Concerns about costs raised at water board, city council

Concerns about   costs raised at water  board, city councilBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

After a nearly four-hour committee meeting earlier this month to discuss the draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the Indian Wells Valley, the IWV Water District and the Ridgecrest City Council have both continued to discuss the proposal prior to the IWV Groundwater Authority meeting on Thursday.

While the authority’s Policy Advisory and Technical Advisory Committees touched on some of the finer points of the nearly 300-page document, the elephant in the room remains: what will this plan cost the IWV residents? That’s a question authority representatives have yet to answer.

“It affects everybody in the community,” said Water District President Ron Kicinski during the Nov. 12 IWVWD meeting. “We’re going to need to look really hard on how we’re going to pay for it. Is water going to cost more? Yes it will. Is it going to be some extreme amount like some people suggest? I’m hoping there are ways to get around that. It’s a complex issue … there’s no easy solution.”

Stan Rajtora, a member of the IWVWD board, criticized the plan – which includes hundreds of millions of dollars in sustainability projects and more in estimated imported water costs – for being vague in regard to the certainty of costs.

“Quite frankly, there’s nothing in the document that gives us more information than we had three to four years ago in regard to what we’ll have to pay,” said Rajtora. “It’s just not there.”

“This increases the cost of living to everybody in this valley,” said Mike Neel during public comment. “With these backbreaking costs … there are a lot of people that are just going to have to pack up and leave.”

Member of the public Sam Merk also criticized the lack of financial information, particularly since both the public and member agencies of the authority have been requesting a finance committee for years.

“When the people in this community find out how much money they’re going to have to pay, they’re going to say, ‘What happened?’” she said. “Let’s get a finance committee, please. People are really, really upset that there is no finance committee.”

The discussion continued during this week’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council, with Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens questioning how the authority has spent as much money as it has so far, regardless of future projects.

When the authority was seeking a water resources management firm, it selected Stetson Engineers with its $250,000 bid versus a $1.2 million bid from Parker Groundwater.

To date, the authority has paid Stetson some $2 million in consulting fees.

“I hope there will be conversations on trying to manage the budget more,” said Stephens.

She added that proposed limits on agricultural users and industrial users — like Searles Valley Minerals —could have serious impacts on the community.

“We have potentially 500 households in our community that rely on Searles Valley for employment,” she said. “If those were to become vacant, that will really harm us.”

While the GSP lays out many possible projects, authority representatives have said there’s no way to pay for them without public funding or a significant increase in the groundwater pumping fee, which is currently $30 per acre-foot.

“The financial impact of the plan is so unclear and there’s so much uncertainty to it,” said Carole Vaughn of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors during public comment.

“It’s almost impossible to comprehend that someone would think that this kind of rhetoric is a ‘plan.’

“We have no numbers. People are saying they hope we’re going to get grants. It’s nice that we might get grants … but we need more really, truly accurate information.

“We need some real answers and real solutions.”

Details on the authority’s Thursday meeting were not available at press time. See future editions for more information.

Story First Published: 2019-11-22