Groundwater Authority still finding its way

Groundwater Authority still finding its wayThe IWV Groundwater authority still waits to hear if it will receive the state funding it needs to proceed. Committees continue to question their functions and debate the redundancy of engineering work. Meanwhile, agencies independently draft potential solutions, unsure if they will meet state requirements.

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board has submitted its grant application for state Proposition 1 funds, and its Policy and Technical Advisory Committees are meeting with regularity. But all the moving parts still seem to have trouble syncing up as the valley waits to hear if the agency tasked with halting the decline in our water table will have the $1.7 million that the board has budgeted to get through the next fiscal year.

The IWVGA board’s membership comprises five different agencies (Ridgecrest City Council, IWV Water District and the Boards of Supervisors from Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino counties), not to mention the advisory agencies (the Bureau of Land Management and the Navy).

The Groundwater Sustainability Agency has been mandated under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to bring groundwater pumping in the IWV basin to sustainable levels.

The authority hired Stetson Engineering to serve as a water resources manger. The firm pulled together the application for potentially $2.5 million in grant funds and will ultimately craft a groundwater sustainability plan with assistance from the TAC. While the committee’s purpose is to offer technical support to Stetson in order to create a data-driven GSP, the TAC spent the majority of its Jan. 4 meeting debating whether the authority was paying Stetson for work that has already been done.

“We’re going around and around and around here,” said TAC Member Don Decker after the discussion had come full circle numerous times (four, by his count).

The item was regarding a groundwater data-management system — a comprehensive online database with groundwater levels, well conditions, water quality and anything else that might be helpful that would meet state-mandated requirements for the GSP.

But according to TAC members, four such databases already exist or are being worked on.

“It’ wonderful, Stetson, that you’ve started putting this stuff together,” said TAC Chair Adam Bingham. “But we’ve got all this other stuff in this valley that people have already paid for. How can we get this to come together?”

Steve Reich of Stetson said their system would be specifically targeted at meeting SGMA requirements, and he didn’t know if the other systems would meet the standards.

The topic came up later at a meeting of the IWV Water District board of directors. General Manager Don Zdeba added that while Stetson’s system had data from 30-32 wells, the recent SkyTEM fly-over study analyzed data from more than 1,000 wells and would be much more comprehensive – and it’s already paid for.

“Personally I think we should tell Stetson to cease and desist,” said Director Don Cortichiato. “Sounds like they’re asking to be paid to reinvent the wheel.”

The authority recently approved an item saying it would pay Stetson no more than $195,000 for the first six months of work. But the first three months of billing have already come to nearly $150,000.

The TAC discussed forming a separate ad hoc committee to evaluate the SGMA requirements for a data-management system, as well as existing systems, to see what the best solution is – but the group could not come to an agreement. Ultimately, TAC members asked Stetson to look into the other systems to see what they can use to avoid redundant work.

The three-hour meeting, heavy on conversation and light on action, seemed par for the course in regard to groundwater sustainability meetings to date.

Meanwhile, multiple agencies including the water district, Coso Operating Company, Meadow-brook Dairy, Mojave Pistachio and Searles Valley Minerals (all of whom have some sort of representation on the TAC or the PAC), independently drafted a white paper on groundwater management.

Seemingly a GSP in and of itself, the paper outlines a plan to bring the basin to sustainable consumption by 2050. That is, assuming the paper’s definition of “sustainability” is the same as that of the state Department of Water Resources.

The paper was unexpected news at the meeting. Some directors hadn’t realized it was finished. Others hadn’t been aware of the effort.

“Given the volume of groundwater in storage in the IWV Groundwater Basin, [we can allow] current pumping to continue for a period of time while alternate water supplies are developed,” says the paper.

The plan suggests a series of pumping assessments and “market-driven pumping reduction programs” to further reduce pumping in the coming decades.

“Let’s take our time, let’s do it right,” said Cortichiato after hearing the summary.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Mayor Peggy Breeden in a later interview. Breeden recently rotated to the chair position of the IWVGA.

But she had some reservations about accepting the paper as a solution.

“We’re not a cookie-cutter basin. Not everybody has the huge supply of groundwater that we have,” she said, referring to the water stored in our basin. Some estimates say we have at least 100 years of water left, given our current pumping rates.

But according to the DWR’s David Gutierrez, it doesn’t matter how much water we have in storage. That state wants to see an immediate reduction in water use, and “zero decline” by 2040. He said as much in a previous meeting where state officials visited Ridgecrest for a public forum.

The IWVGA will meet Thursday, Jan. 18, 10 a.m. at City Hall. The board will hear reports from the committees and presumably a report on the white paper. To learn more see www.kern county.com/WaterResources.aspx.

Pictured: Directors Don Cortichiato and Peter Brown and President Ron Kicinski listen to a report during Monday’s IWVWD?Board of Directors meeting. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2018-01-12