GSA hears input on proposed fees

Valley stakeholders question accuracy of groundwater data and justification of costs

GSA hears input on proposed feesMembers of the IWV Groundwater Authority during last week's workshop. — Photo by Laura Austin.

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority held a public workshop last week to discuss future pumping fees. The main question of the evening: “Are the fees defensible?”

Most of the attendees at the April 5 meeting at City Hall seemed to understand the necessity of some sort of fee and sympathize with the authority’s job as a groundwater sustainability agency under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. But stakeholders questioned the fairness of the fees and whether or not the authority’s pumping data was accurate enough to justify the proposed rates.

The authority is aiming to cover roughly $2.5 million in funds not covered by current revenue and grand funding in order to implement a groundwater sustainability plan by 2020. The proposed assessment is $45.55 per acre foot of water over the course of roughly two and a half years, or $74 per acre foot over the next 19 months.

These rates would apply to all non-federal agencies and non-de minimis users (private pumpers that use less than two acre feet per year). Because the IWV Water District is counted as a single pumper, no IWVWD customers will be of de minimis status.

Water district customers pump on average less than an acre foot per year, so fees presumably won’t be too steep. But agricultural users will be impacted much more dramatically.

“Does anyone in here know what my water costs are?” asked Paul Nugent of Nugent Ranch during public comment. “The fee you’re talking about is probably a 30- to 50-percent increase to my water costs. I’m not sure if that’s being considered.”

“The fee would be a huge hardship on us and any farmer, large or small,” said Claudia Ethan, who owns a small alfalfa farm.

But most of the public seem to agree that pumpers should be charged according to the volume of water they use.

“The volumetric fee is absolutely the fair way to actually address the shortfalls in funding,” said Technical Advisory Committee Member Don Decker. “I think that having a fee that is proportional to the water you use is clearly the most beneficial way.”

Kern County 1st District Supervisor and IWVGA Board-member Mick Gleason agreed, saying, “The more you pump, the more of a benefit you receive from work of the [authority].”

But others still questioned if the authority had an accurate handle on how much groundwater is actually being pumped from the basin.

Donna Thomas of the East Kern County Resource Conservation District pointed out that the authority’s assessment draft shows places where pumping data is “not accurate and not complete.”

“Our question is, how can the IWVGA impose groundwater extraction fees when it does not base those fees on accurate and complete data?” she said. “The omissions in data need to be addressed before any fees can be set or approved.”

She said that the estimated pumping figure of 21,600 acre feet per year was just that – an estimate. “The assessment requires clarity,” she said. “In order to ensure public agreement and support — truth, clarity, transparency and opportunity for public input must prevail.”

“I agree 100 percent with the comments that the fee structure should be based on usage, and I also think that usage should be based on data,” said TAC Member Scott O’Neil. “And I think there are some gaps in that particular area.”

He added that accurate data was of paramount importance to “not only figuring out our funding structures, but figuring out our model that’s going to underpin our sustainability plan.

“I’m very concerned about the data that we’ve got,” he said.

“We better make sure these numbers are defensible and were developed in a transparent way,” said TAC member Eddy Teasedale. “I think it’s obvious tonight from the 30-plus comments that they were not.”

“The numbers here are a first shot,” said Peter Brown, authority member and IWVWD director. “Nothing is definitive. That’s why we’re here having this discussion.

Commenters also questioned whether the authority could justify its budget, which had changed dramatically between drafts and included a reserve fund in excess of $1 million.

“That seems high,” said Chuck Griffin during public comment. “While I understand some type of fee is necessary, I do have concerns.” Griffin is also an IWVWD director.

IWVGA San Bernardino County Representative Bob Page said that a 20-percent operating reserve was standard according to best management practices, but had his own questions about the budget. He pointed out the roughly $1 million in budget changes since the previous draft – $450,000 for costs from Stetson Engineers (the Authority’s Water Resources Manager), a $210,000 reimbursement to the city of Ridgecrest and a $250,000 increase in IWVGA legal costs.

While Stetson President Steve Johnson didn’t get into specifics, he said, “A lot of things start coming up ... you want to make sure you’re covering everything.” He said the last thing he wants is for additional tasks to come up later without the funding to accomplish them.

Legal Counsel Jim Worth said the increased legal fees were a projected cost for potential litigation. Gleason, who spearheaded the GSA formation after SGMA was passed in 2014, has continually stated in the past that “there are going to be lawsuits.”

During closing comments Gleason added that a finance committee would be necessary to continue managing costs – something that has been requested of the IWVGA since its formation.

“We do need a standing finance committee. We should have had one a year ago,” said Stan Rajtora, one of the more persistent proponents of public discussion of funds from the authority. “We’re here today because we didn’t do our job a year ago.”

The IWVGA will continue to discuss a fee structure and must hold a public hearing before approving anything concrete. The authority meets regularly on the third Thursday of the month, 10 a.m. at City Hall. For more information see iwvga.org.

Story First Published: 2018-04-13