Groundwater Authority At Extreme End Of County Facing Fiscal Challenges

The joint powers agency formed by Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino counties in 2016 to prevent the depletion of the aquifer in a portion of the West Mojave is running into fiscal difficulties.
The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority will finance its operations in the first half of 2018 with an advance from the Kern County-based Indian Wells Valley Water District, under an arrangement approved by its board members last week. But funding down the road will be needed, and there is no clear source of revenue identified to keep the agency functioning.
Indian Wells Valley straddles southeastern Kern County, southwestern Inyo County and Northwestern San Bernardino County. Underlying it is the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin, from which the City of Ridgecrest and its outlying area’s domestic, commercial, industrial and agricultural entities draw their water, as does the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, the Searles Valley Mineral Company in Trona and the remainder of industrial, commercial and domestic users in Trona.
Historically, the Indian Wells Valley Water Basin experiences roughly 7,000 to 11,000 acre-feet of annual natural water recharge per year, but for three decades has been using on average 28,000 to 30,000 acre-feet of water annually. Two years ago, California Governor Jerry Brown, in the face of a four-year running drought, mandated water saving measures throughout the state. Water use in the Indian Wells Valley Water Basin was reduced to under 24,000 acre-feet, which still exceeded the estimated 7,300 acre-feet of recharge by 16,700 acre feet.
In September 2014, Governor 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. It was thus mandated that a groundwater sustainability agency for Indian Wells Valley be formed by June 30, 2017, and that the agency adopt a groundwater sustainability plan by January 30, 2020.
In response, through a joint exercise of powers agreement the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority was chartered in 2016 with Kern County, San Bernardino County, Inyo County, the City of Ridgecrest and the Indian Wells Valley Water District as general and voting members and United States Navy and United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management as non-voting associate members.
Practically speaking, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority is dominated by Kern County together with Ridgecrest and the water district. Nevertheless, the town of Trona, which at present is not the industrial and mining powerhouse it was a century ago and in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, has an interest in the action of the authority. Trona, which lies within San Bernardino County adjacent to the Inyo County border, possesses tremendous potential as an important industrial asset regionally, statewide and nationally, and its access to water in sufficient quantity to sustain mining operations and production efforts based upon the availability of an abundance of minerals locally is crucial to realizing that potential.
While the other voting members filled the board with people who have established status as political representatives and possess sensitivity to the use of water in domestic settings, San Bernardino County was able to get a commitment from the other participants that it would be able to place as its permanent representative on the groundwater authority board a personage employed with the major mining company in Trona. Also participating on an informal basis from time to time has been San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood.
Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason at present chairs the authority’s board, and Alan Christensen, Kern County’s deputy county administrative officer, handles much of the preparation for action to be taken by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board as the general director. A policy advisory committee is drafting a framework for the groundwater sustainability plan with input from a second advisory committee steeped in hydrology expertise. The second panel is referred to as the technical committee.
While both committees exist as official governmental committees subject to the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open public meeting law, and thus holds meetings open to the public, they are not officially the final arbiters of the final draft for the plan, as the board of directors holds that authority. Nevertheless, in their advisory capacity, those committees are in control of the ultimate form of the groundwater conservation plan.
There are seventeen members of the policy advisory committee, one from each of the five general members and two associate members; two from large agriculture interests, specifically Meadowbrook Farms Mutual Water Company and the Mojave Ranch; one from small agriculture interests; two business; two domestic well owners; one from a planning agency/background; an environmental-oriented member, in this case a board member of the Eastern Kern County Resource Conservation District; and one industrial, that being a representative of the Searles Valley Minerals operation in Trona.
The technical advisory committee has a dozen members, one from each of the authority’s five general and two voting members; one each from agriculture, domestic well and industrial interests; one from Kern County Water Agency; and the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s technical consultant. The committee members have formal education and extensive experience in water/groundwater-related fields, and they have technical backgrounds in hydrology, hydrogeology or geology, and each possesses a familiarity with Indian Wells Valley.
The draft 2018 budget for the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority rather optimistically projects $1.7 million in spending over the next 12 months toward groundwater preservation planning. But the budget specifies only $740,000 in specific tasks to be performed from January to June. The Indian Wells Valley Water District has agreed to provide and the board said it would accept a cool half of a million dollars to cover roughly two-thirds of that six months worth of the authority’s operations. The Indian Wells Valley Water District is advancing the money against the amount of money that it is anticipated major water pumpers from the Indian Wells aquifer will be assessed as part of the future implementation of the groundwater sustainability plan. That plan has yet to be fully formulated.
In addition to imposing a water conservation regime intended to limit the amount of water drawn from the Indian Wells Valley water table, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority is very likely to create a cost sharing regime to defray the cost of importing water from the State Water Project. That imported water could be pumped into the water table to recharge it, or more likely, be conveyed directly into the reservoirs of the various water users.
Indian Wells Water District officials were met with verbal challenges over the propriety of advancing the money to the authority, curtailing those questions through clearance by the district’s legal counsel, which said it was okay to do so as long as the money was disbursed from its alternative water sources fund.
Unclear at this point is how the authority will continue to sustain its operations, as there is at present no funding source dedicated to it, and it lacks taxing or any other type of assessment authorization. The authority will be free to utilize some $268,000 in anticipated Proposition 1 grant money.
That leaves questions as to where the authority will get the remainder of the roughly $932,000 needed to fulfill the budget for all of 2018. There has been talk of having further grant money from the state cover a portion of that cost, but there are no definite commitments from Sacramento in that regard.
That funding gap creates an opportunity for interests within San Bernardino County to step forward and increase their influence over the authority’s processes. At present, Kern County, the City of Ridgecrest and the Indian Wells Valley Water District are the dominant players within the authority. San Bernardino County, Trona and the Searles Valley Mineral Company, though they posses a single vote on the board, are considered to be minority stakeholders. In November 2007, Ahmedabad, India-based Nirma purchased the Searles Valley Mineral Company from Sun Capital Partners. Nirma appears committed to hanging onto the company and its attendant property as a long term investment, believing that at some future point the mining and production of the mineral trona, either in the form trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate or sodium sesquicarbonate dihydrate, as well as soda ash, sodium sulfate and borax will be highly economically advantageous. The mineral Trona is the primary source of sodium carbonate, also known as soda ash, produced in the United States. Soda ash is used in the fabrication of glass, detergents and dyes. Potash was also a major mineral mined in the Trona area, and was crucial to the American war effort during World War I.
By venturing an infusion of capital into the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority at this point, the Town of Trona, Nirma or San Bernardino County or perhaps all three could purchase a greater degree of participation in and influence over the authority, smoothing the way for the Searles Valley Mineral Company to reinitiate operations when the time to do so is propitious.
The authority’s board of directors is next scheduled to meet on January 18, 2018 at Ridgecrest City Hall. At that time, it is anticipated that Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden will replace Gleason as the board chairperson and Ridgecrest City Manager Ron Strand will supplant Christensen as general manager.
Mark Gutglueck

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