler grew concerned about the long-term sustainability of his new home and decided to join Dickinson in the fight to save Borrego’s aquifer.
"A lot of things had been said before. ‘Get rid of the farmers and we’ve solved our problem.’ There’s still an attitude like that among some of the population."
For years, the two men—along with their good friend Dick Walker—were some of the only community members that consistently showed up for water board meetings, which can make a big difference in a small town with an independent water district and no municipal government.
At the water meetings, the men worked to raise awareness about the overdraft, to replace the team of water board members that had nearly bankrupted the agency by incurring a $6 million deficit, and to demand transparency in negotiations over how to allocate water after the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed.
Dickinson eventually grew tired of the town’s isolated location and 100-plus-degree summers, and recently relocated to the more habitable climate of Florence, Oregon. Shindler, however, plans on sticking around for a while, and continues to fight the good fight. He attends every water meeting he can and is working to organize a ratepayers’ group, which he hopes will allow for more community representation in the water board’s discussions. He fears that if the farmers in Borrego don’t either pack up and leave, or else make some radical changes to the way they are doing things, the natural beauty that initially attracted him and his wife to this town simply won’t be around for much longer.
As we begin to make our way up the Palm Canyon trail, LuAnn issues a running commentary on the area’s local flora and fauna. A sturdy and compact woman with a practical sandy blonde bob, she works as an educator for the park surrounding the town, and it’s obvious that she loves what she does. Even on her day off, with her uniform hung up at home and a "Life is Good" baseball cap settled snuggly on her head, she can’t help but slip into ranger mode. To most, a cluster of four o’clocks—tiny purple flowers no bigger than thumbnails—might not seem like an extraordinary sight, but in the eyes of LuAnn, the fact that anything can survive in these conditions is cause for celebration.
A riparian environment like Palm Canyon, LuAnn informs me, is fairly rare in a desert like Anza-Borrego. Because of the height of the surrounding mountains, clouds and rainfall accumulate at the top of the canyon and trickle down its slope in a narrow stream, allowing for a multitude of birds, bugs, and even bighorn sheep to thrive along its banks. As this water reaches the valley, it sinks into the sand and continues its path underground, where it is well-protected from contamination and evaporation, until it finally reaches the aquifer below.
When we are about halfway up the alluvial fan at the base of the canyon, Ray draws my attention away from the captivating musings of his wife and gestures towards a pile of dead palm trees. I slowly realize that these enormous tree carcasses, most of which are stripped bare or broken in half, are scattered throughout the canyon as far as the eye can see.
"Take a guess about how those got there," he grins.
"... Water?" I ask.
He nods. The water in Borrego, it seems, giveth and taketh away. Shindler says that in 2004, a "hundred-year" flash flood ripped through Palm Canyon, and a 20-foot-high wall of water obliterated a large portion of what was once one of the largest groves of native fan palms in the state. A number of homes were damaged as well, and LuAnn and other park rangers spent weeks cleaning up the debris.
As we step over and around the flood’s casualties and make our way farther into the canyon’s mouth, a verdant streak suddenly appears, contrasting sharply with the brownish hues that surround it on every side. We have finally reached the river itself, and in the distance, what remains of the diminished palm grove looms surreally, an almost cartoonishly perfect desert oasis.
"Sometimes it’s nice to see something green," says LuAnn.
Part Two: The Scientist
It’s true that you don’t see much green in the Borrego Valley today, but this hasn’t always been the case. Three million years ago, the plains of Anza-Borrego were home to a sprawling grassland and the native Washingtonia filifera trees tucked away in Palm Canyon are relics of this time. As you drive along the long, flat expanses of road on the fringes of town, you’ll find that the plains are peppered with tributes to this area’s Pliocene past—saber-tooth tigers, wild horses, and other prehistoric creatures, intricately rendered in rusted sheet metal, crop up from the hard brown dirt for as far as the eye can see, part of a massive art project by Temecula-based welder Ricardo Breceda, installed beginning in 2008.
