Fees, finances discussed at groundwater meeting

Informational meeting on $35- per-acre-foot pumping fee is June 7

Fees, finances  discussed at groundwater meetingFrom left, IWVGA Board Members Mick Gleason from Kern County, Chair Peggy Breeden from Ridgecrest, Alternate Chuck Griffin from IWV Water District and Bob Page from San Bernardino County consider pumping fees during this month’s Groundwater Sustainability Agency meeting. — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

A $35-per-acre-foot fee could go into effect this fall for pumping groundwater in the Indian Wells Valley. The IWV Groundwater Authority approved the first reading of the ordinance during the authority’s regular meeting Thursday, May 17. Concerned residents questioned the fairness of the fee as well as the financial responsibility of the agency over the past several years.

Acting as Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the valley, the IWVGA is levying fees to fund the agency through the 2020 due date for a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. The GSP will presumably require its own fee structure to fund any alternative water supplies. The currently proposed fees are designed to cover administrative and planning costs until a plan is in place.

This multi-agency board – including representatives from the city, IWV Water District, Kern County, San Bernardino County and Inyo County, as well as advisory representatives from the Navy and the Bureau of Land Management – is one of many GSAs formed as a result of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Since its formation in 2016, the GSA has racked up just over $5 million in costs – some $3.75 million for GSP development with the help of Water Resources Manager Stetson Engineers, roughly $435,000 in additional administrative costs from Stetston, a $227,268 (5-percent) reserve, $210,466 reimbursed to the city, $200,000 for Special Legal Counsel James Markman and $161,500 for a part-time general manager.

Most of these costs were covered by various state grants (roughly $2.3 million), $15,000 each contributed from the five voting member agencies and other in-kind services. But the GSA is $1.5 million short — and that’s where the fees come in.

“I’m not completely opposed to the fees, but we really need to understand who is being charged. And if they’re not being charged, why are they not being charged?” asked Stan Rajtora during public comment.

The question was regarding what SGMA defines as a “de minimis” user, who would be exempt from paying fees. A de minimis user is a person who pumps less than 2 acre feet per year for domestic use, a category that may include most residents. The average home in the valley uses roughly ¾ of an acre foot per year, according to the water district.

But the district considers IWVWD customers collectively as one pumper, meaning they would not be exempt from fees.

Kern County Deputy Counsel Phil Hall added that SGMA’s definition of “person” in regard to de minimis users was “very expansive” and could range from an individual resident to a public agency.

“There are a lot of shared wells, and those people want to know if they’re going to be billed,” said IWVWD Vice President Chuck Griffin, who was filling in for the GSA’s water district representative Director Peter Brown.

“This needs to be distinguished,” said Rajtora. “My feeling is there aren’t that many true de minimis users, and everybody needs to pay their fair share.”

This discussion led to the question of metering private wells. According to Hall, SGMA doesn’t allow for mandatory metering of de minimis users.

“But SGMA also doesn’t allow us to just take somebody’s word that they’re a de minimis user,” he said. “There is going to be a point at which if somebody is listed on the de minimis list and we think they’re using more than a de minis amount, we will go out and verify that.”

Hall wasn’t specific about the GSA’s legal ability to do so.

“We can’t enforce a fee if we don’t know where the wells are,” said Hall, who cited the requirement to register private wells with the county since 1980. But some questioned the reliability of the county’s current database.

During public comment, Elaine Mead said that she, her husband and their company were listed in the GSA’s database of active wells, despite not having had an active well for the last three to five years.

“Also, a small well-sharing agreement that we set up more than 25 years ago is not listed on your chart,” she added.

“While I understand this is a project in process, be it known that there are several outstanding problem areas in it.”

“The list of well owners with associated property names – 50 percent of them had no name and some of the ones I saw with names were incorrect,” said Judie Decker, during an earlier water district meeting. “Unless the GSA board has an accurate, precise list of names, acreages and wells, it’s going to be chaos.”

Decker also provided comment at Thursday’s GSA meeting.

“In order to charge people, to do it correctly, you are going to have to verify every one of those parcel numbers and the size of the well,” she said. “I know you need the money, but I think you need more time to verify your list.”

“The problem is that this fee isn’t fair, reasonable or legally compliant,” said Derek Hoffman, legal counsel for Meadowbrook Dairy, one of the valley’s largest pumpers.

Hoffman said the fee was unreasonably high and unjustified because of the gaps in well data. When he asked GSA legal counsel to provide an analysis of how the fee adhered to state constitutional requirements, he said he was told that his “request was premature.”

“According to SGMA, each basin is unique,” said Anita Imsand from Meadowbrook. “Each basin should have the people in the basin helping develop the plan. Kern County has railroaded us.

Meadowbrook was a signatory to the IWV Cooperative Ground-water Management Group, a group she said was already working on groundwater sustainability issues well before the IWVGA was formed. But most members have withdrawn as the IWVGA is performing similar work, but in a more official capacity.

“We were going through a list of what we needed to get accomplished to get our GSA in order,” said Imsand. “We had a few items to knock off our list, and then the county came in. No, you guys have gotten out of control, and you aren’t accomplishing anything.”

Others in attendance were also critical of the GSA board’s progress.

“Over the last three to four months the board has seen three to five different budgets. To me, when you’re doing that, you don’t really have a budget. You’re just shooting from the hip,” said Rajtora. “I believe the bylaws say there’s supposed to be a budget. Right now, when it changes every month, you don’t have a budget.”

“Budgets change constantly,” said San Bernardino Representative Bob Page. “That’s just the way governments work.”

For months members of the public have demanded that the GSA board form a standing finance committee. So Page invited the public to address what they thought was missing from the monthly finance reports.

“A standing finance committee would not just be to review bills and financial reports,” said Hoffman. “It would be to discuss all funding opportunities and financial options. You said a parcel tax was tossed in favor of a volumetric fee. I don’t remember when that was discussed in a public board meeting. A standing finance committee is a place where that could be done.”

Hoffman and others also said that the committee could more aggressively pursue grant funding? and low-interest loans.

The IWVGA will have its second reading and potential approval of the fee ordinance during its June 21 meeting, 10 a.m. at City Hall.

In the meantime, board members plan to arrange an informational meeting, with select members and staff available, for the evening of Thursday, June 7. For more information visit iwvga.org.

Story First Published: 2018-05-25