Fees Aimed At Conserving Water In Indian Wells Valley Trigger Adjudication Effort

The effort by the collective governments in San Bernardino, Kern and Inyo counties to come into compliance with the State of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in the remote Indian Wells Valley has now been simplified or complicated, depending on how it is looked at, through a move to adjudicate water rights in the region.
In the face of a four-year running drought, California state officials in 2014 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, which lies at the extreme northwestern end of the Mojave Desert and the confluence of the northwestern corner of San Bernardino County, the southeastern end of Kern County and the southwestern extension of Inyo County.
Based upon a survey of water usage patterns undertaken by an engineering consultant, Carlsbad-based Stetson Engineers, the authority and the Indian Wells Valley Water District 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 depletion of the aquifer will end.
Stetson Engineers was designated the water resources manager for Indian Wells Valley, and the authority’s board in January 2020 passed a tentative proposed groundwater sustainability plan and voted to submit it to the state. Thereafter it made adjustments to the plan, which contained water use limitation elements and water replenishment measures. The plan incorporated a farmland fallowing option as well as an increase in the monthly assessment or fee that was imposed on the extraction of water by major pumpers. That fee had been previously collected to cover the costs associated with the administrative activity of the groundwater authority.
After a survey of water use by well owners both collectively and individually was made, the authority assigned water use allowances to the region’s well owners. Excess use fees, referred to as augmentation fees, were formulated for application to those well owners who pump above their allowances as well as on any farmer whose use exceeds his respective share of the water supply set aside for agricultural usage. Money generated in this way is used to purchase imported water and pay for the infrastructure needed to bring in the imported water.
In September 2020, Searles Valley Minerals, based in the San Bernardino County community of Trona, represented by Eric Garner, Jeffrey Dunn and Maya Mouawad with the law firm of Best Best & Krieger, filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court against the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority in an effort to protect what Garner, Dunn and Mouwad asserted are the company’s groundwater rights within the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin, and to stop the collection of what they characterized as an illegal and unfair groundwater replenishment fee and a tax disguised, they assert, as an “extraction fee.”
Searles Valley Minerals uses solution mining, which involves soaking portions of the company’s dry Searles Lake in San Bernardino County with water to precipitate brine which is then extracted and processed to produce boric acid, sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate, several specialty forms of borax, and salt.
The groundwater replenishment fee, Garner, Dunn and Mouawad maintained, is unprecedented and exorbitant, and will increase the company’s water costs by 7,000 percent or $6 million per year – pushing Searles Valley Minerals out of business after more than 140 years of operation, thereby threatening the livelihood of the company’s 700 employees. The groundwater replenishment fee ignores and violates Searles Valley Minerals’ adjudicated water rights, according to the lawsuit.
Searles Valley Minerals’ 91-year-old water rights are the most senior in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin.
Garner, Dunn and Mouawad took issue with the fashion in which the China Lake Naval Air Station is not subject to the restrictions in the plan nor its fees.
“Searles Valley Minerals’ right to pump water in the basin for domestic uses is senior to any water right reserved to [the] Weapons Station, and because [the] water district’s groundwater pumping began no earlier than 1955, its appropriative right, if any, to basin water remains junior to Searles Valley Minerals’ right,” according to the lawsuit. “The authority falsely asserts in its groundwater sustainability plan that any pumping allocations under the groundwater sustainability plan will be ‘consistent with existing groundwater rights and priorities.’”
Other entities beside Searles Valley Minerals contesting the groundwater replenishment fee were the companies Mojave Pistachios and Sierra Shadows Ranch, along with John Thomas Conaway and the Nugent Family Trust, which collectively sued the groundwater authority and the Indian Wells Valley Water District as the lead agency in that joint authority.
Growing out of that litigation was a cross complaint from the Indian Wells Valley Water District in the form of Indian Wells Valley Water District v. All Persons Who Claim a Right to Extract Groundwater in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin. Essentially, that suit calls for a survey of water usage among all water users and purveyors in the region, data from which will ultimately form the basis of water use allotments being apportioned to those users. Those users will be afforded the opportunity to object to or provide input regarding those allotments, which will ultimately be determined by an Orange County Superior Court judge.
The disputes over water in the Indian Wells Valley Region have been assigned to the Orange County Superior Court to avoid bias that might manifest if the hearings were held in a court in Kern, Inyo or San Bernardino counties.
One issue complicating the matter is that both the Bureau of Land Management and the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, as federal entities, are 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. The China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station encompasses two ranges and totals over 1,100,000 acres or 1,719 square miles, much of that within Indian Wells Valley. 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.
District sources have said the adjudication, which riled the populace after the district sent out 20,000 letters dated December 16, 2021 to all individual pumpers and local landowners who use the basin informing them of their opportunity to respond to protect their individual water rights, is intended to forge a final and overarching practical and legal determination of water rights for all water pumpers in the Indian Wells Valley basin, the Navy included.
In a posting to the Indian Wells Valley Water District’s website, General Manager Don Sbeda wrote, “Recently, the water district’s board of directors voted to file a comprehensive adjudication that does include Navy participation and allows all those who may claim a right to pump or store water in the basin to participate, assert and prove any rights they may claim. A case management conference has been set by the court for March 15, 2022.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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