GA approves fee hike

Public hearing for additional ‘replenishment’ fee is Aug. 21

GA  approves  fee hikeBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Valley water users will see another increase to their water bills, with more increases to come, after the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority approved a groundwater extraction fee increase – from $30 to $105 per acre foot – and prepares to hold a public hearing in August for a $2,130-per-acre-foot “replenishment” fee.

According to the GA staff report, “the basin’s sustainable yield is insufficient to meet the water needs of the basin that could/should be classified as permanent needs and as such the IWVGA must rely on imported supplies. Additionally, it has been determined that the decades of severe overdraft and inaction have already damaged the basin significantly and recent basin model runs have demonstrated the need for urgent and significant actions to preserve the community and bring the basin into sustainability as required by [the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act].”

According to the report, models indicate that the basin would be unable to yield necessary groundwater for the community by 2065 if no action is taken.

Not all users are subject to the replenishment fee. Federal entities like the Navy and Bureau of Land Management, as well as non-commercial “de minimis” (less than two acre-feet per year) extractors, are exempt from the fee. The valley’s “permanent” users identified by the GA are also exempt for use within their allocated amounts.

Those amounts include 4,390 acre-feet for the IWV Water District, 373 for the City of Ridgecrest, 300 for small mutual water companies, 217 for Trona Domestic Water, 102 for Inyokern Community Services District and 18 for Kern County.

The Water District reported a need for 6,507 acre-feet of pumping, 2,117 more than what is allocated, and will need to find a way to pay the replenishment fee according to the overage. That’s an estimated $4.5 million per year the district will have to distribute among its some 13,000 ratepayers.

Searles Valley Minerals will also be required to pay the replenishment fee in order to access it’s estimated annual 2,413 acre-feet.

As for agricultural users, pumpers have access to a fixed “transient pool” of water which will dry up within the next few years, or even a few months for some users, based on current pumping. Anything beyond that will have to be paid for through the replenishment fee, something Elisabeth Esposito – attorney for Mojave Pistachios – called a “strategic elimination of agriculture.”

Esposito’s concerns were echoed by attorneys for Meadowbrook Dairy and Searles Valley Minerals, who argued that the fee was being rushed and was not adhering to the spirit of SGMA requirements. The GA is currently in litigation with all three agencies.

“After listening to the comments...please slow down and look at the details,” said resident and Policy Advisory Committee member Judie Decker during public comment. “I know you are going to have to increase the fee, but what you don’t need is to find more money for lawsuits.”

As for the “extraction” fee increase, the $105 per acre-foot is intended to cover a $1.5 million deficit in paying for the Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which was sent to the state for approval in January this year.

A fee of $225 was originally suggested to be paid over the course of a year, but the GA board voted to spread the lower fee over 18 months, or however long it takes to finish paying for the GSP.

“The reason we are here is because this board has spent money like drunken sailors,” said resident Mike Neel during public comment. Since 2018, the anticipated cost of the GSP increased from $4.4 million to roughly $7 million.

With the extraction fee increase having already been approved, a Proposition 218 public hearing for the much-higher replenishment fee is scheduled for Aug. 21.

The GA sent out 19,952 hearing notices to affected pumpers, who have an opportunity to submit a written protest or voice their protest by calling into the meeting. It would require a written or verbal protest from a majority of those (at least 9,977) to prevent the fee from being approved as all non-responses are considered as votes of approval.

Visit iwvga.org to contact the GA and find more information on future meetings.

Pictured: Resident and Policy Advisory Committee member Judie Decker addresses the IWV Groundwater Authority board during a previous meeting. — News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-07-24