New year, newish GA, same concerns

New year, newish GA, same concernsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The transition from 2020 to 2021 has been one of change. That will be no different for the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority.

Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason, who has served as the GA Chair this past year, did not seek another term as supervisor and his replacement Phillip Peters will take over later this month. Peters, or an appointee, will fill the county’s role on the multi-agency GA. But regardless, the position of chair will rotate back to the city of Ridgecrest’s representative Councilmember Scott Hayman.

The Indian Wells Valley Water District will also have a new face on the board as former Director Ron Kicinski failed to reclaim his seat during the election. The district’s new board appointed Director Stan Rajtora as GA representative, beginning this month.

Among the newness, comments from the public remained relatively unchanged. Residents and representatives of groundwater pumpers continued pleas with the GA to pump the brakes on its exorbitant groundwater “replenishment” fee in the absence an approved Groundwater Sustainability Plan or a financial oversight committee.

Derek Hoffman, an attorney for the valley’s most prolific agricultural outfit Meadowbrook Dairy, called GA operations “clouded with ambiguity and uncertainty.” He referenced two separate lawsuits against the GA (Mojave Pistachio and Searles Valley Minerals) as well as the State Water Resource Control Board’s comments on the pending GSP which was submitted in January.

The state board’s comments mostly pertain to some data gaps and potential unintended negative impacts to the community.

Gleason thanked Meadowbrook as being one of the most actively participatory stakeholders, but stated that he would oppose any delay to the replenishment fee.

“We have shallow wells going dry,” said Gleason. “Our modeling system shows our big pumps are going to be unable to produce sufficient water to meet our community needs in about 40 years. We are in a crisis. We need action, and we need it immediately.”

Few dispute that the valley’s pumping exceeds its natural overcharge, an annual 7,650 acre-feet by GA estimates compared to more than four times that in pumping. But residents, as well as boardmembers and staff, have referenced gaps in the GA’s groundwater table data and unexplored areas of the basin, such as the far southwest.

While GA indicated shallow wells might dry up in the very near future, over the past several years only one unnamed well owner indicated a well had gone dry. Anita Imsand of Meadowbrook maintained that their wells on North Brown Road continue to hold steady.

The Indian Wells Valley basin has immense groundwater storage, but the fact remains there has been a steady gradual decline for at least 100 years. According to the Department of Water Resources – the GA’s charge is to eliminate that decline, regardless of storage.

In a call for financial accountability, Joshua Nugent of Mojave pistachio noted that a recent bill to the GA from Water Resources Management firm Stetson Engineers included personal care products, cleaning products and “no less than nine iced coffee drinks.”

“These are generally small expenditures, but it goes to show there’s a startling lack of oversight and there needs to be a finance committee,” he said.

Steve Johnson of Stetson acknowledged the issue and said that he and the GA’s Acting General Manager Don Zdeba already noted the inappropriate reimbursements and planned on “scrubbing the invoice to make sure it’s clean.”

The GA has spent millions of dollars over the last six years in developing one of the state’s more expensive GSPs. The replenishment fee, one of many on the horizon, will increase residential water bills by hundreds of dollars annually in order to secure an allocation right for potential imported supply, but does not take into account the hundreds of millions more for the infrastructure and transportation of said water.

The GA has pushed back against the notion on the grounds that another committee would slow down an already slow-to-act multi-agency board. The newly composed GA Board will next meet Thursday, Jan. 21 at City Hall. In accordance with COVID guidelines, public attendance is limited to virtual options. For the agenda and attendance instructions see iwvga.org/iwvga-meetings.

Story First Published: 2021-01-15