Water District advances $500K to GA

Water District advances $500K to GA"If you really want to do this, you should make everybody responsible ... that money, by the way, belongs to the ratepayers. And you really ought to think very hard how you use it." — Stan Rajtora

*****

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Water District approved a $500,000 advance to the IWV Groundwater Authority as bridge funding while the authority waits to hear back regarding its application for some $2.5 million in grant funds from the state. The motion was approved 3-1, with Director Chuck Griffin opposing the advance and Vice President Chuck Cordell absent.

The authority — including representatives from Ridgecrest, the IWVWD, Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino Counties and other associate members — is serving as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the IWV basin.

The advance comes from the Water District’s alternative water supply funds and will theoretically be paid back once the authority establishes and implements a fee schedule. But the board received some criticism for considering the advance before such a schedule is in place.

“I’m really struggling because the GSA is going to be out of money again before the end of May,” said Griffin. “I don’t know how the ratepayers are going to see this as justified. The district has spent a lot of money so far on the GSA. I don’t think it’s solely the district’s responsibility.”

Griffin suggested that the district advance $100,000 and request that other member agencies, like the city and the counties, offer similar advances.

I think this is the total proper use of these alternative water funds that we’ve been banking forever specifically for this,” said IWVD President Peter Brown.

Director Ron Kicinski supported the advance, saying that the district is in the financial position to offer the funds. As one of the largest pumpers in the valley, the water district would easily recoup the costs once the fees hit, and IWVWD has a $500,000 credit, he said.

Water District Legal Counsel Jim Worth clarified that the district would also have first priority regarding repayment from grant funds received by the authority.

General Manager Don Zdeba read a letter of opposition to the advance from the absent Cordell.

“I am strongly against lending the GSA $500,000. I do not feel the GSA is organized enough to manage these funds properly in its present state. Judging by what I have seen thus far, this large influx of funds could be gone in four to five months,” said the letter.

Member of the public Stan Rajtora also prepared several reasons why the district shouldn’t approve the advance.

“Kern County has been receiving tax money for the last 150 years to manage the groundwater,” he said. “No other agency in this valley gets tax money to do that.”

He added that the county was also the entity that invited farmers to the valley in the first place to enlarge its tax base.

“There are five agencies. If they really need $500,000, then each agency should commit to $100,000. The water district should not volunteer to take on an obligation that belongs to the county until they come back and say ‘we have no money.’” He added that if the state intervenes in our groundwater management if the GSA fails to develop a plan in time, there’s no guarantee the district would be paid back.

“In any event, if you really want to do this, you should make everybody responsible,” he said. “That money, by the way, belongs to the ratepayers. And you really ought to think very hard how you use it.”

“Poor planning on the groundwater authority’s part does not constitute an emergency for the water district,” said Elaine Mead during public comment.

“What happens if we don’t approve this tonight?” asked Director Don Cortichiato, who listened silently for most of the discussion.

Brown said that lack of funds could slow, or even halt, the development of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which could ultimately result in the state taking over operations.

But the president of Stetson Engineers, the firm in charge of GSP development, said previously that the firm could hold bills until grants were approved and bridge funding wouldn’t be necessary.

“We can certainly hold bills back,” said Stetson President Steve Johnson during a September GSA meeting. “I want to make that commitment.”

In phone interviews, IWVGA representatives weighed in on the urgency of a need for funding.

San Bernardino County Representative Bob Page said that while the cashflow problem “isn’t something we can ignore ... I wouldn’t call it dire. But we do need to be mindful of our cashflow.” He added that he recalls Johnson’s reassurance of waiting on grant money to be billed by Stetson.

Authority Chair Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason said a halt in planning could occur if funds run out, but he doesn’t have any idea when that might be. The IWVGA accepted the advance during its meeting on Wednesday morning.

Story First Published: 2017-12-15