Trona Being Outmuscled By Kern County On Indian Wells Valley H2O Adjudication

As efforts to comply with a state-imposed mandate that water users in Indian Wells Valley reduce water usage to a sustainable level by the year 2040 proceed, it appears that San Bernardino County has been politically outmuscled within the regime that has been formed to effectuate those limitations.
Accordingly, the ability of San Bernardino County, its residents and its businesses at the extreme northwest corner of its jurisdiction to preserve for themselves the ability to draft sufficient water to expand development or increase industrial, agricultural and mining activity over the next century or beyond is on a trajectory to be sharply attenuated.
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 water users draw a portion of their water, as does the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, the Searles Valley Mineral Company in Trona and a small number of industrial, commercial and domestic users in Trona.
Historically, the Indian Wells Valley Water Basin experienced roughly 7,000 to 11,000 acre-feet of annual natural water recharge per year. For three decades users of water in the basin have been drafting on average 28,000 to 30,000 acre-feet of water annually.
In 2015, then-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.
Through a joint exercise of powers agreement, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority was created 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, with which the authority and the Indian Wells Valley Water District have 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, have been contemplated, but as yet have not been implemented. In virtually all of those, San Bernardino County/Trona/Searles Valley are to be provided with substantially less water than the entities in Kern County, which essentially dominate the board of the joint powers authority.
If the water allotments into the future are to be based on historic usage patterns, it is logical that San Bernardino County users will be given less water, since in recent years entities outside of San Bernardino County have made more active use of Indian Wells Valley Water than have domestic and industrial users in Trona and Searles Valley.
According to 2016 water use data, that year 10,253 acre-feet were drafted from the valley’s aquifer, in accordance with severe water use restrictions imposed by the state because of the drought, while roughly 7,650 acre-feet of recharge in the valley’s confines took place. In this way, there was a 2,603 acre-foot deficit from the Indian Wells Valley water table in 2016 alone. The largest water user was the Indian Wells Valley Municipal Water District, which drafted 6,412 acre-feet; the Navy, which used 2,041 acre-feet, was the second largest user; the City of Ridgecrest, which utilized 373 acre-feet, followed; domestic mutual water well operators used 300 acre-feet; well operators in Searles/Trona were the fifth largest users, having drawn 225 acre-feet. Inyokern drafted 102 acre feet. There were a number of de minimis uses, all of which drafted less than ten acre-feet. Their total use was 800 acre-feet.
Stetson Engineers has been designated the water resources manager for Indian Wells Valley.
The authority’s technical and policy advisory committee has made or is currently making a review of five separate overdraft reduction plans or models.
The first model calls for allowing a whopping 28,600 acre-feet to be drawn per year from 2022 to 2029, and dropping that usage pattern by one-tenth a year from 2030 to 2039 until the goal of 7,650 acre-feet is attained. That yearly pumping level would be sustained until 2070.
In a second model, roughly 20,000 acre-feet of drafting would be permitted to occur until 2034 or thereabouts, followed by 12 percent reductions per year for five years thereafter, with the 7,650 acre-foot goal achieved by 2040.
A third contemplated model would be implemented no later than January 2022, setting total pumping at that point until 2029 at 28,600 acre-feet. For the decade of 2030 to 2039 inclusive, ten percent reductions from the 28,600 acre-feet usage pattern would be initiated across the board until the “safe and sustainable” 7,650 acre-feet per year yield is reached, and then maintained through 2070.
The fourth model calls for modified and coordinated agricultural pumping with allocation transfers from farmer to farmer, initiating in January 2022. Rampdowns would occur for five years running until total maximum pumping of 12,000 acre-feet per year was attained as of 2027. That level of water use would be sustained from 2028 through 2070. If that did not match the annual replenishment pattern, further reductions would take place.
The fifth model would involve drastic near-term pumping reductions. San Bernardino County users would be reduced to drafting a minuscule amount of water from the Indian Wells Valley water supply under this scenario. Some have referred to this as a so-called nuclear option that will be implemented if no other options are accepted. Under this plan, pumping reductions would begin in 2022. All agricultural use of water would be ended and Searles Valley Minerals, the primary San Bernardino County user of water from Indian Wells Valley, would be disallowed any access to the aquifer as well. The Indian Wells Valley Water District, the Navy, the City of Ridgecrest, domestic well owners and mutuals, Inyokern, and a handful of domestic users in Searles/Trona would be collectively reduced to drafting no more than a total of 10,000 acre feet per year from 2022 to 2034.
