Council says no to pumping fee

Groundwater authority spending, transparency concerns continue to mount

Council says no to pumping feeBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

After seeking direction from Ridgecrest City Council, Mayor Peggy Breeden was directed to oppose any further approval of a groundwater pumping fee from the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority. Members of the public and council have been critical of the Authority’s lack of financial transparency, bloated costs and incomplete information on private wells.

Breeden is chair of the state-mandated, multi-entity Ground-water Sustainability Agency, which hosts representation from the city, IWV Water District, counties of Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino, the Navy and the Bureau of Land Management.

The IWVGA voted to approve a $30-per-acre-foot pumping fee on Thursday which will take effect in roughly a month. The purpose of the fee is to cover a $900,000 funding gap in the Authority’s $5 million budget. Most water users in the valley – residential users served by the IWV Water District – use less than an acre-foot per year, and charges will be reflected in the water district’s billing.

“I’m being told our our GSA is one of the most expensive in the state,” said Councilmember Wallace Martin. “An exact formula for calculating fees hasn’t been addressed, and a finance committee was never established. We have yet to determine either of these.”

Councilmember Lindsey Stephens pointed out that our Groundwater Sustainability Plan development was costing more than the Kern Subbasin GSA, which includes 21 water districts, 800,000 residents and 500,000 acres of crops and has a 2.5-million-acre-foot water demand.

“That’s compared to our one water district, 30,000 people, 3,000 acres of crops and 26,000 acre feet of water demand. Just hearing that gives me pause. It seems very apparent that our costs are really, really expensive.”

Martin and Stephens both also pointed out that other basins were charging fees closer to $6-8 per acre-foot.

Mayor Breeden said that comparing our GSA to others was an “apples to oranges” comparison and added that it is “inappropriate and disrespectful to our community and our valley that have entirely different conditions.”

Breeden has frequently said that our basin is unique in that we have 2 million acre-feet of water in storage. But the State Water Resources Control Board is not concerned with water in storage, only declining water tables. While some private well owners have reported their wells dropping one to two feet per year, the basin average decline is roughly six inches.

Breeden said that while agriculture has a legitimate right to farm in the valley, ag’s pumping needs to be addressed since farmers are the largest pumpers in the valley.

“Whether they’re bought out by somebody or start installing solar panels … there have been many discussions,” said Breeden.

Elaine Mead, a member of the public, pointed out that the valley needs the farmers, at least in the short term, to be able to fund the GSA. Without agriculture the pumping fee would never meet the $900,000 funding gap.

“I’m a farm girl,” said Breeden. “I never said the farmers ought to go away. But we live in a desert, and we have a limited amount of water supply.”

But an incensed Larry Mead, a prior valley farmer, took issue with Breeden’s comments. “This is to Peggy Breeden,” he said. “The person that told me year after year that I should go away. That I should be out of business because the farms are using water. You sat there and told me, in the late ’80s, that I should donate my property.”

Breeden responded only that she “couldn’t answer” his accusations.

“I know you can’t answer it, because you spin everything,” said Mead. “You told me I should go away and donate my livelihood. You told me that in your car.”

Breeden did not respond.

IWV Water District Director Peter Brown, a representative on the Authority board, addressed some of the concerns during public comment. Brown said that better funded areas already had water-storage infrastructure in place which significantly mitigated costs.

“Everybody is unique; there’s no strategy that fits everywhere,” he said. “Coastal communities have entirely different problems like seawater intrusion … I just went to a water summit in Sacramento. What I heard was – ‘We’re on track.’”

Brown also compared much of the public outcry surrounding the fees to “buzzing of mosquitoes.”

“We’re spending too much time on minutia. The $30 per acre foot is the most conservative number we can use.”

He added that he is still personally going through the budget and is hoping to cut an additional $40,000 from the funding gap.

“I still don’t feel completely comfortable moving forward,” said Stephens. “I hear what you said, but it still gives me a lot of pause. I feel like we owe the public due diligence to really prove why it’s so much higher.”

