Council opposes pump fee ordinance

Councilmembers request another public meeting before moving forward

Council opposes pump fee ordinanceRidgecrest City Council and staff discuss Thursday’s IWV Groundwater Authority agenda, which includes the first reading of a groundwater pumping fee, during this week’s council meeting. — Photo by Laura Austin

------

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Members of the Ridgecrest City Council voiced concerns earlier this week about the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s proposed ordinance to charge a pumping fee to all groundwater pumpers in the IWV.

The first reading of the ordinance – showing options for a $25- and $35-per-acre-foot charge – was on the agenda for the Authority’s June 21 meeting. Members of the public were expecting the chance to attend an informational meeting about the fees before the first reading occurred; however, the proposed meeting at the Inyokern Senior Center was cancelled due to an overcrowded meeting space, inadequate preparation and an irate public.

The city council voted 3-2 on Wednesday in favor of a suggestion by Mayor Peggy Breeden – current chair of the Authority – that the board delay the first reading until an informational meeting can be scheduled in a more appropriate venue. The Authority did meet Thursday morning, 10 a.m., at City Hall, but details were not available at press time.

The proposed fee is designed to provide gap funding for the Authority’s administrative costs in setting up a Groundwater Sustainability Plan by summer 2020 as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The funding shortfall has been reduced from about $1.5 million to $930,000, bringing the 21-month fee down to $25 per acre foot. Another option is to keep the fee at $35 and charge for only 15 months.

Councilmember Lindsey Stephens was adamant that the reading be delayed in an effort to regain a degree of public trust.

“Everyone was told at the Inyokern meeting that it was going to be rescheduled, but now it sounds like you’re moving forward without having one,” said Stephens. “It just seems like you’re having a meeting to tell people what you’re going to do, not to ask them their thoughts.

“I can understand why a lot of people showed up in an uproar.”

Councilmember Wallace Martin referred to the Inyokern meeting as a “fiasco” and added that of the water meetings he’s attended, he gets a “distinct feeling that decisions are set before the meetings begin.”

“Everybody at that meeting was promised another meeting before the board tells them exactly what’s going to happen to them,” said Martin. “If you don’t have another meeting first, you’re going to have holy hell to pay with a whole lot of people. You better have another meeting, and you better send out notices to every well owner.”

Members of the public and Authority boardmembers have recognized the importance of separate public meetings, since the board regularly meets at 10 a.m. on a weekday. Breeden said that when they nail down a day for the rescheduled meeting, it will be in the evening at City Hall.

The Authority sent out hundreds of notices to local well owners, more than a hundred of which came back as undeliverable. But there are reportedly some 1,800 private wells in the valley.

“Having wells registered is the only way to know who to contact,” said City Manager Ron Strand, acting general manager of the Authority. “This is going to be a long process. This is not the first or the last time we’re going to need to send information to the public.”

Several members of the public have criticized the Authority for moving forward with fees before thoroughly collecting more information on all the active wells in the valley.

“The [Authority] has had a year and a half to find out who all the well owners are,” said Stan Rajtora. “I agree we have to do something. I don’t think we have to do it in crisis mode. Spend an extra month or two figuring out who we need to get information from.”

He added that since agriculture will have quit pumping for the cold months by the time the Authority can approve anything, postponing the decision shouldn’t heavily impact cash flow.

Norm Alexander of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors also asked the Authority to continue exploring funding options other than fees.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars available in grants from seven different organizations,” he said. “The Department of Water Resources is also willing to front money for Groundwater Sustainability Plans being set up. We’re opposed to these fees, especially when there are other options out there.”

One of the big questions that well owners are still waiting to have answered is a determination of who is exempt from the pumping fee. SGMA states that “de minimis” users, pumpers who use less than two acre feet of water from a single well for commercial use, are exempt from paying groundwater sustainability fees.

The average household in the valley uses less than one acre foot (an acre foot is approximately 326,000 gallons) annually. But most of those users hook into the IWV Water District, whose fees will be covered by the ratepayers.

Strand said that as long as a well pumps less than two acre feet annually, and serves four or fewer properties, those users will be considered de minimis. But the Department of Water Resources says de minimis status applies only to a single property on a single well, meaning that people who share wells, regardless of how little they pump, would no longer be considered de minimis users.

But ultimately, many feel that the very idea of SGMA and the demand for well owners to monitor use are examples of government overreach.

After cancellation of the meeting, a private group Friends of the Indian Wells Valley invited the public to its own meeting at Old Town Theatre on Tuesday evening. Hosting the meeting was Julius Botehlo, who gave a presentation on the Center for Self Governance, an educational organization that encourages citizens to keep their governments accountable.

Botehlo introduced Lorry Wagner of Friends of the IWV, a loosely affiliated group of well owners. “We’re made up of people who are concerned about this valley and water rights,” said Wagner. “Our welfare and livelihood is being threatened by foolish government overreach.”

Meeting attendee Judie Decker stood up from the audience to announce that there was already a long-standing well owners association, run by her husband, in the valley. Botehlo offered her an unoccupied table and notepad in the back of the room to collect information from those interested in joining.

What resulted was a hodgepodge of networking among well owners, information on the CSG and a documentary-video showing about the Bundy standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. Some who showed up eager only to hear about the groundwater fees were able to find Strand, attending as an interested member of the public, who stuck around to chat with interested parties about the Authority’s fees and mission.

Botehlo admitted that he was sorry he couldn’t answer questions about the groundwater fees, but he encouraged locals to get educated and take responsibility about government overreach.

Stephens echoed this sentiment during the council discussion.

“There are levels of government for a reason,” she said. “The people closest to the issue are supposed to be looking at it. The whole idea of SGMA – it seems to me the state is overreaching.”

She said that the recent Assembly bill reducing residential water use to 55 gallons per day was just adding to the state’s unreasonable measures.

“We need to have a legitimate conversation with the governor’s office to say, ‘You’re going too far for our area.’”

Breeden and Strand argued that SGMA already encouraged local control, and it is only failure to form a plan that would prompt state intervention. “Do you want the state to come in and tell us how to live?” asked Breeden.

“They already are,” said Stephens. “My vote is not to go forward with the first reading because it’s just going to make the public more irate.”

Martin agreed that SGMA was an unfunded state mandate and needed to be resisted. He likened it to the city’s recent decision to reject the state’s sanctuary status. If more cities got on board, he said, the governor’s office may have to make some compromises.

“I personally think you need to move forward with this thing,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mower.

“Even if Councilmembers Stephens and Martin are correct, we still need to protect ourselves,” said Vice Mayor Eddie Thomas. He said he understood the frustrations, but didn’t want to be penalized by going against the state’s directives. “We’re up against a deadline. We’re not protecting ourselves if we don’t get anything done.”

“There is a sense of urgency,” said Strand. “If we wait three to four more months, the fee goes up. It’s obvious that we don’t have all the information,” but he said the Authority needed to move forward with the fee.

Stephens, Martin and Thomas all opposed the direction to continue with the first reading before holding another public forum. As the first reading of the ordinance was not an action item, it was unclear exactly what Breeden’s direction should be.

See future editions for more groundwater coverage.

Story First Published: 2018-06-22