Groundwater board hears SGMA brief

State reps talk of sustainability approaches, repercussions

By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority heard an update on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act from state representatives earlier this months. While the Authority is on track to meet state deadlines, State Water Resources Control Board representatives discussed the consequences of state involvement and the importance of local stakeholder involvement.

SWRCB Senior Engineer Sam Boland-Brien was on hand, along with Engineering Geologist Natalie Stork, to brief the Authority on the state’s current mandates.

The IWVGA Board was formed as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the IWV groundwater basin and includes members from the city of Ridgecrest, IWV Water District and counties of Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo. The Navy and the Bureau of Land Management also provide reps as nonvoting members.

The GSA’s job is to prevent and reverse “significant or unreasonable” negative impacts to the groundwater table, which include lowering groundwater levels, seawater intrusion, degraded quality and land subsidence among other factors.

“Avoid these undesirable results within the next 20 years, and you’re considered sustainable,” said Boland-Brien. “But you can’t really know what’s sustainable and what you consider significant and unreasonable without talking to your stakeholders and the users of groundwater.”

Boland-Brien said that the coordination of water users from agricultural, domestic, military, industrial and all other fields is important to developing an equitable Groundwater Sustainability Plan that the state would approve.

Stork addressed how the SWRCB would act as a “backstop” if the IWVGA fails to develop an adequate GSP. She said the state “only steps in when local efforts fail,” and potential state involvement would be triggered by various deadlines.

SGMA’s first deadline was 2017, the date by which groundwater basins form GSAs, something our valley has already accomplished. The next step is to submit a plan by 2020 to the SWRCB.

Boland-Brien clarified that the state would have two years to review the plan while the IWVGA would begin moving forward with the most critical aspects. The state could approve the plan or declare it as incomplete, in which case the IWVGA would have 180 days to correct any deficiencies.

If the plan is declared as wholly inadequate then the SWRCB would be authorized to step in and begin implementing fines – a $300 fee per well and a volumetric fee of at least $25 per acre-foot to begin identifying and notifying groundwater extractors. Stork said that meters would also probably be required on private wells and that all pumpers would need to report their use.

“How would you go about metering and measuring private wells?” asked member of the public Judie Decker. “They all sit on private property.”

Boland-Brien said that the board would not physically enforce meters, but would require pumpers to install them or face fines – potentially hundreds of dollars per day.

“That being said, we want to make sure we’re moving forward in the most practical way possible,” he said. “Meters are just the best way to get good data.”

Member of the public Sophia Merk asked if there were any provisions for de minimis water users (groundwater pumpers who extract fewer than two acre-feet annually for domestic use) or members of disadvantaged communities who might not be able to afford meters.

“At this time, we haven’t identified any provisions,” said Stork. “However, we would like to know if there are going to be issues and we can talk and see if there’s any funding available out there.”

Member of the public West Katzenstein asked how water allocations would be prioritized if the state steps in.

Boland-Briend said it was a “pretty complicated question” to which she couldn’t give a definitive answer. “I don’t think we’re going to get it perfect. Because we’re temporary, we’ll try to get as close as we can with the time we have,” he said.

Authority special counsel Jim Markman also referenced the importance of well data as the IWVGA proceeds with developing a plan.

“We have been talking to people trying to build a mutual goal – getting this done, but not getting ahead of the science,” he said. “Right now some of those questions can’t be answered without more information.

“We’re talking to attorneys for all of the pumping interests to get their ideas on what they’d like to avoid. Frankly, my goal is generating a plan that is not worth fighting against with respect to any particular pumping concerns in the basin.”

Markman stressed that the Authority should avoid anything that could be considered inequitable to avoid legal confrontation.

“The technical facts are going to drive the product,” he said.

According to Water Resources Manager Steve Johnson’s report, the Authority has some 45 pumpers reporting extraction info and paying the monthly $30-per-acre-foot pumping fee.

But previous reports from East Kern County Resources Conservation District representatives estimate that there are more than 1,500 private wells in the valley.

Johnson previously stated that well-data collection should have started years ago and that his firm, along with IWVGA staff, has been working to contact well owners and collect data.

The IWVGA meets each third Thursday of the month, 10 a.m. at City Hall. For more information visit iwvga.org.

Story First Published: 2018-11-30