Under the best of circumstances, San Bernardino County-based users could not expect the joint powers authority to come up with a water use restriction regime that will allot them more than 2.22 percent of the valley’s water.
Some advocates for San Bernardino County are alarmed by that prospect.
Virtually all of the other competing interests in Indian Wells Valley are progressing toward establishing into-perpetuity water drafting entitlements that far exceed those that San Bernardino County officials are managing to lay claim to for Trona and Searles Valley.
This action, which is taking place far from the county seat of San Bernardino, is happening without the knowledge or conscious regard of the San Bernardino County public. Only a very limited circle within San Bernardino County’s government structure, who have other duties and demands on their time and attention, have focused on this issue. In this way, concern is growing among those sensitive to the issue that the very real interests the county and its residents have in what is essentially an ongoing water rights adjudication process are being given short shrift. To them, the county’s failure to act during this crucial time is resulting in all of the other entities now competing to secure water availability in Indian Wells Valley outhustling San Bernardino County and San Bernardino County-based interests, such that the development, industrial, agricultural and mining potential in that remote end of the county is likely to be foreclosed for years, decades, generations and centuries into the future.
Exacerbating the situation is that Searles Valley Minerals, Inc. is currently owned by Nirma, an Indian company based in Ahmedabad, India. Its owners and management may not be sufficiently aware of the stakes that attend the process involving the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority and the water rights adjudication process to be prompted to timely action.
Bob Page, a principal management analyst with the county who since last summer has been serving in the capacity of the county’s chief elections officer as the interim registrar of voters for San Bernardino County, is the county’s representative on the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board.
He disputed what he called the “theory” that San Bernardino County is faring poorly in the adjudication process vis-à-vis the Indian Wells Valley Water District, the Navy and the City of Ridgecrest or that the county is outmuscled politically within the context of the authority.
“San Bernardino County does not possess water rights in the basin, nor does it provide water to the nearby community of Trona,” Page pointed out. “Searles Valley Minerals asserts water rights in the basin, pumping water from wells in Ridgecrest and piping it to Trona. As a California Public Utility Commission-regulated water retailer, the company’s subsidiary Searles Domestic Water Co. has accepted the responsibility for ensuring the residents of Trona have a sufficient supply of water.”
Page said, “The county has ensured Trona’s needs are considered in the basin groundwater sustainability plan that is being developed by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority. This has included appointing the company to seats on both the policy advisory committee and the technical advisory committee, which are helping the authority develop the groundwater sustainability plan. The county has also advised Searles Valley Minerals that it, not the county, is responsible for protecting its water rights.”
Continuing, Page said, “In no way has the county ignored or neglected the county’s interests or those of our residents. San Bernardino County has been actively engaged continuously since 2015 in efforts to bring water use in the basin into balance. This includes the negotiation of the agreement that formed the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority in July 2016. The county is one of the five member agencies of the authority. The goal of the authority and its member agencies is to achieve cost effective sustainable groundwater management that considers the interests and concerns of all of the communities and parties that rely upon the basin for their water supply. At the suggestion of San Bernardino County, the authority’s formation agreement requires a supermajority vote to approve or amend the groundwater sustainability plan to ensure it employs a collaborative approach. Despite the distance between San Bernardino and Ridgecrest, an appointed county representative consistently attends the authority board meetings – primarily in person and on occasion by telephone.”
Page offered, “As background, the State designated the Indian Wells Valley Basin as a critically over-drafted groundwater basin. The amount of water annually pumped from the basin is three to four times more than the natural recharge of the basin from rain and snow melt. As a result, groundwater levels drop one to two feet a year, which in recent years has caused nearly 100 shallow, private wells to go dry. Achieving sustainable water use in the basin by 2040 presents great challenges and will require sacrifices.”
Page said efforts to import water that might be achieved within a decade could attenuate the looming water crisis at the county’s northwest corner.
“The authority is developing a groundwater sustainability plan that considers multiple approaches to achieve water balance, including importation of water, increased reuse of wastewater, treatment of non-potable groundwater and conservation,” Page said. “With supplemental water resources being added by 2025, the authority’s engineering consultant believes that the sustainable amount of water available for use in the basin could be increased from 7,650 acre feet per year to about 12,000 acre feet per year.”
Page continued, “The authority’s engineering consultant has modeled different approaches to allocating that amount of water to pumpers, evaluating the impacts of ramping down water use over different lengths of time. The water allocation to parties will be based upon legal precedent regarding water rights. The authority board has not yet decided which approach it prefers for inclusion in the groundwater sustainability plan.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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