PAC struggles to gain traction

Groundwater committee members, once promised influence, left wondering about their role

PAC struggles to gain tractionBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority and its member agencies have frequently touted its committees as entities that would be doing the “heavy lifting” and would be the “meat and potatoes” of finding answers to our declining groundwater table. But when the Policy Advisory Committee wasn’t given authorization to discuss its main agenda item during its last meeting, committee members were left wondering about what their job is exactly.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is calling all areas with declining water tables, whatever the rate of decline may be, to get their groundwater basins to a point of sustainability. In order to do so, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies have been forming across the state. The local authority board has a Joint Powers Agreement among Ridgecrest, the IWV Water District and Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo counties.

During the PAC’s August meeting, Representative Nick Panzer initiated a discussion on how to enforce water-use priorities and how aggressively the committee should be investigating water sources. The discussion was tabled and approved to continue during the Sept. 13 meeting’s agenda.

But come September GSA Counsel Jim Worth said the item should be pulled because it was no longer appropriate for discussion.

“Any discussion is premature,” said Worth. “Items on the agenda should be approved by the Groundwater Authority Board. This item has never been tasked by the board and it should not be on the agenda.”

Worth said this was the opinion all three legal counsels (Ridgecrest, IWVWD and Kern County) gave the GSA board.

What ensued was confusion in the ranks as representatives tried to suss out what they were allowed to discuss, and how they would get approval to do so, for nearly an hour.

“I think the confusion arises because the Groundwater Authority board was anxious for the PAC to start meeting and get under way,” said PAC Chair Donna Thomas.

Panzer also pointed out that the minutes of the August meeting showed that the item had already been approved for discussion.

“For the PAC to go on and discuss this without authorization from the board could create issues and delays,” said Worth.

“I am terribly confused,” said Representative Carol Wilson. “The PAC’s position is to bring things to the attention of the GSA board. And you are saying we can’t bring things to the GSA board’s attention unless we are told by the GSA to do so. Then this is just a total waste of time.”

Worth clarified that representatives can approach the GSA during its regular board meetings to request items be placed on the committee agenda.

Committee members criticized the method of communication as being counterproductive and made it clear that this issue needed to be taken up with the GSA board.

“How can we get word to the GSA what has happened here so at least they have a chance to think about it?” asked Panzer. “I would like to see whatever it takes for the GSA to see what happened here.”

Continued discussion revealed that the committee would not have adequate time to get proposed agenda items to the GSA board for approval, so the committee’s Sept. 20 meeting had to be canceled. But the GSA board would still be meeting that same morning.

Panzer said he was confused about the role of the water resource manager, Stetson Engineering, who will be setting committee agendas, according to Worth.

“PAC proposals shall be submitted to the WRM for initial review and comment,” said Panzer, citing the GSA bylaws. “I don’t see anything in our governing bylaws saying we have to wait for Stetson to tell us what we can talk about. Am I missing something?”

Worth said that Stetson would be facilitating communication between the committee and the GSA board and would be responsible for bringing tasks to the committee.

“I think you should make a motion to ask, in writing, exactly what it is this committee is supposed to be doing,” said Judie Decker during public comment. “I don’t think anyone seems to know. This is a wonderful way to prolong the agony of this until we’re all pushing up daisies.”

The PAC also discussed the possibility of having alternate representatives for each of their respective categories, ranging from business interests to conservation groups and residential users.

“I never bought into the idea for alternates,” said Panzer. “If you’re asking for a motion to make this request, I would oppose it.”

Panzer said it seemed like a lot of work to have alternates go through the application process, fill out California Fair Political Practices Commission forms and participate in ethics training if they weren’t going to be coming to every meeting.

He also shared GSA’s staff opinion that with alternates, the committee would lose some necessary continuity of its membership.

“Unless they’re right here and are up to speed and know where we are, we’re not going to have a very productive program,” he said.

“I really don’t see a problem with alternates attending the meetings,” said Pat Quist. “Some of us have to work — it’s important for us to be here, but sometimes we still need to be at work. So if we need an alternate to attend a meeting for us, such is life.

“The person who offered to be here for me is also a farmer, but they have a different schedule than I have. They have the time when I don’t. If they need to be vetted by the powers that be the same way we did, so be it.”

Many other representatives said they would also like to have alternates, and members of the public largely agreed.

“Most of the people who have discussed having alternates are ready and waiting for the thumbs up,” said Donna Hocker.

Decker said she had “mixed feelings” about alternates, because of continuity concerns. But she said she also wanted clarification as to why the GSA board was so opposed to the idea.

Breeden addressed the issue when she sought direction from the Ridgecrest City Council on Wednesday evening, saying she wanted to vote in support of representatives having alternates.

“The board was afforded the opportunity of alternates, and the people we’ve asked to serve on committees should have that opportunity,” said Breeden.

“My only concern is that of continuity, but I really do want them to have that ability. I think it’s only fair.

The PAC gave a summary to the GSA Board during its meeting Thursday morning, 10 a.m., but details were not available at press time. See future editions for more information.

From left, Committee Members West Katzenstein (representing domestic well owners), Carol Wilson (business) and Pat Quist (small agriculture) during a tense moment of the IWVGA’s Policy Advisory Committee meeting. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-09-22