‘We’re going to have to beg, borrow, steal’

Gleason addresses costs at groundwater public workshop

‘We’re going to have to beg, borrow, steal’By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority held a public workshop last week to discuss its draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan prior to a regular meeting on Dec. 19. Staff gave an overview of the $200-million-plus plan, but the big question was the same as it’s been since the plan was first announced: how are valley residents going to pay for this?

The authority normally meets in the morning on the third Thursday of the month at City Hall. At the public’s request for an evening meeting, the authority held the workshop on Thursday, Dec. 12, 6 p.m., at the Kerr McGee Center. While the workshop had slightly better attendance than the authority’s regular meetings, most speakers were committee members or regular contributors to the groundwater dialogue.

Kern County 1st District Supervisor, and Authority Boardmember Mick Gleason attended the meeting and addressed parts of the plan — specifically provisions for importing water. In recent years Gleason has spoken skeptically of pursuing imported water because of its prohibitive costs. But his latest take is that there may not be another option.

“We need to be as forthright as we can be about costs,” said Gleason. “We’re talking about a heck of a lot of money. Just paying for this plan alone is a challenge.”

The authority implemented a $30-per-acrefoot groundwater pumping fee last year to cover a nearly $1-million shortfall to pay for GSP development. But after the fee generated less revenue than projected, the board is discussing increasing the fee to $75 per acrefoot.

Once the plan is put into motion, the authority hopes to implement groundwater mitigation and augmentation projects in addition to racking up administrative and legal costs. Water importation costs are projected in the neighborhood of $175 million for infrastructure alone, plus millions more per year to pay for the actual water.

“To me, this seems like an awful lot of money for a little town like Ridgecrest,” said attendee Ralph Lachenmaier. “Can we really afford this?”

“We’re going to have to beg, borrow and steal,” said Gleason. He added that while the Navy is not obligated to contribute financially as a federal entity, he hopes the Navy will “come across and help us out.”

Current pumping is estimated at some 25,000-30,000 acrefeet annually with a natural recharge of only $7,650 acrefeet. The proposed plan will provide enough water for the Navy and the general public, while ramping agricultural and industrial use down to nothing in the near future.

The plan requires an augmented water supply of some sort for entities like Searles Valley Minerals and even to help IWV Water District customers pump at their current rates.

Projected GSP costs take into account modest growth equating to a 1-percent annual increase to the water district’s needs – an assumption that not everyone is comfortable with.

Member of the public and Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors President Norm Alexander cautioned against even the appearance that water availability would limit growth for the Ridgecrest community. He cited estimates from the military that desired defense contracts could bring thousands more people to the valley over the next five years.

“We need to control the narrative for future growth on the base,” said Alexander.

He also questioned why a community of scientific minds wasn’t looking more “outside the box” for solutions.

“We have two variables – usage and recharge – and we’re trying to balance those,” said Alexander. “We aren’t looking at any other solutions? We’ve got all these PhDs, all these technical folks, and right now we’re just trying to cut costs. We’re not trying to be innovative at all.”

He said technologies like desalination are likely to be much less expensive as the technology develops over the next several decades. And with more than a million acrefeet of groundwater in storage, the IWV has a safe buffer for the near future.

“There’s going to be technology to solve this problem. But we’re breaking our backs trying to get down to this 7,650 acrefeet, and there may be a technical solution,” said Alexander.

There was also the question of the severity of the groundwater basin’s decline. The authority’s Water Resource Manager Steve Johnson reported that the basin is declining at 1.5-2 feet per year on average in certain parts of the basin.

But during the IWV Land Use Management Plan hearings in 2014, the IWV Water District and Kern County Water Agency reported figures closer to six inches annually – a figure matched in China Lake’s 2004 Environmental Impact Report.

The 7,650 acrefoot recharge estimate stemmed from a Kern County-funded report by Todd Engineers. While most reports estimate a recharge in the 5,000-11,000 acrefoot range, Todd Engineers President Iris Priestaf said more studies were needed to attain a more definitive figure.

Another barrier to firm data is the number of unregistered wells in the valley.

The authority has had to fill data gaps with approximations and self-reported numbers as the board continued to urge private pumpers to register their wells and report their pumping.

“We don’t know how much we’re really pulling out of the ground,” said Technical Advisory Committee Member Mallory Boyd.

“We really need to help the public understand why it’s important that they take steps to help us understand that dynamic of the valley.”

The IWVGA met Thursday to review and approve its GSP development budget and 2020 budget as well as hear an update on post-GSP fees. Specifics were not available at press time.

See future editions for more on the groundwater issue.

Pictured: IWV Groundwater Authority Kern County representative Mick Gleason addresses the public during last week’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan workshop. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-12-20