Over Legal Challenge, Indian Wells Valley H2O Conservation To Fallow Farmland

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority is incorporating a farmland fallowing option into its water sustainability plan, a ploy which some officials are hopeful will reduce the amount of water pumped out of the remote desert valley by the year 2040.
The farmland fallowing approach, predictably, is not favored by certain agricultural interests, who have initiated a legal challenge which might prevent the disuse of all or some of the farmland as a solution to the overdrafting problem in the aquifer.
The Indian Wells Valley is an arid north-south basin at the northwesternmost portion of the Mojave Desert, which includes the northwesternmost tip of San Bernardino County as well as surrounding areas in Inyo and Kern counties.
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’s 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.
An engineering consultant retained by the authority, Carlsbad-based Stetson Engineers, 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.
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.
Engineers and competent hydrological experts, including the groundwater authority’s technical advisory committee have ascertained that historically, on average, there is a natural inflow of 7,650 acre-feet of water into the valley. 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, 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.
One issue complicating the matter is that the Bureau of Land Management, as a federal entity, is exempt from the groundwater sustainability plan and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and therefore not subject to the restrictions that will be imposed in the groundwater sustainability plan. Neither is the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, which encompasses two ranges and totals over 1,100,000 acres or 1,719 square miles, much of that within Indian Wells Valley, subject to state restrictions.  While the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station has made strides in recent years in reducing its water use, it still drafts some 1,600 acre-feet of water from the aquifer annually.
Stetson has at this point essentially completed a verification of groundwater production patterns by the region’s well owners, based primarily on their electricity use relating to the pumps on their wells. Those wells utilizing less than two acre-feet annually are defined as de minimis users and are not subject to the plan’s regimen. Those utilizing more than two-acre feet of water yearly are obliged to participate in the water usage reduction effort. 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. Based upon their past water usage pattern, well owners over the next ten to 20 years will be required to ramp down the amount of water they draw out of the Indian Wells Valley aquifer.
Earlier this year, Zdeba told the Sentinel that 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.” With regard to meeting the goal of matching overall water use in the valley on an annual basis to the average 7,650 acre-feet of yearly recharge, Zdeba said, “Obviously this will require supplemental water supplies.”
In this way, the authority is exploring importing water into the valley from either the California Aqueduct or the Metropolitan Water District’s aqueduct conveying water from the Owens Valley in Inyo County to the Los Angeles Basin. Either of those alternatives would require the construction of infrastructure – essentially a pipeline – to convey the water from one aqueduct or another to the valley. As the valley does not have much in the way of people living there, with 29,000 population Ridgcrest in Kern County being the largest community, there is not available funding to defray the cost of that infrastructure. For the three counties involved – Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo – the Indian Wells Valley is a remote territory, such that huge outlays to provide water to it to benefit a relative handful of interests does not appear to be in the cards.
The groundwater authority is thus interested in applying whatever means might be at its disposal to reduce water usage. One of those means is a fallowing program. This would be be achieved by the authority assessing the value of the region’s farmland and then making an offer to purchase it or otherwise forcing a sale of the land by means of eminent domain, and/or purchasing from the farm owners their water rights, so that thereafter the farms can be shut down and no water is pumped from their wells.
The fallowing program that is now part of the Indian Wells Valley Water District’s water use sustainability strategy has become an issue in the legal matter brought in Kern County Superior Court on November 19, 2019 against the Indian Wells Valley Water District by lead plaintiff Mojave Pistachios along with John Thomas Conaway, the John Thomas Conaway Trust, the John Thomas Conaway Living Trust, the Nugent Family Trust and Sierra Shadows Ranch. Representing Mojave Pistachios, Conaway, Sierra Shadows Ranch and the trusts are attorneys Scott Slater, Amy Steinfeld and Kimberly E. Leefatt. The case is being heard by Judge David R. Lampe in Bakersfield. In addition to the Indian Wells Valley Water District, Searles Valley Minerals, Inc.; Meadowbrook Dairy; Meadowbrook Dairy Real Estate, LLC; Big Horns Fields, LLC; Brown Road Fields, LLC; Highway 395 Fields, LLC; and the Meadowbrook Mutual Water Company are named as defendants. Attorney James A. Worth represents the Indian Wells Valley Water District, and Paige H. Gosney represents Meadowbrook Dairy Real Estate, LLC; Big Horns Fields, LLC; Brown Roads Fields, LLC; Highway 395 Fields, LLC and the Meadowbrook Mutual Water Company.
One of the issues, according to Slater, Steinfeld and Leefatt, is that the $9 million that has been set aside to carry out the purchasing of farms or the water rights at the farms is unequal to the value of the farm and the water rights in the case of the Mojave Pistachios farm on an individual basis. On a collective basis with regard to all of the other farming interests that are taking legal action, the lawyers maintain, that $9 million is barely adequate to cover the current value of investments in those operations.
In seeking an injunction against the fallowing plan, Slater, Steinfeld and Leefatt assert that Mojave Pistachios alone invested $25 million in the development of its farm, including planting and maintaining its orchards and labor over the last ten years.  Additionally, according to Slater, Steinfeld and Leefatt, Conaway, the Conaway trusts, the Nugent Family Trust and Sierra Shadows Ranch have made investments in their operations totaling at least $9 million in the last decade.
According to Slater, Steinfeld and Leefatt, the groundwater authority is allowing Searles Valley Minerals, the major entity from San Bernardino County involved in the use of water from Indian Wells Valley, to take water out of the valley. “Defendant Searles Valley Minerals Inc. has appropriated groundwater from the basin and exports the water more than twenty miles for use at its industrial mining operations and as a source of water supply for the community of Trona in Searles Valley,” the lawsuit states.
Reportedly, the Searles Valley Minerals operation is involved in drafting roughly 2,600 acre-feet from wells in Indian Wells Valley, of which some 500 acre-feet per year are piped to Trona. Some of that 500 acre-feet is used for domestic purposes in Trona.
As a consequence, there has been some discussion of encouraging Searles Valley Minerals to develop water sources outside of Indian Wells Valley. One option Searles Valley Minerals would have in this regard would entail desalinating brackish water that is available. Another measure would be to intensify water recycling efforts in Trona.
At present, the Indian Wells Valley Water District is utilizing a California Department of Water Resources grant to look into both the economic and practical feasibility of the conversion of brackish water in the region.
-Mark Gutglueck

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