By Mark Gutglueck
The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority has adopted a groundwater sustainability plan, which has now been submitted to the State of California. The limitations on water usage in the Indian Wells Valley region, which includes the extreme northwestern portion of San Bernardino County, are intended to ensure that water users in Indian Wells Valley, in compliance with a state-imposed mandate, reduce water usage to a sustainable level by the year 2040.
In addition to water usage restrictions that are to begin most likely this year and intensify yearly over the next two decades or until the goal of balancing the valley’s water inflow and outflow is achieved, the plan calls for the imposition of a new set of fees to augment the current pumping fee assessed on the valley’s well owners to pay for the continuing administration of the groundwater authority.
In 2014, California state officials, in the face of a four-year running drought, undertook efforts to head off the absolute depletion of the state’s regional water sources. In September 2014, then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires local agencies to draft plans to bring groundwater aquifers into balanced levels of pumping and recharge. That was followed in 2015 by Brown mandating water-saving measures throughout the state.
In response, pursuant to a joint exercise of powers agreement, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority was formed with Kern County, San Bernardino County, Inyo County, the City of Ridgecrest and the Indian Wells Valley Water District as general members and the United States Navy and the United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management as associate members, with each general member having one voting seat on the authority board and the federal associate members participating in all board discussions, but not having a vote.
The joint powers authority took as its mandate counteracting the overdraft of the aquifer underlying Indian Wells Valley.
The authority retained an engineering consultant, Carlsbad-based Stetson Engineers, through which the authority and the Indian Wells Valley Water District undertook a survey of water usage patterns and sought to derive a strategy for both reducing water use in the valley and increasing groundwater recharge to reach a balance of both that will end the overdraft. Several different plans, or models, were contemplated. Basically, the concept was to decrease the drafting of water from the regional aquifer through conservation, increased recycling of water and perhaps the minimization of evaporation, augmented by the importation of water from outside the valley to achieve, no later than 2040, a balance of water coming in with the amount of water usage, such that the aquifer is no longer in a state of overdraft.
Stetson Engineers was designated the water resources manager for Indian Wells Valley.
The board for The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority consists of Chairman Mick Gleason, the Kern County supervisor whose district includes Indian Wells Valley; Ridgecrest Councilman Scott Hayman; Indian Wells Water District Director Ron Kicinski; Inyo County County Counsel John Vallejo; and San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Bob Page. In January the board passed the proposed groundwater sustainability plan and voted to submit it to the state.
Once the plan has been fully vetted and accepted by California water officials, consisting of the California Department of Water Resources, pending any adjustments, the provisions of the plan will govern water usage in the valley over the next four decades.
A new fee structure is to be finalized on May 21 and put in place on June 22 as an element of the plan will replace the current monthly pump fee based on the volume of water used that was being assessed on major pumpers. That revenue stream will cover the costs associated with the administrative activity of the groundwater authority, as well as the initial stages of the groundwater sustainability plan’s mitigation efforts. Excess use fees, referred to as augmentation fees, will be applied to those well owners who pump above their allowances as well as on farmers who go beyond their respective share of the water supply set aside for agricultural usage. Money brought in this way will be used to purchase imported water and pay for the infrastructure needed to bring in the imported water.
There is a possibility that the water users could prevent the water use reduction regime from being imposed on the well owners were they to collectively come to the conclusion that its terms are onerous or unfair, as the imposition of the fees will be subject to a Proposition 218 protest process. In this way, after those to be subject to the fees are informed that the one-month protest process is to begin, they will have a 30 or 31 day period to register a personal letter of protest. Each such letter sent in will be registered as a vote against the application of the fees. Each well owner who does not lodge such a protest will be deemed a vote in favor of the fee schedule. Under normal circumstances in California, the Proposition 218 process virtually never results in preventing a taxing or assessment arrangement from being approved. However, in the case of Indian Wells Valley, in which there are a limited number of well owners involved among whom all have a similar interest in protecting for themselves the availability of affordable water and among whom an ease of communication and coordination exists, there is a real potential that a set of regulations that entail too great of an expense will not pass muster with those impacted by the groundwater management plan.