These 128 sculptures—which also depict several other scenes from California history, as well as a dragon—are a popular tourist attraction in the park and a source of pride for many locals. John Peterson, a hydrologist and longtime Borrego resident, is no exception, and as we drive north of town on one sweltering Saturday afternoon in search of water wells, he insists that I see a few of these works up close.
"We’ve got to stop at this one, it’s one of the more famous ones," he says as he jerks his green truck to the side of the road and parks next to the enormous dragon sculpture, which, despite being crafted out of several tons of rusted metal, seems nimble and nearly alive.
"If you have plenty of water to drink, but you can’t drink it because it’s harmful, you don't have enough water."
Peterson is in awe of the intricate craftsmanship and—while this particular piece is of course not a real extinct creature—his fervor for Breceda’s work seems appropriate. He is a man who feels most comfortable surrounded by ancient things. The small house that he lives in in Borrego’s Roadrunner Club feels like a tiny natural history museum—the colorful, droughtscaped rock garden in his front yard stands out next to the green lawns that many of his neighbors choose to maintain, and his living room shelves are covered with sparkling arrangements of fossils, minerals, and artifacts.
As we stand next to the dragon, he informs me that we are directly atop the town’s much-contested aquifer. He stoops over and picks up a handful of sand.
"See this sand? It’s really clean. These types of rocks store a lot of water. Look at this," he says, sifting it around in his hand. "It’s beautiful sand."
The makeup of this valley, Peterson says, is perfect for storing water, thanks to both its sand and its shape. Essentially, the Borrego aquifer is an underwater "bowl," which contains sediments, clays, and silts that become saturated with water from sources like Palm Canyon. This fresh water resides in the upper levels of the aquifer, and is what Borregan townspeople and farmers use on a day-to-day basis. As the water levels continue to drop lower and lower, it will become impossibly expensive to access. And, perhaps more importantly, Peterson fears that there is a good chance that the water found in the aquifer's lower levels will contain harmful minerals such as arsenic, a problem that many groundwater-dependent towns in places like California’s Central Valley are already contending with.
"If you have plenty of water to drink," he says, "but you can’t drink it because it’s harmful, you don't have enough water."
After we finish admiring Breceda’s artwork, we hop back in Peterson’s truck and he tells me to keep my eyes peeled for a rusty overturned bucket out amongst the scrub brush—the only thing marking the abandoned well where we are to take a water level reading.
It’s been a while since he’s done this. He’s retired, and nowadays they pay someone else to do the job. However, back in the early 1980s—before anyone had so much as uttered the word "overdraft"—he was the only guy who seemed to be paying attention to Borrego’s water levels at all. Around this time, the town once again became interested in expanding its tourism industry, but there was some concern about whether the aquifer was fit to sustain that kind of development. Peterson, then an employee of San Diego County, began driving down from his former home in La Jolla about every four months to measure the town’s water levels.
Weakened by their lack of water, the mesquite roots are no longer able to hold these sand dunes intact, and for years he has been watching this unique desert environment literally float away with the wind.
He would find abandoned wells, like the one we’re looking for, in undeveloped parts of the valley, many of which dated back hundreds of years. Slipping the long black cord of his water level indicator down into the earth, he would wait for the loud buzzing sound that meant it had touched water, and would check the color-coded markers on the cord to figure out its level. With time, he noticed that the groundwater was steadily decreasing—but it took him nearly a decade to convince anyone that there was a problem. Some of the wells he kept track of have dropped around 100 feet by this point.
"The water levels don’t lie," he says. "If your bank account is going down, that means you're spending more money than you're putting in—duh. And it’s the same with the aquifer."
When, after a long time looking, we finally locate the overturned bucket, we are disappointed to find out that someone—perhaps the landowner—has capped the well. Giving up on taking the level for now, Peterson offers instead to take me on a tour of the rest of the northern section of the valley, which is where much of Borrego’s agricultural industry is located. As we weave through the farmland, we look out at the fields of grapefruit, lemons, and palm trees, some of which farmers have already begun to leave fallow in order to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, but most of which are still lush and green, false oases that far exceed the real one I’d seen in Palm Canyon the week before.
