Four contenders seek two Water Board seats

Four contenders seek two Water Board seatsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Four contenders are vying for two positions on the Indian Wells Valley Water District Board of Directors. Incumbents Peter Brown and Vice President Chuck Griffin are seeking another two years and are facing newcomers Stan Rajtora and David Saint-Amand.

Complicating this year’s election is the existence of the IWV Groundwater Authority. While directors are elected to represent the water district, one director is also responsible for serving as one of the “big three” voting members of the GA – an entirely separate multi-agency board that includes representatives from Ridgecrest, the Navy, Bureau of Land Management and Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo Counties.

The district’s representative – currently Peter Brown – will take over as board chair this coming year. The authority is a state-mandated agency in charge of developing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan to reduce our water pumping to sustainable levels.

Valley residents are currently pumping around 25,000 acre-feet per year with an estimated annual recharge of 7,000-9,000 acre-feet.

Recently, the authority passed a $30-per-acre-foot groundwater pumping fee to cover a $900,000 funding gap to complete GSP development. This amount does not include any fees that may be included in the plan itself.

All of this is on top of the district’s prime directive of ensuring the delivery of water to its customers at a fair and equitable price.

The district is in the process of implementing a 3-percent rate increase, the first of five increases over the next four years, to cover costs. IWVWD also has some $20 million allocated for capital improvements during that time.

Roughly two thirds of the district’s rate revenue comes from fixed costs, a method that prevents the district from being too heavily impacted by continual state-mandated conservation measures.

But critics say a high fixed cost doesn’t reward conservation enough. Some residents say that the higher rate of Tier-3 and -4 users is unfairly high, while others say the heavy users need to continue paying for the bulk of the costs. Some say rates need to be adjusted more to the unique needs of customers.

The News Review asked each candidate to comment on the above issues. Here are their statements:

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• Peter Brown

Brown was born and raised in our valley and has been married 38 years. He’s also owned and operated Earth Landscaping for 38 years and has been an IWV Water District director for 24 years.

“I’m certified to do just about everything in the landscaping world,” said Brown. “Pesticide, backfill prevention, master water auditor, certified water tester – all things water. And I pride myself on my ability to work with people and groups.

“I always try to make sure it’s a group thing, not a ‘Peter Brown’ thing.”

Brown said he doesn’t see any big challenges in the coming years for the water district, except for “knitting with the GSA.”

“Our rates and general fund are perfect,” said Brown. “A lot of that I attribute to our general manager. We’re running really well, and we never worry about if they’ve done something wrong or made the wrong decision. We get so few customer complaints. And they’re generally just people who didn’t pay their bill.”

Brown also spoke positively of the district’s capital improvements, which would provide additional water storage.

“The more you can put into storage, the less you have to pump. That means less wear and tear on the equipment,” he said.

Brown said district’s role with the GA “won’t change much.”

“Our job is to provide water no matter what,” said Brown. “My single focus on the GA is to make sure everybody pays their fair share. Nobody subsidizes it, and nobody takes an unfair hit. To make sure how I’m using other people’s money is the best possible use of it and the fairest possible use of it.”

Brown said that the IWVGA groundwater pumping fee “trickles down to pennies for Water District users.”

“For the farmers, it’s a big deal. They’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars because their extraction is so high. We learned from Sacramento that we can extend the fee for an additional year if we have to, but I don’t see that happening.

In regard to planned rate increases, Brown said he likes what the district is doing. “It’s three percent – that’s just a cost-of-living increase. The largest extractors are paying the most money, and we have a fixed rate to match our fixed costs. All I care about is making the money to pay the bills no matter what.

“In the past, conservation drove us to using our reserves and we don’t want to do that again. That’s what the higher fixed costs and our tier structure is for.”

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• Chuck Griffin

Griffin was also born and raised in Ridgecrest, where he’s raised his six children and nine grandchildren with his wife Ronda.

“I’m a licensed contractor and am self employed,” said Griffin. “I worked for the district in the late ‘90s so I understand the district operations. During that time, I also got my Water Distribution II certificate and have worked hands-on in the drilling of large production wells in the valley.”

Griffin said he thinks the biggest challenge to the district is adhering to the state’ Sustainable Groundwater Management Act through participation in the GA.

He currently serves as the district’s alternate representative to the GA board.

“With the water district as the chair this year, I hope that we can see better communication, more problem solving and less money wasted on things already being studied so we can focus on reaching sustainability,” he said.

Griffin has frequently expressed his frustrations that the water district board and its staff aren’t given ample time to review GA documents before board meetings. When the IWVGA was formed, the original design was for representatives to discuss items with their respective boards to receive direction.

