State approves groundwater grant

GSA receives $2M plus in Prop. 1 funding, but ‘we’re not all the way there’ yet

State approves groundwater grantPictured: From left, IWV Water District General Manager Don Zdeba and Legal Counsel Jim Worth. — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board chair, Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden, announced last week that the authority’s request to the state Department of Water Resources for grant funding had been approved. As the Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the IWV, the authority received a total of $2,146,000 in Proposition 1 money to fund a groundwater sustainability plan.

“This is a significant step forward toward a sustainable Indian Wells Valley groundwater basin,” said the mayor’s announcement. “I would like to thank all IWVGA members, their staffs and Stetson Engineers, Inc., for their superior efforts to achieve this grant.”

Other agencies on the IWVGA board include the IWV Water District, Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo Counties, Department of the Navy and the Bureau of Land Management. Stetson Engineers drafted the grant proposal and serves as the GSA’s water resources manager.

The news also came up during this week’s IWVWD Board of Directors meeting. General Manager Don Zdeba and the directors, including Peter Brown who represents the district on the IWVGA board, expressed their relief that the state had approved the grant. But Legal Counsel Jim Worth reminded directors that there is still a lot of work ahead.

“It’s not a guarantee that the authority will have all the funds to complete the GSP,” said Worth. “It’s still being looked at ... we’re not necessarily all the way there.”

While the grant funds may be enough for the authority to get a plan approved, the costs of actually implementing solutions, such as potentially importing water, are unknown.

“I do think this plan is going to cost more than we thought,” said IWVWD President Ron Kicinski.

The authority established a draft budget earlier this year that covers roughly $1.7 million in costs through the end of 2018. The board was operating under the assumption that grant money would come through and had received an advance of $500,000 from the water district. Despite fiscal uncertainties, the board still hasn’t formed a standing finance committee.

“Mr. Brown has been in favor of a standing finance committee for over a year,” said Stan Rajtora during public comment. “I’d like to see him being a little more assertive. Judging by past experience, even if they say ‘yes’ to a committee today, it wouldn’t happen for another three to four months.

“The sooner we get a finance committee, the better. The longer we wait, the worse off we’ll be a year from now.”

The directors agreed that a finance committee was needed, but Breeden said the uncertainty of funding was the very reason the authority hadn’t yet formed one. She said she didn’t want to waste time time having a committee discuss a budget before they knew how much funding the authority would have.

“Now that we have the funding, we can ask staff to spend their time on it,” said Breeden. “Now it isn’t a waste.”

Directors also continued discussion of Stetson’s groundwater database management system. The authority’s Technical Advisory Committee deferred to Stetson’s recommendation to finalize its own system, despite the existence of other, more thorough systems.

Director Don Cortichiato said he was “in shock” that Stetson’s system was using 30-35 well data points while other systems used more than a thousand. Brown said that it was a “timing issue” and that Stetson had already begun development of a system that met Sustainable Groundwater Manage-ment Act requirements in order to get the Proposition 1 funding.

In its staff report to the authority, Stetson said it’s also important for the IWVGA to have ownership of its database management system and that accessing other systems could cost the authority tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.

Stetson also outlines legal risks of using other systems. The approval of grant money relies on Stetson’s development of a system explicitly used to craft a SGMA sustainability plan.

Because there is significant overlap in membership of public and private groundwater interest groups, there could also be legal ramifications for conducting business with groups that meet behind closed doors.

“The WRM recommends that the legal questions, and any others deemed appropriate by legal counsel, be answered to the satisfaction of legal counsel and the authority board,” said the report. “Until that time, the WRM should proceed, as approved and scheduled, on the authority [database management system] and database.”

Stetson representatives have said that they will, to the best of their ability, populate their system with data gathered by other organizations, such as SkyTEM.

The IWVGA board met Thursday, Feb. 15, at 11 a.m. Details were not available at press time, but see future editions for more information.

Story First Published: 2018-02-16