Searles, Mojave Pistachio sue GA

Searles, Mojave Pistachio sue GABy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

As of last week, both Searles Valley Minerals and Mojave Pistachios have filed lawsuits with the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority, alleging that the GA is unfairly forcing them out of business.

After years of tension between the GA and heavy groundwater pumpers and several closed-session items regarding potential litigation, the companies pulled the trigger following the GA’s approval of the replenishment fee.

When determining sustainable groundwater allocations for the valley’s estimated 7,650 acre-feet of annual recharge, the GA allocated the lion’s share to the Navy in recognition of its federal reserved water right. The Navy’s unused water is then carried over for the IWV Water District and other residential uses – with no allocation for Searles or large agricultural operations.

As a result, these companies are expected to pay for all of their water use through the $2,130-per-acre-foot replenishment fee, adding millions of dollars to their annual water costs.

Mojave Pistachio is suing the GA for more than $250 million – what the company anticipates to pay in combined fees over a 20-year period based on GA fees as announced in a recent press release.

“The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority completely subverted the principal objective of SGMA – to develop sustainable groundwater management – by ramming through a plan that illegally prioritizes the needs of the entities that serve on its board over agriculture and private industry under a ruse that the action was required to protect the navy,” said Scott Slater, an attorney for Mojave Pistachios.

The Navy has no vote when it comes to GA decisions, but has an advisory member on the GA board. The board is chaired by Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason and other voting members include representatives from Ridgecrest, IWV Water District and the counties of San Bernardino and Inyo.

Mojave Pistachios says that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act does not allow for Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to alter common-law water rights and also alleges that the GA is in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to account for the environmental impacts of land fallowing that will result when agricultural properties are no longer able to farm.

The company’s request is for the court to invalidate the GA’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan as well as any fees and to direct the GA to prepare a new GSP.

“The IWVGA’s giving our 1,596-acre orchard a zero allocation is shameful and should be terrifying to agriculture everywhere,” said Mojave Pistachios owner Rod Stiefvater. “The suit seeks no relief against the navy and it is made necessary by the madness and arrogance of former Navy Base Commander Mick Gleason and his intention to destroy agriculture and specifically us.”

Agriculture accounts for an estimated 60 percent of our valley’s water use. Critics argue that heavy groundwater users don’t belong in desert basins like ours without proving their water source. But these users are also the ones paying the GA’s bills, and don’t want to fund a GSP that ignores their needs.

“The Authority’s ‘sustainable’ groundwater management plan is anything but sustainable,” said a press release from Searles Valley Minerals.

“It’s a significant new burden on a select few groundwater users that will push many entirely out of operation without any regard to existing water rights.

“The unprecedented and exorbitant new fees would increase the company’s water costs by $6 million per year – pushing Searles Valley Minerals out of business after more than 140 years of operation and threatening the livelihood of the company’s 700 employees.”

The primary purpose of the replenishment fee is to secure some $50 million for water rights with the State Water Project, but doesn’t account for transportation or infrastructure costs.

If the fee were to put large commercial pumpers out of business – it is unclear how the GA would come up with the necessary funds to secure the estimated 4,000-5,000 acre-feet necessary to support non-agricultural needs.

Searles also claims its water rights precede those of the Navy. A claim that Gleason has said they have “a strong argument” for.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, legal disputes can lead to a basin adjudication where a court decides who the water rights owners are and how much they can extract.

“This litigation is about far more than one company and one groundwater agency,” said the Searles release.

“Arbitrary taxes and fees that ignore historic water rights threaten to wreak havoc on businesses and industries. The outcome of this litigation will have far-reaching implications for every groundwater agency and every business that holds a water right in the state of California.”

The GA held a closed-session meeting Friday, Oct. 2, to discuss threatened litigation with Mojave Pistachios and Searles. There was also an item to discuss “potential” litigation with a “plaintiff or plaintiffs which need not be disclosed.”

GA legal counsel Phil Hall said there was nothing to report out of the discussion. In September, the GA approved a tolling litigation agreement with Meadowbrook Dairy as well as Searles.

The IWV Groundwater Authority will next meet on Thursday, Oct. 15, see iwvga.org for details. See future editions of the News Review for more developments.

Pictured: Mojave Pistachios owner Rod Stiefvater — News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-10-09