Financial, legal concerns aired at GSP meeting

Financial, legal concerns aired at GSP meetingBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

When the draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan was presented to the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority committees last week, some said it raised more questions than it answered — specifically how the valley would pay for more than $200 million in proposed projects and millions more in imported water costs.

“When the smoke clears … what is the net effect when you consider all the annual costs in terms of what a typical ratepayer might pay?” asked Technical Advisory Committee member Wade Major.

“We have not analyzed that,” said Jeff Helsley with Stetson Engineers, the authority’s water resource management firm. “Frankly, I don’t think some of these projects can be implemented unless we get public funding.”

Proposed projects include $9,200,000 for an annual pumping allocation plan, a transient groundwater pool and a fallowing program and two options for developing an imported water supply at $226,365,000 or $103,436, 000. Neither option includes the annual cost of up to 5,000 acre-feet of imported water, estimated at $2,000-$4,000 per acre-foot.

Recycled water programs are estimated to cost between $10,183,200 and $42,747,200, with $1,720, 000 for a shallow well mitigation program, $19,000,000 for a dust-control mitigation program, $23,000,000 for a pumping optimization project and more than $100,000 in annual costs for other conservation efforts and GSP monitoring and reporting.

TAC Vice Chair Eddie Teasdale said it’s unclear why $19 million is needed for dust-control mitigation. “Does that include buying out certain areas? Or someone going out and spraying down the fields once a week?” he asked.

Helsley said his firm was presenting a range of costs and that the $19 million figure represented “one of the more expensive” measures of buying out all of the agricultural property and needing to perform dust control over all of it.

Teasdale said the costs identified in the plan needed more explanation and more detail.

The latest suggested pumping allocations guarantee water at its current pumping rate to the Navy, de minimis users, the city of Ridgecrest, Kern County, the IWV Water District, the Inyokern Community Service District, small mutuals, Trona and Searles Valley Minerals. The water district and SVM would each need an expected 4,500 acre-feet of augmented water supply.

Agricultural interests are expected to share a finite pool of some 50,000-60,000 acre-feet, giving some outfits less than a year of water use at their current pumping rates.

During public comment, Meadowbrook Dairy Attorney Derek Hoffman asked what the basis for the allocation figures was. Markman said the figures were reviewed by the authority in closed-session meetings “under threat of litigation.”

“We’ve had about 10 threats of litigation over all these water rights issues,” he added.

“Is that allocation amount going to be approximately the same through 2030?” asked Camille Anderson, who represents industrial interests on the Policy Advisory Committee.

“Some of that is going to depend on the success of importing water and the ability of pumpers to pay,” said JimMarkman, who was on hand as special legal counsel to the authority.

“Pumping is not going to stop if you’re willing to pay the augmentation assessment – but that could be a number that’s extremely high. And it’s hard to understand what uses could afford that other than the [IWV Water] district.”

Anderson said the dollar amount for proposed projects over the next five years was “a pretty big number” and asked if it was realistic. She estimated it would cost more than $2,000 annually per valley resident.

PAC Member Judie Decker also asked how the authority intended to enforce fees when the time came.

“How sure are you that you have identified all the pumpers?” asked Decker. She said there are many mutuals, co-ops and other private wells in the valley and pointed out that the plan included varying figures between 800-900 for the number of de minimis pumpers.

Steve Johnson of Stetson said the authority plans to have a public hearing where pumpers can bring in their pumping information, but that he didn’t have an answer to her questions about whether all the pumpers had been identified or how to enforce fees or assessments.

Joshua Nugent, an agricultural representative on the PAC, said that the pumping allocations would allow Mojave Pistachios to operate for about six to eight more months before running out of water. “When are we going to find out how long we have to operate?” he asked.

Markman said the allocations were still subject to California Department of Water Resources and court review.

“I recognize the uncertainty that does remain in the plan from a business perspective,” said Helsley. “It’s the most detailed allocation plan I’ve seen in any GSP that’s been released so far.”

Helsley said the current allocations are based on the best information the authority has, but that it will be updated and readdressed as the authority discovers more information.

Nugent criticized the plan saying that other GSPs “had not suggested that they’re going to be putting people out of business within 12 months of implementation.

“In my mind if you engineer a system where you just make the water so prohibitively expensive, that’s the same as saying someone can’t pump. The plan just generated as many questions, controversies and litigation issues as it helped answer.”

Markman said that if continued agriculture can’t afford a proportionate share of imported water, that could justify why it shouldn’t survive.

The authority will continue collecting committee comments through Dec. 2, when the commenting period for the public will open and continue through Jan. 16. The IWVGA intends to submit the final GSP on Jan. 24.

Johnson said the authority is planning an evening public meeting for mid-December, but a firm date and time haven’t been set.

The public can expect more discussion of the draft GSP at the Authority's next board meeting on Thursday, Nov. 21, at City Hall. Open session begins at 11 a.m. Draft GSP sections and agenda information are available online at iwvga.org.

Story First Published: 2019-11-15