GSP hearing is Jan. 16

Concerns remain over cost, data uncertainties

GSP hearing is Jan. 16By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The public hearing for the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan is next Thursday, Jan. 16, 11 a.m. at City Hall. The GSP is due to the state by the end of the month, and the meeting will be the final opportunity for public input.

The GA – which includes representatives from the city of Ridgecrest, IWV Water District, Navy, Bureau of Land Management and counties of Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo — has been working toward the state-mandated plan since the GA’s formation in 2016. The deadline to submit the plan to the state is Jan. 31, but some uncertainties still remain — primarily regarding costs.

The draft plan assumes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects and projected administrative and legal costs, but little in the way of revenue projections.

Commenters have estimated that the plan could cost individual water users more than $1,000 annually if the costs are to be borne by the residents alone. The GA has secured grant funding and levied a volumetric groundwater pumping fee —but to pay only for the plan’s development, not its implementation.

Members of the public also express concerns over the plan’s economic consequences. The plan accounts for water allocations for the Navy, small wells, city of Ridgecrest, Kern County, Inyokern, Trona and most of the IWV Water District. Agricultural users are expected to wind down to zero pumping within a few years, or even months, and Searles Valley Minerals is expected to obtain imported water —another unknown cost.

“Searles cannot survive with zero allocation,” said SVM attorney Tom Bunn at a GA meeting last year. Searles has some $70 million in total annual payroll to its hundreds of employees —most of whom live in Ridgecrest. The company is also Trona’s primary employer.

Local agencies, specifically Kern County, would also lose all of the tax revenue from the production of pistachios and other crops grown locally by eliminating major agricultural outfits – some of which have already threatened legal action against the GA.

Searles Valley Minerals and China Lake have also mentioned possible litigation regarding water rights.

Critics of supporting these water-heavy industries have said that the valley will undergo economic devastation regardless if irreversible damage is done to groundwater storage by allowing these industries to continue pumping at their current rates. Pumping is estimated at 25,000-30,000 acre-feet annually with a natural recharge of only 7,650 acre-feet according to the GA.

But figures like the amount of usable water storage and the rate of decline are still in question. During a recent workshop meeting, GA and Stetson Engineers staff insisted that the average rate of decline in the IWV’s water table was 1.5-2 feet and as high as 3 feet in some areas. Stetson was hired to be the GA’s Water Resources Management firm and has been integral to development of the GSP.

But according to the Kern County Water Agency’s monitoring efforts, the decline has been 6 inches per year across the basin.

“Agency staff continues to provide all water level data to Stetson Engineers for inclusion in the IWV’s Groundwater Authority data management system,” said KCWA’s Jeanne Varga.

The Todd Engineers report claims a 32-foot decline over the course of 23 years (about 1.4 foot per year), but that is specifically in reference to private domestic wells – not a valleywide average.

GA Acting Manager Don Zdeba said that debating the difference in decline was “counterproductive” and that it was the chronic decline of the IWV basin that meets the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act’s definition of undesirable consequences. Nevertheless, the tenuous claim of 1.5-2 feet continues to be repeated and used as the basis for groundwater planning.

GA representatives have admitted that there are some data gaps, particularly in the southwesternmost portion of the basin, that should be further explored. Potentially hundreds of private wells have not yet been registered.

But given the state’s deadline, Stetson and authority leaders say they are confident in moving forward with what information they have.

The plan is intended to be a work in progress as the GA continues to implement projects and try to glean more-detailed information about the nature of the IWV basin.

The goal of the plan is to reduce groundwater table decline by 2040, and the GA will have opportunities to make changes to the GSP. SGMA requires the GA to reevaluate the plan at 5 year intervals.

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Story First Published: 2020-01-10