Pump fee workshop cut short

Meeting canceled after hundreds pack meeting space

Pump fee workshop cut shortScores of well owners and other stakeholders spill out of the facilty housing last week’s meeting. — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Tensions mounted last Thursday as hundreds of well owners and other interested area residents packed the Inyokern Senior Center and spilled out into the parking lot, straining to hear information about a proposed $35-per-acre-foot groundwater pumping fee.

Ridgecrest City Manager Ron Strand, acting general manager for the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority, and legal counsel Jim Worth were present to fill the community in on the details. But as the public displayed increasing anger and frustration with the inadequate venue and sound system, the meeting was ended and will be rescheduled at a later date.

The proposed pumping fee, in addition to some $2 million in state grants and other funding sources, would sustain the IWVGA through the summer of 2020 when it establishes a state-required Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the IWV basin. Authority representatives have stated that the proposed fee is only a precursor to any fees stemming from the actual GSP, which could be more substantial.

The would-be-meeting was addressed during Monday’s meeting of the IWV Water District’s board of directors. Members of the public criticized the authority’s lack of foresight regarding the meeting, but also questioned whether they had all of the information to be deciding on a pumping fee.

“Whether it’s now or later, you’re going to be collecting funds,” said Judie Decker, a local well owner. “You need to be 100-percent sure you have all of the parcels, all of the names and all of the wells.”

Decker said she and several acquaintances, all well owners, never received a notice about the meeting. “I understand there were postcards that were sent out, but we didn’t get one. You have to let everyone know what’s going on.”

Water hauler Sophia Merk noted that there are an estimated 1,800 wells in the valley, but that the IWVGA sent out fewer than 500 notices – some of which were duplicates being sent to the same address (one resident reported receiving 17 notices). Others who received notices no longer had active wells.

“I did take some responsibility scheduling it there,” said IWVWD General Manager Don Zdeba, who was also present to answer questions at the Inyokern meeting. He specified that on of the reasons to have the meeting in Inyokern was to accommodate the well owners who live there.

“I said 25 or so people would show. I think they were assuming it would be the same people that showed up for the GSA meetings – that’s why they had it set up like a lunch with tables and chairs. But as soon as I walked in, I knew that it wasn’t going to work.”

Zdeba added that he was surprised at some people’s limited knowledge of the state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Manage-ment Act – the entire impetus for the formation of the IWVGA as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

It was also evident from some of the comments that some locals were confusing the IWVGA’s proposed pump fee for the recently passed California Assembly Bill that will penalize residential water use in excess of 50 gallons per capita per day.

“It just speaks to the fact that the outreach has not been effective,” said Zdeba. “We need to take a serious look at that. But I’m sure we engaged a whole new group that we hadn’t engaged before.”

Not everyone blamed the various water agencies for the meeting’s failure. Water District Director Peter Brown attributed the cancellation to the overly aggressive public.

“I know it was a crappy meeting; it was a good intent, though. It could have been better, but there were people in there who weren’t very nice — just a few of them, but they ruined it for everybody.

“It was an attempt in good faith and total transparency to do the right thing. It was really sad that Don and Jim couldn’t answer questions without people yelling at them,” said Brown.

IWVWD President Ron Kicinski suggested the Authority’s Policy Advisory Committee be more of a public advisory committee, responsible for getting the word out. He said the biggest takeaway from a recent GSA summit was how GSAs approached the stakeholders.

But in regards to the committee, Decker responded from the audience that the GSA “doesn’t let them do anything.”

The GSA’s Policy and Technical Advisory Committee meetings have been dominated by concerns over what their tasks are, what they can and can’t discuss and what they are allowed to vote on. Tensions peaked last month when TAC members were told they weren’t authorized to vote to approve their own minutes.

PAC Chair Donna Thomas addressed the water district board with some recommendations she had for the GSA. “This was the first time that the PAC was allowed to actually review some information,” she added.

She had concerns that the board’s draft ordinance stressed noncompliance penalties rather than a “message of cooperation and public buy-in.”

“We are asking our residents to take ownership and responsibility in sustaining our future. We need public trust and buy-in to make this effort successful.”

She seconded comments that the fee should be delayed as the GSA continues to gather local well data.

“I fully agree with you that we need to engage their trust,” said Kicinski. “I believe that’s going to take a lot of work. Many of these GSAs did one-on-ones with the well owners. After the last [GSA] meeting as I was talking to some people who know me very well, it was clear that the message isn’t getting out there correctly.”

The IWVGA will postpone its decision on the fee ordinance. The GSA board originally intended to pass the ordinance at its June 21 meeting, but is punting the decision to July.

Strand added that the rescheduled informational meeting won’t be until after the June 21 GSA meeting and will probably be held during evening hours at City Hall.

Story First Published: 2018-06-15