To the Editor: IWVGA General Manager gives perspective

Many people have wondered about the cost of the water import fees assessed by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (IWVGA) and lawsuits related to the fees and IWVGA actions. As a relatively new member of the staff, I felt it appropriate to share my thoughts from an outsider perspective.

First, some background is appropriate. The State Department of Water Resources has determined that the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin is a “high priority” basin in a state of “critical overdraft.” Recent basin modeling and hydrological reports show the Basin has been in overdraft for nearly six decades. These reports show that only 7,650 acre feet of water per year can be pumped from the Basin without endangering either the quality or quantity of pumped water. Yet, the Basin’s four largest extractors (Indian Wells Valley Water District, Meadowbrook Dairy, Mojave Pistachios and the United States Navy) have each individually reported pumping needs, and/or historic pumping that totals roughly 28,000 acre-feet per year. If this pumping continues without replenishment, the Basin’s infrastructure will be unable to meet the Basin’s water demands in roughly 43 years.

The most recent Basin models show that current rates of pumping will cause damages to 1 in 10 shallow wells by 2030 and increasing to roughly 1 in 4 by 2040. Importantly, these shallow wells provide domestic service to an estimated total of about 1,600 homes. If left unchecked, the direct damages to wells caused by the overdraft will equate to roughly $17.5 million by 2040. These direct damages to wells are only one cost; additional costs for more intensive and expensive water treatment will likely be substantial due to the loss of water quality as the Basin is further drawn down.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 requires IWVGA to bring this Basin into balance. However, there is no easy or cheap solution. The water available in the Basin is not sufficient to support the current lifestyle of the community; even if this could be achieved through conservation or other measures, that would still leave no water for economic growth. For the community to thrive, the IWVGA must purchase imported water supplies and develop the needed infrastructure to bring it into the Basin while mitigating ongoing damages to the Basin. It is estimated that the construction phase of the importation project will take 10 years, but that phase cannot begin until import water supplies have been funded and obtained, and that is estimated to take five years.

The Basin’s domestic needs have been significantly reduced in recent years through proactive conservation measures, leaving very few options to lower the domestic consumption in the Basin. As a result, there is no option for sustainability other than importing water at considerable cost. Based on recent sales, it has been estimated that the cost per acre foot of water is roughly $10,500 per acre foot of delivered water entitlement. Importantly, the proposed purchase of water is a one-time entitlement cost; once purchased, the water entitlement does not need to be purchased again.

The amount of water that needs to be purchased and its ultimate cost are based primarily on the demands of water consumers. First, any entity can lower its water consumption and with it the need to purchase imported supplies. As an example, Searles Valley Minerals could develop and adopt operations that are less water intensive than its current operation which uses nearly 40 percent of the Basin’s sustainable yield. Second, an entity could find alternative water supplies such as the use of recycled water. The IWVGA is currently working cooperatively with the City of Ridgecrest to maximize the use of recycled water from the City’s wastewater treatment plant. The Indian Wells Valley Water District and Searles Valley Minerals have been given the option of being a part of that program, but they have not yet accepted.

The costs for the imported water supply can also be reduced through financing. In fact, long-term financing is by far the most common method for purchasing imported supplies -- not only because financing lowers the initial payments, but, more importantly, because it spreads the purchase costs out to future users that will also benefit from the purchase. However, it is not currently possible for the IVWGA to finance the water cost while our ability to assess these fees remains challenged in court.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act expressly provides that the Federal Reserve Water Rights are outside the jurisdiction of the IWVGA, meaning that the IWVGA has no legal ability to limit any water production that the Navy might claim under that right. Unfortunately, the Navy has not yet provided its estimated Federal Reserve Water Rights, preferring that matter to be determined in court. This has led to the Indian Wells Valley Water District filing an adjudication lawsuit to have the court determine water allocations based upon water rights and water case law. That legal process will take years to conclude but would eventually determine the Navy’s water right.

The IWVGA is in a difficult spot. SGMA mandates that the Basin achieve sustainability by 2040, but without a combination of reduced pumping and import supplies, that cannot be accomplished. SGMA also requires that if local agencies fail to achieve sustainability, the State of California will assume local groundwater regulation. This would mean decisions regarding pumping restrictions as well as all aspects of importing additional water would be controlled by Sacramento-based entities; we would lose local control.

The IWVGA remains eager and willing to resolve these issues through agreement where possible. Many months ago, the IWVGA made a proposal to Searles Valley Minerals to resolve the legal disputes around water supplies and fees, but there has been no response from Searles after repeated requests for a counter proposal. Instead, Searles filed a lawsuit challenging our fees; this litigation drives up our costs while at the same time prevents the IWVGA from financing the funds we need for a supplemental water supply and subsequently reducing the cost impact to all users.

There have also been statements by Searles and others claiming that the IWVGA has acted or ordered the community of Trona to stop pumping groundwater. That is not accurate. The IWVGA has for years stated in public that a block of water is dedicated to the residents of Trona. There has never been a discussion about cutting off residential water supplies. The water import fees apply to Searles’ business operations only, not to the water supply for the community of Trona.

We encourage community members to educate themselves on this issue and to continue to be engaged. We hope for an eventual resolution so that the Indian Wells Valley will have a sustainable water supply at a reasonable cost.

Carol Thomas-Keefer

General Manager

Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority

Story First Published: 2021-07-30