Battle over water rights

By Dr. JEANETTE FRANCIS, PsyD

News Review Correspondent

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority is tasked by the state to provide a plan that prevents the IWV groundwater basin from becoming more overdrafted than it currently is. However, recent lawsuits filed by Searles Valley Minerals and Mojave Pistachios, LLC against the GA allege that its sustainability plan denies them their water rights and their operations will be entirely put out of business. Both lawsuits allege that the plan goes against California water law.

Searles Valley Minerals contends that the fees imposed by the GA’s plan will increase water cost by $6 million per year. They maintain that the economic impact of this rise in water costs would devastate the communities whom they employ if they went out of business – including Trona, Argus, West End, and Pioneer Point – and would have a devastating effect on IWV if they closed, affecting more than 500 families who live in Ridgecrest and work in Trona.

“The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority completely subverted the principle 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, attorney for Mojave Pistachios, LLC.

“Arbitrary taxes and fees that ignore historic water rights threaten to wreak havoc on businesses and industries,” said Eric L. Garner, Managing Partner at Best Best & Krieger and “expert on water rights and groundwater issues," according to the Mojave Pistachios suit.

The Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation wrote a letter to GA chair Mick Gleason on October 14 stating that the legislation in SGMA explicitly states that it does not alter any water rights and further reserved the GA to make such determinations to the courts. Water code section 10720.5, 10726, 8(b). Further the legislation adds another water code that states nothing in the legislation determines or alters surface water rights or groundwater rights.

“Sustainable Groundwater Authorities (SGA) and project proponents must abide by water rights law and groundwater sustainability plan development, the letter says. “Overlying landowners hold senior groundwater rights and have the right to put it to reasonable and beneficial use.

“A legitimate and objective consideration of the interests of overlying agricultural landowners would inescapably conclude that pricing their groundwater at $2,130 per acre foot is functionally equivalent to forcing them out of business and, for those engaged in the cultivation of permanent crops, amounts to a taking.

“It is shocking that the IWVGA Plan reserves 100 percent of the basin’s sustainable yield to the U.S. Navy – an entity expressly not subject to SGMA or the Plan – and denies overlying landowner farmers any groundwater allocation at all, unless they pay the Authority $2,130 per acre foot” the letter went on to say. “This egregious Plan contradicts the express provisions of SGMA and will decimate agriculture in your basin area.”

“The IWVGA alone made the decision to use Navy’s pumping data to estimate a FRWR [Federal Reserve Water Rights],” said Navy Commander Peter Benson in his closing comments at the July 16 GA meeting. “Additionally, the IWVGA made the allocation decisions to transfer the IWVGA estimated FRWR. The Navy did not direct, ask or imply that the IWVGA should transfer the estimated FRWR balance.”

“The Groundwater Authority has a legal duty and mandate to protect the interests of all basin residents and water producers and it plans to faithfully fulfill that duty,” said IWVGA Chair Mick Gleason in a letter to the editor published in the News Review on Oct 9. “As such, while the GA remains open to discussions with Searles, and any others, regarding their water production needs and level of cost contribution, the Groundwater Authority intends to vigorously and aggressively defend against this and any other lawsuit which seeks to sidestep a reasonable allocation of costs required to maintain the basin as a viable water source.”

The GA meets the third Thursday of the month at Ridgecrest City Hall. Agendas and more information are available at iwvga.org. Until further notice, meetings remain closed to the public and public comment must be made by phone. See the meeting agenda for details.

Story First Published: 2020-10-23