Suddenly, the wall of foliage ends and a huge expanse of what appear to be abandoned grape fields drifts into view. As the rows of rusty, cross-shaped stakes float by with a foreboding rhythm, John tells me that these are the remains of the DiGiorgio table grape operation. In the mid 1930s, the developer Alphonse A. Burnand Jr.—commonly referred to as the "father of Borrego Springs"—began his mission to develop the valley, and one of the first companies he convinced to invest in agricultural land was the DiGiorgio Fruit Company. For nearly a decade and a half, Robert DiGiorgio was one of the largest landholders in the valley, and his success in yielding the earliest grapes in the country played a major role in attracting other agricultural interests to the area.
However, despite the farm’s ability to produce grapes quickly, the wind and heat proved to be mostly inhospitable to the grapevines, and the company rarely turned a profit. But it seems that the straw that broke the camel’s back was DiGiorgio’s unwillingness to allow the fruit workers to unionize. In 1966, Cesar Chavez organized one of his first strikes in Borrego, and DiGiorgio decided he would rather shut off his pumps than offer the farmworkers the rights they demanded.
Looking out at these fields, the remains of this town’s troubled history are as plain as day, but it’s hard not to see something of Borrego’s possible future here as well. In Peterson’s opinion, the only real hope for Borrego’s survival is for the farmers and their critics to try and reach some sort of understanding—it’s clear that the agricultural industry needs to undergo some major changes, but these farmers have their rights too.
"We’re all pumping out of the same pot and we all have to work together," he says. "It’s not their problem. It’s our problem."
Part Three: The Farmer
Just down the road from the defunct DiGiorgio fields, there is a farm that is very much alive and well, and—if Jim Seley has anything to say about it—it’s going to stay that way for a very long time. Seley is a 76-year-old farmer whose family has been growing citrus in the Borrego Valley for nearly half a century, and he has every intention of passing all 400 acres of his ranch’s grapefruit, lemon, and tangerine trees on to another generation.
When Seley’s father bought this farm in 1957, Borrego was just barely a town, and Seley was just barely a man—he was 21 years old and was just learning how to navigate the role of husband and father.
"We were a good Catholic family," Seley smiles slyly. "We had our daughter 11 months after we were married."
Seley and his new wife soon moved from his hometown of San Marino to Borrego, where he was to take on yet another role that was brand new to him—manager at his father’s new ranch. He refurbished the house that already stood on the property—a low, flat, ranch-style number with three bedrooms and a neatly manicured front lawn—and started working 18-hour days. Not because the work was especially time-consuming, but because, as he puts it, "I didn’t know what I was doing."
He figured it out, though, and pretty soon the farm’s "Seley Reds" grapefruit became renowned for its extra sweet red flesh, which requires no sugar to enjoy. Though Seley only spent about a year actually living on the land (his wife felt bored and listless living in such an isolated place and his father needed help with other aspects of his business back in the city), Seley has maintained control of the farm since the 1960s, and continues to drive three and a half hours to check up on things several times a month.
Seley says he doesn’t remember hearing much talk about water conservation at all until the late 1990s, and it wasn’t until four years ago that the California Department of Water Resources required that Borrego’s major water users form a coalition to prepare for the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Seley and two other farmers were asked to represent the agriculture industry, and he says that, at the early meetings, everyone was fairly guarded.
As we weave through the farmland, we look out at the fields of grapefruit, lemons, and palm trees, some of which farmers have already begun to leave fallow, but most of which are still lush and green, false oases that far exceed the real one I’d seen in Palm Canyon the week before.
"A lot of things had been said before," he said. "‘Get rid of the farmers and we’ve solved our problem.’ There’s still an attitude like that among some of the population."
Some community members—including Ray Shindler and Dennis Dickinson—criticized the entire idea of the coalition, claiming that the proceedings were too secretive and didn’t provide enough representation for the town’s ratepayers. On Dickinson's website, he refers to the group as the "Borrego Water Cabal" and writes of their intentions to "divvy up" the remaining water in the Borrego Valley aquifer—"Hoi polloi needn't apply."
