“Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’” -Mark Twain
A dispute has broken out in the desert community of Newberry Springs over what some landowners perceive as a backdoor move by major water users to consolidate their hold on the scarce remaining regional water resources and ensure that the more numerous minimal water users in the area, rather than farmers and those using several desert lakes in the community for recreational purposes, bear the brunt of any future conservation efforts.
Newberry Springs lies toward the extreme end of the Mojave River Basin, such that water is a very precious commodity much in dispute among hundreds of competing consumers there. A relative handful of those consumers monopolize the lion’s share of the water. Because those larger consumers have been able to generate wealth from their water-intensive operations, they have accumulated a degree of political power that helps to sustain their ability to utilize the massive amount of water they monopolize.
A grassroots group of local landholding activists maintain that the imbalance in the distribution of water rights into the hands of a relative few by one state agency in particular is highly inequitable and has violated the federal constitution, as such heavy pumping depletes the water table under innocent others who have a historically higher residential priority right to the water than those who are exploiting it for commercial purposes.
The headwaters of the Mojave River lie at the north base of the San Bernardino Mountains near Summit Valley and Hesperia. The Mojave River then winds into the Mojave Desert past Apple Valley, Victorville and Adelanto before reaching Barstow. It was Barstow’s contention in a lawsuit it filed in 1992 that the upstream users were overpumping from the basin and overdrawing water from the river, thereby depleting the water supply that historically had reached Barstow.
Barstow pursued its lawsuit in Riverside Superior Court, to which the case was removed from the local Superior Court venue because of concern that cities such as Victorville, Hesperia and entities such as the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company and the Baldy Mesa Water District might overwhelm Barstow through political influence. Then-Riverside Superior Court Judge J. Michael Kaiser heard the case in which the Mojave Water Agency, which had been in existence since 1964, sought to adjudicate the water rights throughout the portion of the Mojave Desert lying within its jurisdiction.
The Mojave Water Agency undertook a survey of water usage by all entities in the Mojave Basin during the five-year period running from 1987 to 1991, inclusive. After establishing what the maximum annual amount of water utilized by each of those entities was, the Mojave Water Agency then declared that amount to be each respective heavy pumping well owner’s base annual pumping rate. Users deemed to be using ten acre feet of water or less annually were defined as a minimal users not subject to the limitations. That base annual pumping rate was then subjected to a five percent “rampdown,” a reduction each year for five years, so that at the end of the rampdown period, the pumpers would be allotted 75 percent of the water each had pumped during their heaviest water use year during the survey period. That allotment became each pumper’s free water allotment, such that any water use beyond that amount was deemed excessive, and the user was required to pay the Mojave Water Agency a per-acre foot surcharge for that excessive use. The Mojave Water Agency was to use the money achieved in this fashion to purchase replacement water from the State Water Project, conveyed to the Mojave Desert in the California Aqueduct. The vast majority of water users in the Mojave River Basin in the Baja Subarea, wherein Newberry Springs is located, accepted these restrictions, under a regime known as a “stipulated judgment.”
The Mojave Water Agency was simultaneously pursuing other efforts, including both water conservation and water reuse, to maintain the level of water within the various aquifers within its jurisdiction and prevent them from falling into a state of overdraft.
Among these efforts were a series of water sustainability plans for the subareas within the entire Mojave Water Basin. Those sustainability plans were intended to map out how the locally available water would be allotted, both in terms of type of use and to which particular users.
In the area around Newberry Springs, the water table lies relatively close to the surface of the desert, allowing the construction of man-made lakes – Calico, Cheyenne, Crystal, Great Lakes, Horton, Jody, Silver Dunes, Sundown, Wainani and Wet Set among them, which utilize more than ten acre-feet of water annually.
Nearly all of those lakes have been used for private recreational purposes by those who own them.
Beginning in the late 1970s, alfalfa farmers growing their crop for use by dairy farms began relocating into the High Desert. Some were attracted to the area near Newberry Springs because of the availability of free water near the surface, which reduces the cost of irrigation since it does not entail drawing water from deeper in the water table. When the agricultural preserve zone in the Chino/south Ontario area was lifted in the late 1990s, and land there was opened up for residential development, dairy land was bought out and many dairies relocated, with some moving their operations to Tulare and Kern counties, as well as to Idaho. As a result of this dairy migration, alfalfa farmers formerly located in the Chino Valley relocated to the High Desert.
Newberry Springs residents, who have never been overjoyed at the prospect of alfalfa farmers setting up operations in their neck of the woods, have had their discomfiture grow ever greater with the now-five-year-persisting drought. In Riverside County Superior Court, where authority over the Mojave Water Agency’s water rights adjudication process remains ongoing, Judge Gloria Trask has inherited the case from Judge Kaiser. One of the continuing issues in that litigation is the approval of the Baja Areawide Sustainability Plan, now in draft form.
Simultaneously, an alliance between the farmers and the owners of the lakes has formed. That alliance is pressing governmental authorities overseeing water use policy to prevent any further reductions on the farmers and lake owners from being imposed. One manifestation of that alliance was the water conservation ordinance ad-hoc committee formed by lake owner Jeff Gaastra.
