Groundwater Authority passes pump fee 3-1

Groundwater Authority passes pump fee 3-1By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

A monthly groundwater pumping fee was formally approved last week by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority. Acting as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the IWV, the Authority passed the $30-per-acre-foot fee to cover a $930,000 funding gap in its roughly $5 million budget.

The fee won’t affect “de minimis” private well owners who pump less than two acre-feet annually for domestic purposes, but will affect agriculture and industrial pumpers – as well as members of the Indian Wells Valley Water District, Inyokern Community Services District or other pumping cooperative.

Federal agencies like the Navy and the Bureau of Land Management are also exempt from the fee, which is designed only to fund the Authority through the creation of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. Any sustainability measures in the plan such as importation of water would need additional funding in the future.

“If there’s a problem with the water levels going down, we need to solve it together,” Steve Johnson, president of Stetson Engineers. The Authority contracted Johnson’s firm as water resources manager to help develop a GSP.

Johnson thanked valley residents for their public engagement in the wake of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Manage-ment Act. The 2014 legislation requires California groundwater basins to begin managing pumping for the first time.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing since the IWVGA’s formation in 2015. While SGMA stresses public participation, valley residents have complained that poor public outreach, improperly managed finances and general lack of transparency have left them in the dark.

“You said you’re going to send out registration forms – who are you going to send them to?” asked Judie Decker during public comment.

The ordinance includes the requirement for affected pumpers to register their wells by Aug. 20. While there are an estimated 1,800 private wells in the valley, fewer than 500 notices have been sent out.

“Members of the public have requested that you send notifications to every APN in the valley,” said Decker. “If there are 1,800 private wells – whether they are single wells, mutual wells, co-ops, ag wells or whatever – they all need to be notified. Your key here is communication.”

Mayor Peggy Breeden, current chair of the IWVGA, said she’d like to send notices out to all residences in the Ridgecrest and Inyokern zip codes, but Decker mentioned that some of the largest ag pumpers may not even live in the valley.

“We’ve talked to everybody we can about getting the information they have to us,” said Johnson. “Is it 100 percent complete? Probably not. But depending on how we approach this, it can be done relatively inexpensively or it can be done expensively. If we have to go out on foot and try to field verify everything, somebody needs to do that. And the Authority doesn’t really have a staff.”

“I think everybody acknowledges that we don’t have perfect knowledge yet about all of the pumpers,” said Legal Counsel Keith Lemieux. “And we’re not entirely sure with any level of precision. We’ve got, at best, a guess as to how much [groundwater] is going to be produced and that results in an estimate regarding the fee. But that’s the case all the time when you’re adopting fees.”

Policy Advisory Committee Chair Donna Thomas asked the board to clarify what action it is authorized to take for those who fail to report or fail to pay the fee.

“We do not have the power to shut off a well like the water district does,” said Legal Counsel Phil Hall. “Unfortunately, SGMA only allows us civil action to enforce the fee or turn somebody off to stop them from pumping.”

Members of the Technical Advisory Committee have also voiced concerns about being heard – such as their committee’s inability to vote on items.

“The idea that somehow we’re going to achieve consensus is a pretty nebulous concept,” said TAC Member Don Decker. “If you don’t actually have a vote on something, are we just listening to mumblings that the members are offering or what?”

Lemieux said the TAC committee was designed to have a “symposium” type of structure and could report its consensus, “as well as a written summary of comments reflecting areas of disagreement,” to the water resources manager through the chair. But Decker disagreed.

“The comments are that there are members who wanted a more symposium-like meeting, I don’t recall any discussion at a meeting or recall members that actuallywere interested in such a thing,” he said. “We’re not just some Friday night frat party — we’re actually trying to accomplish some very serious matters, and if we aren’t documenting it as part of the record, that record is imperfect.”

Lemieux responded to some of Decker’s comments and said that while the committee is not legally required to vote, it could vote on any given item “as a way of crystallizing any given position.” However, TAC Chair Adam Bingham has halted discussion in the past and prevented committee members from voting on items.

“I’m disappointed that the TAC is being bogged down by process,” said Authority Director Mick Gleason, Kern County 1st District supervisor. “The TAC is probably one of the most invaluable organizations we have and we need to be focused on technical solutions and technical merits. They need to plow through and not be worried about process. I personally don’t care if the TAC votes or doesn’t vote.

“You want to say the sky is blue and four guys say it’s green, fine. I encourage the TAC to stop getting bogged down on this voting issue. I just want to see the TAC plowing ground.”

Breeden was the only director who opposed the fee. (Director Matt Kingsley (Inyo County) was absent.) She explained that she voted no only because the Ridgecrest City Council directed her to do so.

“However I do have concerns about my no vote,” she said. “If this is not passed, it means the total cost will be divided by three entities and that rather than all the people we will say that the citizens of Ridgecrest will pay through the water district, they will pay through the city and I do not believe that is fair in that respect in that all the water users do not pay.

“I think at some point we all will need to pay and I don’t want to see those dollars just relegated simply to water district users, city of Ridgecrest users and [Kern County] to pay. In 2020 we all will have to pay if indeed this is approved, and if it isn’t, the state has already given us figures, and we know it will be greater than any fee that is being considered at this time if they come and do it.”

In terms of financing groundwater sustainability efforts, Gleason added that Kern County “has carried this load early on, and I’m glad to see the other agencies more and more every day take responsibility for this phenomenon.”

Some members of the public have argued that groundwater management was already the county’s responsibility to begin with.

“For years Kern County was encouraging farmers to come to our valley,” said Stan Rajtora during a previous meeting. He argued that since the county has always received the lion’s share of taxes, managing groundwater has always been its responsibility.

The fee is scheduled to go into effect sometime in early September. The IWV Groundwater Authority meets the third Thursday of each month, 10 a.m. at City Hall.

Story First Published: 2018-07-27