Seley recalls one instance at a townhall meeting where a certain community member (he won’t name names) approached him and another farmer and said that if "he were them he would get out of town."
"What a jerk," Seley thought. "I told him, ‘Well you’re not us. And we’re not leaving.’"
By now, things have calmed down a bit, but Borrego is still a long way away from solving its water issues. Even with the changes that the Seley Ranches and some other farms have made so far—installing an electronically monitored irrigation system to prevent water waste, updating their water pump technology, planting fewer crops—it is still unclear how the valley is going to cut the 70 percent of water necessary to comply with the law.
There’s one thing Seley knows for sure, though, and that is that fallowing the farms is not the answer. He and many other agriculture supporters claim that if farming were to be completely removed from the valley, it would have severe ripple effects on the local economy—think of the mechanics, electricians, and plumbers that get work from the farms, he implores. Think of the students that the schools will lose.
"As it is now, they’re bringing in school children from Salton Sea to keep enough people here that they qualify for certain state funds," he says. "You’re not gonna get rid of ag without there being a cost. You’ve got to factor that in."
But other community members feel that Seley is overstating the economic benefits of agriculture. Seley himself admits that he only has four full-time workers on staff; during the harvesting season, most of the pickers are brought in from surrounding communities. Mark Jorgensen, former superintendent of the surrounding state park, rejects the idea that these farms are necessary for the economy of Borrego to survive.
"For people to sit here in Borrego to think that it’s good for our economy, that we have to work it out and compromise because our valley depends on it—it really doesn’t," he says. "People who grow citrus here are basically using our valley and using our resources because it’s very cheap ground, it’s cheap water, they only pay for the amount that it costs to pump the water."
Seley feels it’s completely unfair that he should have to give up something that he has invested so much time and money in. Just one pump can cost up to $300,000, and Seley has three.
"I’ve had it told to me, ‘Oh well you’ve made enough money, you can just go ahead out now’," he says. "Well that’s like telling a store owner, ‘You’ve made enough, now give it to somebody else and get out.’"
Seley is not going to "get out." He’s going to keep coming back to the little brown house that he renovated as a young man, and when he is gone his kids are going to come work in the same place that he worked, the same place where he taught all of them how to work.
"I can’t say they were thrilled," he says, "but they learned how to work … they could look out there and show you a field and say, ‘I planted that.’"
Part Four: The Environmentalist
One of the main reasons that the citizens of Borrego Springs were able to live in denial about the overdraft for so long, many townspeople agree, is that the groundwater in question is practically invisible. If Borrego was home to a lake instead of an aquifer, if citizens could watch the town’s water being drained on a day-to-day basis, could see the rings marking its slow depletion, things might have turned out differently. Instead, Borrego’s water leads a mostly clandestine life, trapped beneath the surface amidst ancient rocks and sand, accepting its fate silently, allowing people—even people who have seen scientific evidence of its lowering levels—to make up their own ideas about how much water is left and how long the aquifer’s supplies will last.
But—as demonstrated by the Palm Canyon flood in 2004—the water in the desert isn’t always so silent. Every once in a while, it makes a more dramatic appearance, and when it arrives, it sounds like a train. In the Borrego Badlands, which lie just to the east of town, flash floods are a semi-regular occurrence, especially during the area’s late summer monsoon season. When it rains, torrents of foamy brown water come charging downhill from the canyons, knocking together rocks and boulders and cutting a now-permanent ravine into the sandy desert floor. These ephemeral rivers don’t last long—usually only an hour or two—but as they make their way towards the lowest point in the valley, the Borrego Sink, the water seeps into the ground and plays an an important role in helping to recharge the underground lake below.
Mark Jorgensen, the former superintendent of Anza-Borrego State Park, has seen a number of these floods in the 44 years that he’s lived in Borrego, and he remembers many a time when he and his kids would hop in his truck at the sight of an approaching rainstorm to see if they could catch one in action. For him, he says, flood-hunting is a "spectator sport."