Stetson is now completing the verification of groundwater production for pumpers using more than two-acre feet of water yearly. Those wells utilizing less than two acre-feet annually are defined as de minimis users and are not subject to the plan’s regimen.
The groundwater authority has already compiled a significant amount of data and further surveys are now being finalized to provide as full of a profile on the active well owners as possible to set the baselines for assessments and usage patterns in the future.
Pumping verifications were to have been finalized on March 1. A document to memorialize those usage patterns is to be presented to all well owners/pumpers by April 15. Any dispute of that pumping record or pattern is due back from the well owners on April 30, three weeks after which the board is to make an adoption of the range of numbers in the finalized plan. Pumping fees and water use limitations will begin in earnest shortly thereafter.
The authority has passed an ordinance requiring that the wells of all non-de minimis pumpers be outfitted with meters as of March 19.
The plan is not without controversy. For some of those subjected to the water use restriction regime, there has been some grumbling that the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, which encompasses two ranges and totals over 1,100,000 acres or 1,719 square miles, as a federal installation is exempt from the groundwater sustainability plan and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Neither is the Bureau of Land Management subject to the restrictions.
Commander Peter Benson, with the Department of the Navy representing the China Lake Naval Weapons Stations, and Thomas Bickaukas, with the Bureau of Land Management, are non-voting members of the groundwater authority board.
The groundwater sustainability plan’s target is to manage the annual draft of water from the valley at 12,000 acre-feet per year once the plan is in effect, with water imported from the State Water Project or the Metropolitan Water District augmenting the valley’s water users’ needs beyond the 7,650 acre-feet of average annual natural recharge.
According to Don Zdeba, the general manager with the Indian Wells Valley Water District who is also the acting general manager of the Indian Wells Groundwater Authority, “7,650 acre-feet is the annual recharge into the valley. To meet the needs of the community, we are looking at 12,000 acre-feet augmentations to the water supply.”
Asked if he is confident that there will be adequate water from the state water project to meet the community’s needs over the coming decades, Zdeba said, “That is hard to answer. It depends on what is going on with the state in terms of drought conditions.”
As it stands, Zdeba said, the existing water importation infrastructure that does exist – the California Aqueduct and the Metropolitan Water District’s aqueduct conveying water from the Owens Valley in Inyo County to the Los Angeles Basin – would need to be tapped into, and from those spots a pipeline would need to be constructed to the valley. That would be expensive, he said, and beyond the means of the inhabitants of the valley.
“Our community isn’t large enough to pay for that,” Zdeba said. “The funding would have to come from the state or federal government or possibly the Navy.” Most forms of funding, including bonds wouldn’t work, he said. “We’re not able to pay for something like that with just 30,000 people. We would need grants or [no interest] loans.”
Assuming a pipeline either from the California Aqueduct or from the Los Angeles Aqueduct can be constructed, water injected into the basin could ensure that the regional aquifer is not depleted, Zdeba said. “There is the State Water Project,” he said. “The other source to sustain the groundwater supply could be achieved through an exchange with the Department of Water and Power Aqueduct that runs through Indian Wells Valley if we can work out a trade/purchase of water into the state water project,” he said. “Certainly there would be hurdles to overcome even if that is doable. There are political barriers,” he said, alluding to the historical enmity between Los Angeles, stretching back all the way to the first decade of the 20th Century when former Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eaton and William Mulholland, the head of the Los Angeles Water Department which would subsequently become the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, swindled the farmers in the Owens Valley of their water rights, while for some five generations water has continued to be diverted from Owens Lake and its aquifer to the greater Los Angeles area. The representative of Inyo County on the Indian Wells Groundwater Authority Board, John Vallejo, may not be willing to enter into a deal that would involve making any order of concession to Los Angeles with regard to water originating from the Owens Lake aquifer.
Zdeba said that assuming Inyo County gets on board with such a trade, after the California Department of Water Resources signed off on it, “We could move forward with some sort of arrangement.”
Though elements of the plan are scheduled to go into effect later this year, Zdeba said, “It might take the DWR [Department of Water and Power] up to two years to give it final approval, depending on several considerations.”
