GA accused of ‘targeting’ ag

Board votes 4-1 to remove Mojave Pistachios

GA accused of ‘targeting’ agBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

Mojave Pistachios, an Indian Wells Valley grower and representative of large agriculture for the IWV Groundwater Authority’s Policy and Technical Advisory Committees, was removed from its post last week in a 4-1 vote by the GA Board.

The agricultural outfit was reportedly removed for failure to pay more than $26,000 in groundwater pumping fees it had racked up over roughly eight months. Mojave Pistachios has since paid it’s fees after being notified by GA General Manager Don Zdeba about the potential removal. The company also said it would pay late fees and interest.

But that was too little-too late for most of the GA board.

GA Chair Mick Gleason, Kern County 1st District Supervisor, said that costs of water consumption are only going to increase in the coming years. “It could be as high as $1,000-2,000 per acre-foot, he said. “We don’t know.”

Current groundwater pumping fees are $30 per acre-foot and are anticipated to increase as the GA establishes additional fees and gains a better understanding of imported water costs.

“Everybody is going to see their water bills go up. So if we give [Mojave Pistachios] a pass for not paying, we have to give that same pass to all ratepayers, and that’s unacceptable,” said Gleason. “I’m very disappointed they had the audacity to pump 800-900 acre-feet of water without paying. I don’t believe they were acting in the best interests of our community.

He added that he suspected the company stopped paying its fees when it realized costs where going to go up even more for pumpers using groundwater outside of the valley’s “safe yield,” the estimated recharge of 7,650 acre-feet per year.

“Then they found out they were going to be expelled from the PAC and the TAC and that’s when they decided to pay their fee. That’s my suspicion. I have no evidence to know that’s true, but that’s what I think,” said Gleason. “My motion is we expel them.”

But not everyone shared Gleason’s sentiments.

“I think we’re looking at a severe punishment for something that basically solved itself,” said Boardmember Ron Kicinski, IWV Water District representative. “They’ve paid their fees, they’ve agreed to pay their penalties and interest in the future, and I think their voice is important … and will continue to be important.”

“I think they want to help out, but their idea of what’s going to be good for the valley and for them is different than ours, but I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s valuable information. I also think by [removing them] we’re going to send a message to the community that I don’t want to send … it almost seems like ‘we’re making an example of you because we don’t want you here anymore.’”

Boardmember Scott Hayman, city of Ridgecrest, seconded Gleason’s opinion and said the GA doesn’t “have time to be dealing with this kind of behavior.”

San Bernardino County representative Bob Page and Inyo County representative John Vallejo also supported Mojave Pistachio’s removal. Vallejo said the company’s delinquency was either “grossly negligent or willfully withholding,” either of which he said were grounds for their removal from the committees.

According to boardmembers, Mojave Pistachios representatives said they were waiting to pay the fee in a lump sum, but didn’t do so until they were notified that they may be removed from committee representation.

“The veracity of that statement is called into question by a few of us,” said Vallejo.

In a statement from the Mojave Pistachios, the company said it was being unfairly “targeted” by the GA board and its “open vendetta against agriculture.”

“Nowhere in the state has such a one-dimensional and draconian curtailment of groundwater use been targeted at agriculture,” it said. “It is no secret that we are not supportive of the [Groundwater Sustainability Plan] and the failure to allocate water for the survival of agriculture. However, excluding dissenting voices will not improve the GSP or its implementation.”

The GSP that was approved in January prioritizes Navy and residential groundwater use and defines finite water allocations for many agricultural and industrial users. Such users have said the plan leaves them with no future in the valley due to prohibitive augmented water supply (importation) costs.

“We see Meadowbrook and Searles Valley Minerals also being neglected, while still expected to pay whatever is dictated,” said the Mojave Pistachios statement. “This is taxation without representation. We also see largesse and a highly disproportionate cost relative to other GAs in the state.”

Gleason said agriculture was not being targeted and the board would deal with any committee member that didn’t pay its fees in a similar fashion. He also said that he hopes that “in short order, Mojave Pistachios will pay their remaining balance and reapply for committee membership.”

But Kicinski argued that it was not entirely fair since not all fee payers are committee members.

“I think we need to separate [Mojave Pistachios’] participation and payment requirements,” said Kicinski. “And I hope we would do that for everybody else on the committee.”

He also asked how the board would treat committee members who represented larger groups. “Do we kick that representative off because somebody they’re representing isn’t paying? I just don’t think it’s a fair response. If they pay the fee and reapply … they’re right back here again.”

“There have to be consequences for failure to pay,” said Gleason. “If we don’t have a consequence, then what gives us the authority to make anyone pay down the road?”

Large agriculture has two seats each on both the PAC and the TAC. One seat on each committee will remain vacant, with Meadowbrook Dairy holding the others.

Regarding whether or not Mojave Pistachios would reapply for the position, the company responded “it is hard to conceive that under the iron fist of Mick Gleason that the two committees can ever provide open, honest and transparent evaluations or recommendations.

“Mick Gleason has consistently voiced his dislike for agriculture in a state where the legislature declared farming to be among the highest and best (most deserving) uses of water. His words and actions are clear – he hates farmers and agriculture. No facts can persuade him to be reasonable,” said the latest statement issued by Mojave Pistachios on Thursday.

“As of now, the GA has taken upon itself to adopt the single-most oppressive GSP in the state of California … based upon a complete fabrication of underlying conditions which are ‘assumed’ to exist.”

The statement goes on to say that the GA has exaggerated negative impacts such as well failures and subsidence, while ignoring the size of the IWV aquifer and the amount of usable groundwater in storage.

Pictured: IWV Water District Director and Groundwater Authority Boardmember Ron Kicinski — News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-04-24