"Desert people don’t see it rain very often, so when it does, oftentimes we go out and just start running around," he jokes in his gravelly drawl.
By the year 2040, Borregan farmworkers, business owners, and townspeople must completely reorient their economy and their way of life, or else they run the risk having their tiny desert community return to the dust that it was built upon.
During the recent California drought, however, Borrego has only been receiving a fraction of the already small amount of rain that it normally does. As Jorgensen stands next to the dried-up river bed in the Borrego Sink, he looks out at a forest of gnarled-looking mesquite plants perched atop some nearby sand dunes. Their branches are twisted and brownish and slump exhaustedly towards complex networks of exposed roots. Weakened by their lack of water, Jorgensen says, the mesquite roots are no longer able to hold these sand dunes intact, and for years he has been watching this unique desert environment literally float away with the wind. The drought isn’t helping, he tells me, gnawing on an unlit cigar, but he suspects the overdraft is mostly responsible.
Mesquite, says Jorgensen, have the deepest roots of any plants in the world—some have been recorded as reaching down 100 feet or more. For centuries, this allowed for these hardy plants to tap into the aquifer below, helping them to stay alive even in the most extreme drought conditions. But in recent decades, the water levels in the Borrego Sink have simply fallen too low for the plants to survive.
"Here you have a plant that’s very well-adapted to a desert environment, it’s said to have the deepest roots in the world," he says. "In spite of their adaptation … they can’t keep up with the overdraft."
If these plants continue to die and the sand dunes drift away, the creatures who depend on the dune environment—like foxes and fringe-toed lizards—will be done for. For Jorgensen, there is only one feasible way to stop this, and that is for someone, either the park or the town, to buy up the farming land and restore the balance of the ecosystem. Farming is simply not a sustainable activity in one of the driest, hottest places in the world, he says, and there is no time to sit around arguing and doing more studies.
"The long run has already happened," says Jorgensen. "It’s already been going on for 60 or 70 years of agriculture. The time to act was about 20 years ago. It’s not 20 years from now, like the government game plan calls for."
Since he started visiting Anza-Borrego State Park as a Boy Scout in the 1960s, Jorgensen has come to feel at home in deserts, has come to love all the parts of their natural cycles—the times of plenty in the spring, the harshness and death and dust that come with summer. During the 36 years he spent working for the park, Jorgensen made pilgrimages to study deserts all around the world—in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt. Through his travels, he has come to understand that Borrego—and California—are far from the only places that are dealing with water crises of this nature.
"It’s a worldwide phenomenon when you look at dry, hot areas around the globe, and even some areas that aren’t so dry and hot," he says. "And what kind of action is being taken to preserve it? It’s not going to happen until people are hurt by it personally."
And perhaps that’s what makes Borrego different. Here, when people are hurt by the water crisis, their neighbors don’t have any choice but to bear witness to it. While it’s true that complying with the government's demands has resulted in some deep divisions, it’s also true that very few communities have the same level of engagement and understanding that this one does. In a town this tiny, it’s pretty hard to hate your enemy, because odds are you’re going to see him at the post office every day.
"Maybe you work for the state park, but your kid goes to school with a farmer’s kid," Ray Shindler told me the first time I met him. "You may be in church together with them. Or you see them at the market, or you may be on committees. Everybody knows everybody, so how are you gonna tell your local farmer guy ‘Oh, you have to leave’?"
Mark Jorgensen agrees. "In a small town you interact with these people," he says. "It doesn’t pay to just go to war with folks and to burn bridges. You end up respecting them, as people and family folks and members of the community."
While it’s becoming more and more evident that the dream of the manmade oasis isn’t much more than a mirage, Jorgensen feels that if Borregans can come to some sort of understanding, the natural oasis it was founded on can still be saved. And that, he says, is something worth fighting for.
"I feel that there’s a legacy that was given to our generation by people who had foresight," he says. "They came here in 1932 and they started setting up a state park … and I give thanks every day that there were people who looked ahead and said ‘Man, this place is special. Let’s preserve it.’"
Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler