GA to discuss “massive” fee increase

Proposed ordinance could increase pump fee from $30 to $225 per acre-foot

GA to discuss “massive” fee increaseBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Valley groundwater users could see their pumping fees increase from $30 to as much as $225 per acre-foot, according to a proposed ordinance of the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority. The GA will hold a public hearing Thursday, July 16, at City Hall. Open session begins at 11 a.m.

The GA first set the fee to $30 per acre-foot in July 2018 to bridge a $900,000 funding gap for the Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which was approved in January. But in addition to a shortfall in anticipated pumping, GSP preparation costs ballooned from roughly $4.2 million to more than $7 million since the original fee was established.

The GA faces an immediate funding gap of some $2.2 million. The fee increase was discussed at last month’s GA meeting, when legal counsel Jim Worth announced that costs pertaining to data management, sustainable yield allotment and other tasks had not yet been realized when the initial fee was approved.

“We also have added an additional budget of $500,000 for anticipated litigation,” said Worth. “The board has just approved three tolling agreements so we certainly have to be prepared for litigation – that’s up to almost $650,000.”

The board approved litigation tolling agreements with Meadowbrook Dairy, Mojave Pistachio and Searles Valley Minerals.

“It may seem like a big number, but staff is recommending a pumping fee of $225 per acre-foot,” said Worth. “We estimate this will pay off the entire GSP development within one year. Even if we’re off, it should be done by the end of 2021.”

Most residential IWV Water District customers use less than an acre-foot of water annually, and the average household can expect the pumping fee to add at least $150 to annual water costs, according  to officials.

But it will be the larger pumpers who will be hit hardest.

“Searles Valley Minerals costs are going from $73,000 per year to $543,000,” noted GA Boardmember Ron Kicinski. “Look at Inyokern Community Services District — from $3,000 to $23,000. We need to be aware of that. I think we need to take the community into consideration here.”

Kicinski said he understands the GA needs to pay its bills, but suggested a finance committee evaluate options for reduce operating costs.

“Our costs have increased 66 percent – you can’t run a business like that,” said Kicinski. “I think it’s going to take close scrutiny of all these costs. Everywhere we reduce is important. Because this massive increase – and it is massive – is 7-and-a-half times higher.”

“A finance committee is going to bog us down and take us into no-man’s land and we’ll never get anything done,” said GA Chair Mick Gleason. “But I agree with you — we’re not at the point we need to be before we pull the trigger on this whole deal.”

Legal representatives for some of the larger pumpers called into the meeting (the only available avenue for public input) to voice opposition to some of the proposed uses for the fees. According to Elizabeth Esposito, representing Mojave Pistachio, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act only allows such fees to be used for enumerated GSP items and not project and management actions, such as coordinating imported water or groundwater allotments. Derek Hoffman, representing Meadowbrook, expressed a similar view.

But Kern County legal counsel Phil Hall said that all investigation of these topics were necessary for appropriately developing the plan.

GA Policy Advisory Committee member Judie Decker also called in to point out that several known ranchers and farmers were not on the list of pumpers. Over the last several years, the GA has solicited all pumpers in the valley to register their wells and report pumping. But boardmembers admit the list remains incomplete.

Based on the available information, it appears that the users absent from the GA’s list will not pay their fair share.

“We understand there are additional pumpers out there,” said Worth. “If someone is aware of one, we would appreciate them bringing that to the attention of the GA and we’ll follow up. We continue to seek out and try to find non-registered wells and get them to register.”

Most boardmembers expressed a sense of urgency to move forward with the fee, but allowed staff to continue looking at the data packet.

Hall pointed out that the GA was not necessarily approving a $225 fee. “I can get you real quickly down to $125 if you take out the reserve and stretch it over 18 months,” he said, but the existing $2 million funding gap remains.

GA meetings remain closed to physical attendees. Public hearing participants will be required to call into the meeting on Thursday. The full agenda and more information is available at iwvga.org/iwvga-meetings.

Pictured: IWV Groundwater Authority representative (IWV Water District) Ron Kicinski. - News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-07-15