“I believe we are only just seeing the early consequences of SGMA,” said Griffin in regard to the GA’s groundwater pumping fee. “Currently, the fee is seven cents per hundred cubic feet to the ratepayers. But I think once the plan is in place, the cost will go up. Which plan is used will determine how much.”

Griffin has been the primary voice of opposition from the board regarding the current proposed rates.

“I think the rate system currently used is unfair – it is not spread across all ratepayers the same,” he said. While the proposed increase will increase revenues by 3 percent, rates have increased as much as 40 percent in some areas while others are seeing reductions.

“I would like to see a lower “ready-to-serve” charge,” he said. “And since we voted on tiers, I would like to make them equitable to all.”

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• Stan Rajtora

“I was born and raised in Iowa but came to the IWV in 1972 after receiving a PhD in aerospace engineering,” said Rajtora.

“I retired from the Navy after 36 years as a senior civilian engineering analyst.

“Being retired, I have time to devote to the position of boardmember. I have been engaged with the IWVWWD and the city for many years, attending hundreds of meetings and encouraging transparency, accountability and fiscal integrity.

“I’m a problem solver. I would like to use my expertise to help this valley.”

Rajtora said keeping costs under control while the state demands we bring sustainability to our aquifer will be the biggest challenge in the coming years.

“The district has had opportunities in the past to mitigate the overdraft and failed to take appropriate action,” said Rajtora. “We failed to partner with the Department of Water and Power in a water banking opportunity, and we failed to buy out a farming operation when the opportunity existed. We are now revisiting those two options, but likely at a significant increase in cost.”

Rajtora said he hopes the district will bring an increased sense of transparency as chair of the GA.

“For the past year both the city and the district have been in favor of a GA Finance Committee,” he said. “With water district leadership, this will hopefully happen.”

Rajtora said future groundwater fees are impossible to know until the GSP is released, but pumpers shouldn’t be the only ones bearing the costs.

“Kern County encouraged farming in our valley to expand its tax base,” he said. “The county has a responsibility to help solve the problem they were more than partially responsible for creating.”

He added that we should work with our congressional leaders to acquire federal funds on behalf of the base’s water use.

“The most common complaint I hear is the fixed fee is too high,” said Rajtora in regard to the district’s rates. “The higher-tier rates are too high and the lower-tier rates are a disincentive to conservation.”

Rajtora is also against raising rates to accommodate capital improvements. “The district has two ways to live within its means – it can increase fees or it can reduce spending. Considering the uncertainty in the future costs of GA projects, it would be prudent to reduce spending on the capital growth projects.

“We now have a respectable reserve. There is no reason to not revert to a past rate structure that was equitable for all water users.”

In regard to “needs-based” rates, Rajtora is in favor of keeping them simple and adjusting our current tiered rates.

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• David Saint-Amand

Saint-Amand was born and raised in our valley. A Burroughs High School graduate, he’s continued to live and work here with his wife Cheryl.

“I will apply my knowledge of geology and my talents in program management to solving the major issues facing the water district – developing additional sources of water and addressing the recent state mandates for water conservation and sustainability,” he said.

“Our GA has made more progress toward [state-mandated sustainability] than most of the GAs in the state,” said Saint-Amand. “Our representatives are regularly consulted by state officers and other GAs … I would like to see that influence continue and grow.”

He said that the district, as chair of the GA, should place an emphasis on sound leadership, fiscal responsibility and community outreach.

He said that the current pumping fee should be affecting customers at an average of about $1.38 per month. But he also that the fees “will likely change once the final GSP is adopted and the cost to implement the plan is realized.”

Saint-Amand also addressed many concerns about the district’s rate structure. He believes the district’s proposed rates are “fiscally responsible, in compliance with Proposition 218 and will ensure that the water district can provide a reliable source of water at a reasonable price to its customers.

“Customers who use enough of a commodity to make it into the upper tiers are going to pay more for the commodity they used at a higher-tier levels,” he continued. “The intent of that is to encourage conservation.

“Lowering the cost of the rates for the top tiers would only diminish the incentive for the top-tier water users to conserve water.”

He noted that while the fixed ready-to-serve charge does make up the largest portion of revenue rates, it is still being reduced in the proposed rate changes. He said he is opposed to needs-based rates.

“Proponents of needs-based tier structures typically propose lower water rates for households with many people living under one roof, and for people with livestock, or large landscaped areas, etc,” he said. “Each needs-based customer would have to regularly report this information to the water district. The district in turn would have to hire two or more new employees to track that information, which would be virtually impossible to confirm without regularly intruding into the privacy of the customers.”

Story First Published: 2018-10-19