IWVGA Liability concerns emerge

Eddie Thomas: ‘I don’t know if all of us on council really understand all the details’

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority is still working to find its footing on the road to managing groundwater use for the IWV basin. The multi-agency board recently passed its bare-bones bylaws, but is still hammering out details with valley stakeholders for who participates and in what capacity through its committee structure.

But the public is still unsure about representation, jurisdictionally speaking, on this appointed board – and just as importantly – which agencies are responsible for liabilities incurred by the Authority.

The IWVGA is acting as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency in accordance with the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The board consists of representatives from the Indian Wells Valley Water District, Ridgecrest City Council and the boards of supervisors for Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino Counties. Each of these representatives is an appointed standing member of each member agency.

Earlier this month, during the IWVGA’s monthly meeting, Kern County’s representative 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason made a comment that in order for things to run smoothly, each representative should “stay within their jurisdiction.”

But the Joint Powers Agreement involving the member agencies of the IWVGA clearly name the Authority as a stand-alone agency with its jurisdiction being the Indian Wells Valley. During the same meeting, County Counsel Phil Hall also stated that all involved member agencies would be liable for debts incurred and actions taken by the Authority.

Hall added that while Authority members assured the public in good faith that they would vote and act on behalf of their respected boards – they were by no means required to do so as an independent agency.

“I’m not sure we can afford to be in that group,” said Stan Rajtora during the most recent “Coffee with Council,” where Councilmember Eddie Thomas made himself available to the public. “Has anybody brought up the fact that we’re liable for the debts of the GSA?”

Thomas said he doesn’t recall the subject being discussed during council. But he admitted that he may had been absent for some meetings and is not able to attend the 10 a.m. weekday meetings of the IWVGA.

“It’s not a real good time to have a meeting for people who have to make a living,” said Rajtora. The inconvenient meeting time of the IWVGA has had its own fair share of public discussion over the course of the Authority’s development.

The recent discussion also shed more light on oft-heard complaints in the past that IWVGA membership should have required its own election for the very reason of jurisdiction and representation concerns.

Other participants of the relatively lightly-attended coffee meeting shared their concerns about the agency’s mode of operation, citing inconsistency among staff reports from the various membership agencies and lack of consensus among stakeholders about the state of our aquifer.

Attendee Larry Mead also brought up that Ridgecrest residents are at risk for being “triple taxed” for any down-the-road fees from the IWVGA through the city, county and water district.

“Do you think the general public really understands this super agency?” Mead asked Thomas.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if all of us on council really understand all the details,” replied Thomas, adding that the Authority needs to carefully and thoroughly evaluate its decisions.

“We’re fine as long as the GSA doesn’t do anything to irritate anybody,” said Rajtora, whose comment was met by nervous chuckles throughout the room.

Area stakeholders, specifically those with significant agricultural interests, have already hinted at litigation as a last resort if they aren’t ensured meaningful participation in groundwater sustainability efforts (see related story, Page 1 of this edition).

Story First Published: 2017-03-31