Participation urged for groundwater decisions

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

As the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority moves closer to governing local groundwater use, community members are taking to public meetings to voice their concerns with increasing intensity. The multi-agency Joint Powers Authority board was scheduled to approve its bylaws on Thursday, despite growing concerns from the public regarding fair representation and the authority’s ability, and willingness, to receive input from all stakeholders.

A core group of advocates for alterations to the bylaws attended meetings of the IWV Water District, Ridgecrest City Council and IWVGA this week with a clear message — they demand to be listened to.

The collaboration between Councilmembers Lindsey Stephens, Wallace Martin and several members of the community — referring to themselves as the Ridgecrest Panel ­— developed a list of items in the bylaws that they want to be changed.

Major objections included the removal of Meadowbrook Farms, Mojave Pistachios and Searles Valley Minerals — some of the valley’s largest groundwater users — by name from the membership of the IWVGA’s Policy Advisory Committee. The panel was also concerned about having Kern County’s legal counsel, or any other member agency’s counsel for that matter, consulting the IWVGA board as a whole.

During previous meetings, both legal counsel for the city and water district recommended the public save their comments for the monthly meeting of the IWVGA only. But the public was not pleased with their reception. Some members of the panel were particularly critical of IWVGA Chair Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason and County Counsel Phil Hall.

“We proposed much of this at their meeting a month ago,” said Mike Neel. “County counsel of course had the last word and his response was basically ‘we don’t need any of that.’ Personally, I’ve tried to once have a direct interchange with him and I found him arrogant and dismissive.”

“There were probably 10 or 15 people who stood up and objected to lots of different things,” said Stan Rajtora. “[Gleason] handed it off to Hall who shot down everything. There is no point in taking anything to that group. Because it will be ignored.”

Anita Imsand of Meadowbrook addressed both the Water District and Council this past week. Owning land in unincorporated areas of the county, Imsand does not fall under either the District’s or Council’s representation. But she said she did not feel represented by Gleason either.

“We don’t have a representative up there,” she said. “[Gleason] has made it well known that he is anti-ag. So you’re going to take a family farm that’s been in business since 1918 and you’re going to just do whatever you possibly can to make it difficult for us to farm so that my children and grandchildren can’t farm?

“We can limit the amount of water we’re pumping,” said Imsand. “I want to save this basin too. We have people who don’t even pump any water sitting on the board.”

Over the development of this process, the large water users, specifically those named above, were assured meaningful participation in the process of developing the Groundwater Sustainability Plan. They were named in a previous draft of the IWVGA’s bylaws. But after a private ad hoc committee — consisting of Gleason and IWVWD President Peter Brown — workshopped the bylaws, the entities’ names were removed from the document.

“At this point, I still do not agree with this draft as far as the PAC goes,” said Director Chuck Griffin during the IWVWD meeting. “We passed a resolution as a board stating that we wanted everybody listed so we could justify meaningful participation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have that done.”

“I agree with the way the PAC is referred to in here,” responded Director Ron Kicinski. “Are you or the public really afraid that we’re not going to involve the users as we promised?”

Griffin, as well as a few public attendees, answered with an emphatic “yes.”

Meadowbrook and company were again told they would be included in the PAC charter, but when the draft was released earlier this week, their names were once again absent.

“You talk about trust, but I don’t feel any trust,” said Imsand. “Because everything you have promised, you’ve backed up from. How can you have trust when you guys keep changing the game?”

“Ad hoc committees need to be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary,” said Rajtora, criticizing the actions as “hiding information from the public.

“An ad hoc committee has already been formed and is operating out of the purview of the public. In hindsight, the current use of an ad hoc committee to refine the bylaws has been a mistake. None of the stakeholders are aware why changes were made to the earlier draft bylaws or what drove those changes.

“[The bylaws] went from something that was reasonable, open and transparent to something that was antagonistic, adversarial and offensive, to be quite honest. I have a concern that some of the people who are saying the sky is falling are also the same people that are behind the closed doors, putting in the adversarial language that’s keeping the Groundwater Sustainability Agency from moving forward.”

As far as legal counsel for the IWVGA is concerned, the public consensus is that the board should hire an independent firm to represent the entire board.

“It is difficult to conceive of any member agency’s counsel being able to completely separate his thinking concerning both his primary agency’s interests and the GSA Board’s interests,” said Neel.

The final score after the Water District and City Council meetings was four different motions, many of them divisive. Both agencies passed motions with three out of five yes votes each to accept the bylaws as proposed while “strongly suggesting” that the above pumpers be included in the PAC by name and a single, independent legal counsel be considered.

Members of the City Council, namely Stephens and Martin, pushed for putting more pressure on the IWVGA.

“[The panel] put a lot of time and energy into these and basically what happened is they’re just getting pushed aside,” said Stephens. “So I’m asking for that to not happen again.”

Council approved a second motion, with Councilmember Mike Mower dissenting, to demand additional changes to the bylaws including the removal of “adversarial language” from the PAC membership section (i.e “The Board shall have the sole discretion to approve or disapprove of a particular individual’s representation on the PAC regardless of the agency or organization they represent”). Requested changes also include the inclusion of a conflict of interest code and the preservation of the PAC’s power to shape the GSP.

Stephens put forth a third motion as well to request the IWVGA take no action on the PAC charter since it has not had sufficient public review. The City Council accepted the final motion unanimously.

The IWVGA board met Thursday morning, March 16, but details were not available at press time. For more information, see future editions of the News Review.

Story First Published: 2017-03-17