Water bills spark complaints

GA facing increased scrutiny as replenishment fee hits consumers

Water bills spark complaintsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

It’s been nearly a year since the IWV Groundwater Authority approved it’s groundwater replenishment fee. The GA has been working for years now on a Groundwater Sustainability Plan and has undergone substantial criticism regarding its water allocation practices and heavy spending.

But now that steep fees are hitting IWV residents’ water bills, more critics continue to come out of the woodwork – some who claim the GA took advantage of the pandemic to push its fee through.

“It turned out to be a very convenient time to implement things that were unfair to the community,” said one resident.

“I understand the need for water conservation,” said Shirley Jorgensen. “Water is like blood – you can’t manufacture it and we all need it.”

But Jorgensen said she took issue with former GA frontman Mick Gleason, who served as Kern County Supervisor for Ridgecrest’s district.

“That man pushed the vote through at a time our community was struggling after the earthquakes and in the pandemic. He came as a military man and used military tactics to get you all to vote for the fee. I think the whole damn thing needs to be redone.

“We have the brightest, most intelligent minds in this community. We’ve got to figure this out and not be reckless. We can’t be hurting the citizens. Figure it out. Put some intelligent minds to it. Do not destroy families and incomes in this community.”

At the hefty price of $2,130 per acre-foot, the latest fee – neither the first or the last of its kind – has driven up costs of organizations like the IWV Water District, Searles Valley Minerals and large agricultural outfits by millions per year. While water district customers are seeing their annual costs increase by hundreds of dollars, commercial users say they are being driven out of business.

“You’ve got 40 years to fix things and the first thing you want to do is take out pistachio farmer jobs and take out Searles Valley?” said resident Everette Dobbins. “What the hell is wrong with you people? I’d be willing to pay if you guys had a plan, but you don’t have a plan. How are you going to pump water into the aquifer? A reasonable solution would be a desalination plant.”

While the replenishment fee helps fund water rights to access State Water Project, it does nothing to address the cost of purchasing actual water – not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and transportation costs.

Amid the pandemic, the GA held a Proposition 218 hearing for the replenishment fee where it received thousands of protest votes – but not enough to shoot it down. The board approved the fee with a 4-1 vote. Protest organizers garnered thousands of more signatures to send the decision to the ballot, but by then GA legal counsel said it was too late and the fee was passed.

“It had to be the Mick Gleason way or nothing else,” said Mike Neel. “Now he’s not even here and you’re acting like you still don’t want to listen.”

Others raised concerns about those in fixed incomes and their inability to pay increasing fees.

“A lot of people won’t be able to run their coolers because of this fee,” said a resident. “The fee is very excessive. I don’t know where you came up with it or why you came up with it – but you need to moderate it.”

Water District representative Stan Rajtora also brought attention to how the fee was being spent. So far the fee has only gone toward the GA’s administrative costs, including bundled invoices from Stetson Engineering.

“There are 20-25 different invoices here,” said Rajtora. “I looked through them and there’s one I identified – ‘imported water negotiations coordination’ for $230. The rest I couldn’t see any reason to be using the replenishment fee to pay for. Obviously Stetson needs to be paid, but we need to charge the various invoices to the correct funds.”

The GA remains embroiled in litigation with Searles Valley and Mojave Pistachios. Meanwhile, the Water District has filed for a court to adjudicate the basin and determine groundwater rights for the users. The first court hearing for the adjudication will by August 19 in Orange County. See future editions for details.

Story First Published: 2021-07-23