City wants groundwater exploration

Council, public discuss replenishment fee vote

City wants groundwater explorationBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

After a two-week delay, the Ridgecrest City Council addressed Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority matters for the first time since the GA’s approval of a controversial “groundwater replenishment” fee.

“What I’m hoping to see after that hot-button issue is that if we’re going to talk about the future of the GA – maybe we’ll talk about exploration wells,” said Councilmember Kyle Blades. “Refining the reports, coming up with new studies. Finding out the actual recharge of our basin.”

While the GA’s engineering consultants – Stetson Engineers – are mostly confident in the valley’s estimated recharge rate of 7,650 acre-feet per year (as little as a quarter of the valley’s assumed annual pumping), GA technical staff and board members admit there are “data gaps” in our understanding of the IWV groundwater basin.

“We’re here because of the Todd report and have accepted it as evidence,” said Blades. “That being said, we should always be exploring and searching. I hope that’s part of our future plan. Let’s look at everything there is to look at – let’s be a scientific community.”

Most stakeholders are eager to move forward with a plan to remedy our groundwater shortfall, but many have balked at the approved fee which will cost resident users hundreds of dollars annually and likely run large-scale commercial and industrial pumpers out of business. All with no plan in place and no assurance the money will be spent on replenishing water.

“We’ve heard over and over again that the southwest area of our basin needs to be looked at,” said Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens, who said she wanted exploration moved to the top of the GA’s priorities.

Councilmember and GA representative Dr. Scott Hayman said that exploring that area of the basin was a future action item for the Authority, but was put off due to a lack of funding.

Blades said that if the GA is approving fees, “how that money gets spent is very important. I just hope we’re looking at how to use that money properly.”

The council also discussed Hayman’s vote during the GA’s replenishment fee public hearing. Despite majority opposition and council’s direction to vote no on the fee, Hayman voted in support allowing the fee to pass 4-1.

“It concerns me because what was agreed upon was that the rep would follow the majority of council when they go to vote,” said Stephens. During the formation of the Joint Powers Agreement between Ridgecrest, Kern County, the IWV Water District and other member agencies – representation was discussed at length and the public was assured that reps would vote in accordance with the wishes of their respective agencies.

“I have no problem with the way Hayman voted at that meeting,” said Councilmember Mike Mower. “I would have preferred we delayed it a couple of months, but he voted his conscience.”

City Attorney Keith Lemieux admitted that representatives were initially directed to vote at the behest of their respective agencies. But legal advisors later adopted the stance that to direct voters before a meeting would be dismissive of public input.

“The public’s participation would become meaningless because his vote would be decided the night before,” said Lemieux. “That’s just not fair to the public.”

He added that Kern County counsel has solicited an opinion from the Attorney General to see whether or not giving explicit direction to a representative prior to a meeting would be a Brown Act violation.

“If the AG comes back and says that it is a Brown Act violation, I don’t want to have been doing t,” said Lemieux. “Under the circumstances, it would be prudent to be careful about it.”

Whether or not Hayman took direction from council, others criticized him for not taking direction from his constituents.

“Your representative is not listening to the people,” said Mike Neel during public comment. “Everybody was pretty much against this. We are not happy with Hayman and how he just went along with Mick Gleason’s agenda. We need a change. We are sick of not being heard.”

Andrew Guetskow, an attorney and IWV Water District Candidate, also called into the meeting during public comment. He said while he was concerned about Brown Act violations, he was also concerned that a representative justifying to vote however they please “allows for hidden agendas to play their role.”

But Hayman said Stephens’ complaints were “just a backdoor attempt to circumvent the process. I don’t think you speak for the majority here, but for a minority of special interests,” said Hayman.

“I think Dr. Hayman has been doing a very good job,” said member of the public Kathy Brown. “It’s nice to have direction from the council. However I would say this – when he goes into these GSA meetings, I don’t want our rep to have his hands already tied.”

“Dr. Hayman did exactly what a duly-elected official should do,” said member of the public and Mayoral candidate Eric Bruen. “He made a decision based on the information provided to him. Moving this community forward will sometimes require tough decisions and bold leadership. We need leaders based on the best interests of all and not just the interests of the loudest.”

But while Hayman is elected to the council, no GA members were elected to the Authority board.

“I am in full agreement that your representative needs to represent your board,” said Regina Troglin, a Trona resident. “There was a huge consensus that [the fee] shouldn’t pass, and you voted for it anyway. The Water District representative … he stuck with what he was told to do which was vote ‘no.’ [Hayman] represents you guys as well as the public who voted for him, but he did neither at that meeting.”

Prior to the GA vote was a Proposition 218 protest hearing. Property owners submitted some 5,000 letters protesting the fee, but that wasn’t enough to reach the 50% protest threshold of the roughly 20,000 notices sent out.

“But a lot of those notices just went into the trash,” said Neel. “And some went to residents who knew they wouldn’t be affected by it. It was all a joke.”

But Lemieux said that that Prop 218 is designed very intentionally and is not intended to be a popular vote.

Locals have since organized a referendum to revisit the fee and possibly place it on the ballot for a future election. At press time they had turned in an estimated 3,000 signatures, exceeding their 2,000-signature target.

The Groundwater Authority met Thursday for its regular monthly meeting. See future editions of the News Review for details.

Story First Published: 2020-09-18