Those living and functioning in the valley will “still be pumping more water than we have natural recharge,” Zdeba said. Human use of water in the valley “is slowly depleting the aquifer,” Zdeba said, but added “The overall amounts of decline are nowhere near what you see in the Central Valley.” He said the water in the basin “continues to decline near a foot a year in some places. At other levels it is closer to a half of a foot per year. In some places the levels are not dropping. The basin is very deep. It is not like we are running out of water next year, but obviously if you are in a decline, that is something that needs to be remediated. The state gives you 20 years to get to a sustained level, and you are expected to make progress toward a sustainable level annually.”
Zdeba said the action the authority is taking is reasonable and measured, in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
“The legislation is not intended to have a severe economic impact on communities,” he said.
Zdeba said the exemption of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center from the restrictions is defensible in terms of the larger societal and environmental forces at play. “The China Lake Naval Base is a critical installation,” he said. “It is expansive. They have to be able to not only recruit quality technical people but retain them. You will not keep them if you don’t have green spaces and community pools. They have to offer some nice things, a hospital and schools, if they want to keep talented people at the base.”
The Navy has striven to not be profligate in its water usage, Zdeba said.
“The China Lake Naval Base is using roughly 1,600 acre-feet of water annually,” he said. “They have come down quite a bit the last few years. They have removed some turf. They have made extensive water system improvements throughout the entire base. But they have an expansive operation. They used to use up to 2,500 acre-feet.”
Water is an important element of the region’s economy, Zdeba said. “Water is needed for other operations such as the Searles Valley Minerals Plant.”
Zdeba said engineers and competent hydrological experts have ascertained that historically, on average, there is a natural inflow of 7,650 acre-feet of water into the valley. “That is the number agreed upon by the groundwater authority’s technical advisory committee,” he said.
He said the objective of the state legislation, the governor’s order and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is “to avoid undesirable results. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act defines six undesirable results: chronic lowering of groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, seawater intrusion, land subsidence, water quality degradation, and depletions of interconnected surface water.”
Zdeba said there have been “recent averages” of total outflows from the valley of 32,640 acre-feet, including 4,850 acre-feet in evaporation, 27,740 acre-feet in groundwater extractions, and 50 acre-feet in interbasin subsurface flow. This leaves, he said, an average annual overdraft of 24,990 acre-feet from the valley.
Zdeba said the movement toward a balancing of inflow and outflow “will have to occur over time. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act allows 20 years to reach sustainability. There will very likely be incremental reductions as the plan is implemented. I cannot provide specific years at this time.” That balancing, Zdeba said, will entail, in part, progressive restrictions on the pumpers. “The Groundwater Sustainability Plan adopted by the authority board includes initial reductions (rampdown) as the result of the so called ‘transient pool’ that is being established for local agriculture,” Zdeba said. “The pool consists of 51,000 acre-feet of water to be allocated from groundwater in storage. Anyone allocated water from the pool can decide how they will use it, when they use it within the timeframe allowed, or if they wish to trade/sell their allocation. Once that water is gone, that’s it. Due to the current imbalance, the authority wants to protect the amount of groundwater in storage, but is willing to allow that amount to be pumped.”
In essence, Zdeba said, starting with the 27,740 acre-feet in extractions annually ongoing on average over the last several years, “the target is to limit pumping to 12,000 acre-feet per year. Obviously this will require supplemental water supplies.”
Zdeba said that an adjustment toward the desired balancing will entail importation of water. “That is one of the possible solutions,” he said.
Zdeba said “About 5,000 acre-feet, the difference between the annual recharge and the 12,000 acre-feet target” is roughly how much importation of water per year in acre-feet the plan envisions. He said it is unknown at this point whether there will be a progressive increase in the importation of water year by year. He said that the means of importing water should be “fully implemented by 2035.”
The importation of water is entirely dependent upon the addition of the infrastructure to convey it either from the California Aqueduct or the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Zdeba said.
If water to be imported is not available, Zdeba said, there will be further rampdowns.
Through water recycling efforts, Zdeba estimated, “approximately 2,000 acre-feet” could be provided toward the balancing of water use in the valley.
Zdeba indicated that at present, no real effort at exploring the limitation of evaporation from the aquifer is being made.
If 2040 rolls around and the goal of water use balance throughout the valley is not achieved, “state intervention” will be the consequence. Zdeba said.
By Mark Gutglueck