GA gives SVM update, seeks more grants

GA gives SVM update, seeks more grantsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (GA) met September 8 where the board continued discussions on funding an alternative water supply. Water Resources Manager Steve Johnson also gave an update on Searles Valley Minerals’ ability to provide domestic water to the Trona community.

At a public hearing earlier this year – the GA ordered Searles to cease pumping groundwater due to lack of groundwater replenishment fee payment. Searles has fought the GA fee, which saddled the company with more than $6 million in additional annual water costs, and accused the GA of using the industrial operation as a “cash cow” to fund its projects.

The courts have sided with the GA for now, dismissing actions from Searles and others who have attempted to block the fee. The IWV Water District continues to pay the fee – but under protest.

The Searles plant is the primary provider of domestic water for Trona and representatives claim that the plant can’t provide the necessary water without operating at full capacity.

The GA recently toured the Searles facility to determine how Trona would receive domestic water. While the community relies on the plant to facilitate water delivery, Johnson reported that there is nothing to indicate the plant has to continue business as usual in order to do so.

“If the Searles plant goes down, somebody will still need to operate that system,” said Johnson. “But we were not shown any reason that could not occur.”

Johnson added it would be up to Searles Domestic Water Company, a California Public Utilities Commission-regulated provider, to “do whatever it takes” to keep providing water.

While no action was taken, the assurance of providing domestic water was the final condition upon which Searles was ordered to cease commercial groundwater pumping.

With businesses like Searles and Mojave Pistachios protesting payment of the replenishment fee, the Water District remains one of the only large pumpers paying the fee – contributing several million dollars according to Water District Director and GA Representative Stan Rajtora – a point he brought up during a discussion of the financial report.

The aim of the replenishment fee is to fund some $50 million for water rights from the State Water Project, clarified Johnson at the beginning of the meeting. This does not include the infrastructure to get that water into the basin or other associated costs.

With high turnover of administrative staff, the GA’s financial reporting has never been consistent. The Board recently contracted with an independent general manager to oversee the multi-agency board’s activities, but the process has not been without it’s growing pains.

“We’re bringing you the information in the best format we’re able to,” said General Manager Carol Thomas-Keefer, who admitted that staff would have “much better reconciliation” in the coming year as staff gets a handle on accounting.

“Frankly, I don’t understand it,” said Rajtora of the report. “The Water District has put in $2.3 million for the replenishment fee and $500 thousand more coming this month, but the balance is $485 thousand. I don’t understand where our money was spent and I don’t believe $485 thousand is going to buy a lot of Table A entitlement. I think there’s reason to be concerned.”

“We will continue to work on that” said Thomas-Keefer.

The board did discuss additional grant funding as a result of its contract with water marketing firm Capitol Core Group (CCG). According to CCG’s Michael McKinney, they are pursuing some $20 million in funding from the state’s Department of Water Resources and Water Resources Control Board.

As part of $5.9 billion for water infrastructure in the state’s budget, CCG is pursuing between $9.1 and $11.8 million for a tertiary wastewater treatment facility, $4-6 million for a water recycling plant and $4-6 million for an imported water interconnection.

“Grant funding is good, no question about it,” said Rajtora. “What I’m concerned about is who is paying for putting the grant together and what is the funding trail and is there any follow-on funding? We need to be careful we don’t want to spend money we don’t have.”

The next GA meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 13, at City Hall. Visit iwvga.org for more information, see future editions for updates.

Story First Published: 2021-09-24