Scott O’Neill, a member of the Authority’s Technical Advisory Committee, said that the fee is a difficult issue, but that the board needs to move forward with it.

“Some of the earlier comment that I heard tonight in forming their opinion and guidance for the vote tomorrow on the fee — I heard words like ‘I heard’ and ‘I think.’ I expect our representatives to go out and attend these meetings. These are hard issues, and there are a lot of good people working on them.

“What I heard was a lot of misinformation, misunderstandings and ignorance. I really do think we need to start moving forward. This is a lot like making sausage. It isn’t pretty, but we can’t wait to have precision. We’ve got to make the best decisions we can and move forward.”

Both the city and the water district have requested that the Authority form a public finance committee, but the request was never approved. The Authority also discussed a fee more than a year ago, but never pursued it further.

Another issue has been that of well registration. While private wells drilled since 1980 are registered with the county, there are still hundreds of unregistered private wells. While the GSA is pushing for well owners to register their wells and report their use, currently registered pumpers don’t want to pay fees while there are still anonymous pumpers out there.

Most pumpers are de minimis users, pumping less than two acre-feet per year for domestic use. But many stakeholders don’t support a fee until all pumpers are accounted for. While there are an estimated 1,800 private wells in the valley, the GSA has sent out fewer than 500 notices to the public about well registration.

“This process should have started years ago,” said Water Resources Manager Steve Johnson. Johnson, of Stetson Engineers, was contracted by the Authority to develop the basin’s GSP. Johnson was on hand to field questions during a July 10 public meeting at Kerr McGee Center.

“But even though there’s no requirement, it’s going to help us a lot trying to do the work that needs to be done if we have more information,” he said.

“We’ve got to know what water is coming out for this to make more sense. This is your basin, this is your water supply, this is the future of your valley.”

At the council meeting, Stephens pointed to the McMullin Area GSA that charged a fee based on acreage rather than pumping. In the report, the GSA states that it would only charge a pumping fee if “pumping data is available and costs are highly dependent on observed pumping.”

Property fees would also be contingent on a Proposition 218 hearing. City Attorney Lloyd Pilchin said that the GSA could forgo a Prop 218 hearing for our pumping fee, since the fee is “not a property-related charge.”

Also at the public meeting were attorneys for the city and water district, Keith LeMieux and Jim Worth.

The fact that the attorneys were answering most of the questions and the absence of any Authority boardmembers also raised concerns.

“I really believe it would have been better served by a moderator or facilitator,” said Martin. “The attorneys were allowed to completely conduct the meeting. I don’t see how this makes sense.”

In a separate interview, Breeden said she attended the meeting, but did not want to answer questions since nobody else on the board was available.

“The feeling was that I couldn’t do it by myself. All of us needed to be there or none of us,” she said. “It would be unfair to expect me to answer for all of those entities.”

When it was brought to her attention that attorneys are not accountable to the valley residents, but elected officials are, Breeden answered, “Point taken.”

She continued that she couldn’t answer whether or not it was appropriate for the lawyers to be fielding questions, but valley residents can always call their representative or contact the board through iwvga.org. The Authority also meets every third Thursday, 10 a.m. at City Hall.

But the reason for the July 10 meeting was to have an evening meeting where people who work during the day could attend.

In addition to financial transparency, locals took issue with private “pre meetings,” potentially in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act.

According to Breeden, the Authority holds private meetings prior to closed session with the board chair, vice chair, Policy and Technical Advisory Committee chairs and legal counsel.

While the Authority board has five voting members, some argue that a meeting of any two of the “big three” — Ridgecrest, Kern County and the water district — representatives constitutes a quorum of the board.

“Any two of those directors can veto anything,” said Rajtora. “Therefore if you get two of those people in the same room, they can decide to kill any action. I believe in this particular case [County Counsel Phil Hall] was correct in saying two people do create a Brown Act violation.”

The Groundwater Authority met Thursday to approve the fee. More details were not available at press time. More information will appear in future editions.

Pictured: Well owners and other members of the public express concerns at last week’s informational meeting of the IWV?Groundwater Authority. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2018-07-20