Wells In County’s NW Corner Assessed Per Acre-Foot Fee

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority, 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 now assessing a $30 per acre-foot water pumping fee on all well owners in its jurisdiction.
The assessment, also referred to as a groundwater extraction assessment, is needed, officials said, to develop and implement the authority’s groundwater sustainability plan, which was mandated by the state of California under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 and must be presented to the Department of Water Resources no later than January 31, 2020. It must specify how sustainable use of water in the Indian Wells Valley Basin will be achieved over the next two decades. The projected cost of implementing the plan is $5.07 million.
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 aforementioned 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.
The authority has retained Stetson Engineering on a $435,250 contract to serve as water resources manager.
The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority was able to 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 in December 2017. The pumping fee approved in principal at that authority’s May meeting and finalized with a second vote in June is intended to provide a critical part of the operating funds for the authority.
The Indian Wells Groundwater Authority has received a $2.1 million Proposition 1 grant from the California Department of Water Resources. The authority will be able to utilize roughly $1.5 million of that grant to develop the sustainability plan. To make use of the grant money, the authority must put up a matching $1.5 million.
It is anticipated that by January 2020, the authority will have expended $3.75 million toward formulating, drafting and certifying the groundwater sustainability plan; will have spent $87,600 for a U.S. Geological Survey study on the Indian Wells Valley Basin’s recharge; and will have laid out $161,500 in administrative costs as the groundwater authority, including salary for a part-time, contract general manager. A portion of the $435,250 contract with Stetson Engineering will cover that firm’s efforts through to that date, as well.
Previously, it was anticipated that James Markman, who has been retained as “special counsel” with regard to the formulation of the groundwater sustainability plan, would be paid $350,000 out of the $3.75 million budget for the drafting of the plan. Member agencies, however, have agreed to lend the services of their various attorneys to this task, reducing to $200,000 Markman’s fee.
Each of the five voting member agencies have contributed $15,000 so far toward ongoing costs. The City of Ridgecrest has contributed a far larger share toward the effort, roughly totaled at $210,466, some of which exists as in-kind participation, some of which may eventually be reimbursable.
It is anticipated the assessments will generate $750,000 per year. The amount of the fee will be $30 for each acre-foot of water pumped in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin administered as $3.00 per tenth (.10) of an acre-foot. Pursuant to Sustained Groundwater Management Act, all groundwater pumpers are subject to the groundwater extraction fee except for federal entities and those that qualify as de minimis extractors. The Sustained Groundwater Management Act expressly provides that a “de minimis extractor” is “a person who extracts, for domestic purposes, two acre-feet or less per year” (California Water Code Section 10721(e)). “Person” for the purposes of this fee is any typical household including landscaping. One acre-foot of water is equivalent to 325,851 gallons. De minimis extractors that are currently exempt from the groundwater extraction fee may be subject to future fees implemented by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority after the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan is adopted.
The charges went into effect as of August 1. Billing slips are to go out to well owners and pumpers on September 1. Payment is required within 30 days of billing.
It appears that initially, a self-reporting honor system will be in place, with well owners expected to quantify their water usage, designate that on their response to the billing slips and provide a payment in accordance with the $30 per acre-foot rate and their usage. The groundwater authority will have the authority to meter wells once the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan is in place, but is not presently authorized to do so. Nevertheless, after receiving a response from the well owners, the groundwater authority will have the option or simply accepting the amount paid as adequate, or instituting a verification effort if officials suspect underreporting of water use. Those claiming di minimus user status will be subject to immediate verification.
The authority has informed all known well owners in writing that failure to register any wells or being delinquent on billing accounts could result in action ordering water users to cease and desist pumping.
There was previously some grumbling among certain well owners about the fee. A few said the fee was too high or unreasonable. Some questioned the data and calculations used in arriving at the $30-per-acre-foot rate. Some of the small agricultural interests, including pistachio farms, were vocal in their protests with regard to the fee. The most powerful entity, relatively, expressing dismay with the fee was the Meadowbrook Farms Mutual Water Company, which memorialized its objections in the form of a letter from its legal counsel. Meadowbrook is one of seventeen members of the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s Policy Advisory Committee. That committee is composed of a representative 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.
San Bernardino County’s interest in the authority rests primarily with the interests of the town of Trona and the Searles Valley Mineral Company, located in Trona. Trona was once a booming mining town but has been in eclipse for more than two decades. In November 2007, Ahmedabad, India-based Nirma purchased the Searles Valley Mineral Company in Trona 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.
-Mark Gutglueck

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