It was Gaastra’s intent that the ad-hoc committee could make recommendations on the priority of water use that would be submitted to the Mojave Water Agency, Judge Trask and the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors which would be accepted. Among those Gaastra recruited to serve on the ad-hoc committee was property owner Robert Berkman. Berkman is one of the prime movers in a Newberry Springs activist group called California Environmental Quality Act NOW, which has long asserted that Baja Subarea basin has been seriously overdrafted by a relative handful of wealthy alfalfa farmers, most of whom live elsewhere and who have considerable political power that translates into influence over, bordering on control of, the Mojave Water Agency. Berkman had previously informed state water officials that conditions contained in the stipulated judgment, which required that if the groundwater levels at the Camp Cady Fish & Wildlife Preserve consisting of 1,870 acres along the Mojave River in the Baja Subarea in Newberry Springs fell below a so-called “trigger” level, then 5 percent annual rampdowns in the Baja Subarea were to continue annually, until the groundwater rose. And Berkman had been critical of the Mojave Water Agency’s indolence in enforcing water use restrictions with regard to so-called minimum users who had exceeded the 10 acre-feet of water annual pumping allotments as well as the Mojave Water Agency’s reluctance and refusal to impose a gross-pump tax on heavy water pumpers in the Baja Subarea to purchase replenishment water.
By including Berkman, with his environmental advocacy credentials, on the ad-hoc committee, Gaastra appeared to be seeking to infuse the committee with a credibility that would induce the MWA, Judge Trask and the county board of supervisors to credit the committee’s recommendation as one that was balanced and ecologically sensitive and sustainable.
That strategy backfired, however, when Gaastra began encountering recommendations and demands from Berkman that were not in keeping with Gaastra’s larger agenda. This week Gaastra went to the extraordinary length of removing Berkman from the ad-hoc committee. If Gaastra had any illusions that Berkman was going to go quietly into the good night, they were shattered on Wednesday when Berkman went public with the disclosure that “Mr. Jeff Gaastra, the president of an ad-hoc water committee and also the president of the local lake owners association informed me over the telephone that I was terminated from his water committee. The remaining water committee members, as far as we know, are all lake owners or farmers.”
Berkman said, “The farmers and lake owners seem determined to have the county adopt some sort of water ordinance for the Baja or Newberry Springs area. We, on the other hand wonder about the necessity for any such ordinance. The county revoked the local water conservation ordinance in about 2007, as being unnecessary, due to the 1996 Stipulated Agreement making the ordinance superfluous. Farmers on Mr. Gaastra’s water committee attempted to justify a new county water ordinance for Newberry Springs, by spreading phony rumors that Central Valley farmers were buying farmland in Newberry Springs. That was a scare tactic, designed to con the county into adopting a draconian water ordinance for Newberry Springs designed to benefit the local farmers and lake owners and to hell with everyone else.”
Berkman said he could prove that assertion. “We have some of their internal e-mails,” he said.
Berkman said that it was Gaastra’s intention, in forming the ad-hoc committee, to head off further water use reductions being imposed on lake owners and farmers under the adjudication.
“Ultimately, we suppose, their intent was to bamboozle the water master judge into suspending future rampdowns of free pumping allowance on local farmers and lake owners,” Berkman said. “If there is any need for a Newberry Springs water conservation ordinance, and the county requires local input, we suggest that they take that input from residents who are not farmers and not recreational lake owners. For professional knowledge, someone from the local Fish & Wildlife Preserve at Camp Cady should also be involved.”
Berkman asserted that the ad-hoc committee was in essence trying to reprioritize water use allowances. “To put this issue into perspective, the California Water Code at Section 106 states that the highest use for water is domestic use,” Berkman said. “Section 1257 of the Water Code, titled Consideration of Relative Benefit, lists beneficial users is order as: domestic, irrigation, municipal, industrial, preservation and enhancement of fish & wildlife, recreational, etc.”
Berkman said that Gaastra used his lake for water skiing and was intent on preserving his ability to use the lake for that purpose, preferably not having to pay to replenish the water there lost to evaporation. This called for, Berkman said, “standing the State Water Code on its head. Recreational water skiers should not be calling the shots on water conservation in and around Newberry Springs. The State Water Code places the importance of their water usage very close to the bottom of the list of beneficial uses.”
Upon the distribution of Berkman’s missive, Gaastra literally went ballistic, making a mass emailing from his account at weaponsedge.com. Characterizing Berkman’s communication as a “raving lunatic rant,” Gaastra told his communicants “Mr. Berkman has misinformed you.”
Gaastra asserted that Berkman was removed from the ad-hoc committee because he was not on board with the goal of heading off further rampdowns.
“I did call him today to let him know that I was disappointed that he is not willing to work to find any common ground on a water conservation ordinance. Last week, I sent Mr. Berkman a list of proposed bullet points that we discussed at the community meeting; I asked him for his input. He was the first person I contacted regarding this list, knowing he might object to some items, so I was looking for feedback. Mr. Berkman responded by sending a letter to you all implying that I was akin to Joseph Stalin, and was some sort of environmental rapist.”
Gaastra’s letter continues, “I informed Mr. Berkman today that I cannot work with a person who, when
contacted for help, stabs me in the back with a lengthy rant, calling me names and comparing my home as an environmental rape! I love my home and my community and have been fighting to save it. Who would not? I have expended considerable time and effort trying to protect my home and way of life, and I will continue to do so regardless of mindless rants from the likes of Mr. Berkman.”
Gaastra then launched an attack on Berkman’s credibility.
“He is also a liar, [which] must come from being a raving lunatic. He states that I said I want to get around the adjudication. That is a lie! I never said that, and I am in favor of getting the basin in balance. Our water is important and should be managed for future generations; I hope to pass my home to my children. “
Without citing anything specific or marshaling any evidence, Gaastra asserted, “It should be obvious to everyone that Mr. Berkman has a few screws loose.”