Groundwater group holds pumping fee workshop April 5

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

A public workshop on local groundwater pumping fees is scheduled for Thursday evening, April 5. The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority discussed the item during last week’s regular March meeting where members of the public expressed their preliminary concerns, specifically about who will be paying and how much.

“That needs to be discovered,” said IWV Water District Director and Authority Boardmember Peter Brown. “Right now we’re looking at the process ... but every cost the water district incurs is always passed on.”

Brown said that a fee increase may not occur immediately but that rates will definitely be raised in the future.

The draft fee proposal suggests a $50-per-acre-foot charge, which would generate $1,508,820 in funds by 2020 to meet the authority’s requirements to develop a groundwater sustainability plan. The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires that all basins in overdraft develop GSPs by 2022, or 2020 in the case of a basin like the IWV that has been designated as critically overdrafted.

The plan’s footnotes add that additional funds will need to be reimbursed to the authority’s primary agencies — Kern County, Ridgecrest and the IWVWD —amounting to an extra $1,086,944. An $85- per-acre-foot charge would be necessary to cover these funds over the next 17 months, in addition to GSP costs.

This means water district customers — some 12,000 residential, multifamily, commercial, public, bulk and construction accounts — could be liable to cover somewhere between $350,000-595,000 annually in pumping fees.

Federal agencies and “de minimis” pumpers (single wells that pump less than two acre-feet per year) are exempt from the fees. This may mean that private well owners will be required to meter their wells and report usage.

A letter from Gresham, Savage, Nolan & Tilden, legal counsel for Meadowbrook Dairy, outlines concerns brought up from several members of the public, including the necessity of the fees, public engagement and exemptions.

The firm’s Derek Hoffman spoke during public comment, when he argued that with a volumetric fee, where people pay according to how much they use, there was no basis to provide exemptions.

“Current data suggests that [de minimis users] command a potentially very large amount of the water produced in this basin,” he said. “Failure to include them in shouldering at least some portion of this fee would be unfair. It would exclude them from participating in the solution.”

He also said that the authority needs a standing finance committee where fee proposals would be discussed publicly. Several members of the public have argued since the IWVGA’s formation that a standing finance committee should have been one of the authority’s first priorities.

“We need a well-done finance committee looking at this,” said Mike Neel, who added that the workshop should be delayed until a public committee is formed.

In a letter to the board, Neel also criticized the decision to require the public to fill out comment cards prior to the workshop if they desire to comment. He cites the Brown Act (Section 54953.3), which says, “A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body ... to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance.”

“Attendance is necessarily defined as being in the room and participating,” said Neel. “So requiring comment cards violates this. This also specifically excludes anyone who cannot arrive in time to submit a comment card by 5:15.”

In the absence of a standing public finance committee, some also questioned the validity of the proposed fees.

“While we support the concept of volumetric fees, the proposed fees are much higher than expected,” said Josh Nugent of Mojave Pistachio and Nugent Farms.

Hoffman also questioned the necessity of an $802,000 reserve in the GSP budget. “The proposed reserve is probably excessive, rather than ‘prudent,’” says the letter.

“The agenda item assumes that there is only one funding stream available to us,” said Stan Rajtora. “The county gets an ag tax and has for the last hundred years or so. The county doesn’t pump a lot of water ... but they’re getting taxes for all of the water that ag is pumping.

“What liability does the county have in supporting the various requirements of this board? As a matter of fact, the county actually encouraged farmers to start farming and provided them with the agricultural well permits to do that.”

Boardmember and Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason said that the agriculture taxes “aren’t much” and that they go directly into the county’s general fund.

“The fact that the money for the tax goes into the general fund doesn’t mean a whole lot, quite frankly,” said Rajtora.

“The county is generating tax money off of the water that is being pulled out of our valley. And everybody else is going to be paying money for the water being pulled out of this valley. I do believe the county is liable in terms of supporting getting water to this valley and maintaining a certain quality of that water.”

The fees pertaining to this agenda item pertain only to paying for the implementation of a GSP by 2020. The speculation is that the authority will levy more fees in the future to fund the previously discussed possibilities of water importation and recycled water treatment.

The board has not announced a time or location for the workshop. For information, visit iwvga.org and see future editions.

Story First Published: 2018-03-23