Can Searles survive proposed groundwater fee?

Can Searles survive proposed groundwater fee? By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Trona company Searles Valley Minerals recently launched its “Save Searles” campaign in opposition to the IWV Groundwater Authority’s proposed groundwater replenishment fee, which is to be voted on after Friday’s Proposition 218 protest hearing.

The $2,130-per-acre-foot fee will cost SVM a staggering $6 million per year to continue operating – “pushing the company and the local community toward extinction,” said an SVM press release.

While the GA says the fee is needed to secure rights to groundwater as part of the State Water Project, it doesn’t cover the hundreds of millions of dollars in “wheeling and dealing” to actually get the water to the IWV.

“We’re paying a fee that will not bring one drop of water to the basin during the entire time that fee is imposed,” said SVM’s Burnell Blanchard as he addressed the Ridgecrest City Council Wednesday evening. “It allows the GA to play in the water options market. They can do a lot of things with it … but it’s not going to bring us water.”

Meanwhile, Blanchard said the fee will threaten the livelihoods of SVM’s 700 employees and their families. SVM’s campaign is one of the latest organized efforts opposing the GA fee, joining those of the IWV Economic Development Corporation, Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors and other local businesses.

While the above organizations have gone on record that our groundwater pumping discrepancy (some 25,000-30,000 acre-feet annually with an estimated recharge of 7,650 acre-feet) must be addressed, they agree that other options need to be explored.

Blanchard’s comments sparked a lengthy discussion about the proposed fee. The most prominent feedback from the community has been that the GA should slow it’s approach and delay any public hearings of such magnitude until COVID-19 restrictions have abated and residents can properly attend public meetings.

“I personally would like to see this postponed for at least a couple months,” said Councilmember Mike Mower. “It’s a valid complaint about not being able to go to the actual hearing.”

But according to Mayor Peggy Breeden – the GA is prioritizing the fee as costs associated with acquiring water are only expected to grow.

“A year and a half ago, there was 10,000 acre-feet that we could have purchased for $267 per acre-foot,” said Breeden. “Right now, it’s potentially $1,000 per acre-foot. And if we’re one of 18 agencies right now looking for water, anybody who thinks the cost of this is going to go down is sorely mistaken.”

Councilmember Scott Hayman, the council’s GA’s representative, said securing water rights was the first step. Negotiations with agencies such as Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, as well as infrastructure costs, would follow.

They added that the most dire groundwater models anticipated some 21 wells going dry in the coming years. But others pointed out that only acquires for about two percent of wells in the valley.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014 and mandates that overdrafted groundwater basins eliminate chronic decline by 2040. Given the 20 years remaining on our timeline, stakeholders are asking the GA to wait six months to a year before approving any more fees.

In addition to SVM, the majority of the replenishment fee will be borne by the IWV Water District, as it needs an estimated 2,000 acre-feet outside of what is referred to the Sustainable Yield Allocation Chart. The need would cost the ratepayers more than $4 million annually.

According to the GA, the Navy has a federal reserve right to the majority of the valley’s estimated 7,650 acre-feet of recharge. Because it only has an anticipated need of 1,450 acre-feet, the “carry over” is allotted to the Water District, Inyokern Community Services District, small mutuals and Trona.

But the federal reserve right itself is an “open question of law” at best according to Derek Hoffman, an attorney for Meadowbrook Dairy.

“This fee is strenuously opposed by Searles Valley Minerals, the IWV Water District, agricultural interests, Coso Energy, business owners, thousands of property owners, the IWV Economic Development Corporation, Ridgecrest Area of Realtors and many other stakeholders,” said Hoffman. “And the GA has entered tolling agreements to delay lawsuits challenging this action. We strongly guide Councilman Hayman to vote no on the replenishment fee.”

Others object to being so quick to say we have a water discrepancy at all.

“A belief by many people in the valley is that we have more water available in the western area of the basin,” said resident and Mayor hopeful Tom Wiknich. “More exploratory wells should be drilled for sampling of what we have in that area. We need to have a board making decisions with all of the data.”

While the GA has decades worth of reports and studies on the basin, virtually all of them cover the same 30-40 percent of the basin’s most-pumped sections. Members of the public in addition to several of the GA’s technical consultants have advocated that funds be prioritized on furthering our understanding of the groundwater basin instead of relying on imported water.

“That to me would be a very important piece of data to develop a plan,” said Wiknich. “Which we don’t have right now, because it’s based on speculation.”

According to Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens, nearly 3,000 protest votes had been collected for the Prop 218 hearing. While it’s still far from the 10,000 votes required to shoot down the fee, she said they were “hard earned” as no vote is necessary to support the fee.

“This shows there’s significant concern with proceeding with this fee right now, and I think it’s unjust to do so,” said Stephens, who said the valley has never gathered so many protest ballots during a Prop 218 hearing, let alone during a pandemic.

“I urge we vote no on this”

“I would also urge you to delay this,” said Councilmember Kyle Blades. “I don’t know if the public feels they’ve been informed. Now that money is being discussed, people are really involved. Maybe now that we have everybody’s interest, you can use that to your benefit. My hope is you can tackle this with more public involvement.”

“Clearly we understand the basin is in overdraft and a plan needs to be in place,” said Blanchard. “All of us want to see a plan with broad participation in that process. But SVM doesn’t support voting on this water fee now, because we haven’t had that broad participation.”

While the council can offer guidance to the GA rep, legal counsel Lloyd Pilchin reminded council that Hayman was not obligated to carry out the council’s wishes as an appointed member to the GA board.

Hayman indicated that the fee was necessary and that constituents supported it when given a better understanding of its purpose.

“I’d say the numbers are equally as high or higher of people who support it,” said Hayman, though he provided little in the way of evidence. He said he would consider the input from council and the public and that it was “well received.”

The IWVGA met for it’s regular meeting on Thursday and meet again today at 10 a.m. for the public hearing. Signed protests including must include the parcel number or address and must be delivered to the IWV Water District office prior to the meeting or submitted into the record during the public hearing.

Meetings are streamed on the city’s YouTube Channel. For more information, visit iwvga.org.

Story First Published: 2020-08-21