Water District: replenishment fee is premature

Water District: replenishment fee is prematureBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Valley residents can expect numerous increases to their water bills in the coming months and years due to the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s sustainability efforts. The GA has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of potential projects lined up and the IWV Water District – one of the GA’s principal member agencies – met recently to discuss the impact on its ratepayers as the district anticipates significant increases to its operating costs.

Water District customers are already paying a surcharge of 24 cents per unit (one hundred cubic feet) for the GA’s “extraction” fee – which is anticipated to be in place for 18 months in order to pay $1.5 million in remaining GA bills to develop its Groundwater Sustainability Plan. With the exception of federal entities and non-commercial “de minimis” (less than two acre-feet per year) pumpers, all valley water users are subject to the extraction fee.

The GA is scheduled to approve a “replenishment” fee to the tune of $2,130 per acre-foot in August. The replenishment fee is also a volumetric fee, but unlike the extraction fee, it is not applied evenly to all pumpers in the valley.

According to the GA’s sustainable yield allocation report, the basin has a natural annual recharge of 7,650 acre-feet – 1,450 of which is reserved for the Navy. The 6,200 acre-feet in “carryover” is then allocated to other users in the valley: de minimis wells (800 acre-feet), City of Ridgecrest (373), Kern County (18), IWV Water District (4,390), Inyokern Community Services District (102), small mutuals (300) and Trona Domestic Water (217).

What the water allocations don’t account for are an additional 2,117 acre-feet for Water District users, 2,413 for Searles Valley Minerals and any water for agricultural use – all of which would need to be funded through the replenishment fee.

This fee alone will add roughly $4.5 million to the district’s annual operational costs and will increase a “typical” ratepayer’s (a residential user who uses 13 units per month on a three-quarter-inch connection) yearly bill by about $300.

“The $300-per-year figure is only an average,” said Water District Director and GA representative Ron Kicinski. “If you look at some of the lower users – I happen to be one of them – with 4-5 units per month … those people are going to be paying less.”

Though when prompted by a resident Elaine Mead during public comment, Kicinski divulged he had a second meter for his landscaping which measured an average 10-12 units per month.

“You should add those two together, because that’s your consumption,” said Mead. “Most residential households also have landscaping.”

Water District General Manager Don Zdeba reported that heavier commercial users, like hotels, would be paying an extra $5,000-6,000 annually for the fee.

The proposed replenishment fee will fund a $52 million purchase for the GA to access some 5,000-8,000 acre-feet annually as part of the California State Water Project. But it doesn’t include operational, maintenance or infrastructure costs associated with transporting the water to the Indian Wells Valley.

According to the GSP, infrastructure costs for importing water could exceed $100 million with yearly operational and maintenance costs ranging from $4.4-$8.1 million. Future costs will be addressed through a proposed “project” fee among others.

“It’s a lot of fees and it sounds like there’s a lot of fine tuning left to be done,” said Ridgecrest Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens during an earlier City Council discussion.

With Searles Valley and agricultural users likely being unable to bear these costs, Water District directors raised concerns that these increases would fall to the ratepayers alone.

“There’s an awful lot of things we don’t know,” said Director Stan Rajtora. “My feeling is this is very premature. We don’t even have an approved GSP and we’re talking about putting our ratepayers out for a lot of dollars. There are two separate issues here – what are the projects supposed to be and who pays for it.”

“If we end up paying for the whole thing, that could triple the annual operating budget of the Water District,” said Director David Saint-Amand. “I think people need to be made aware of that.”

“We have all of these other costs,” said Mead during public comment. “The GA needs to explain what those costs would be.”

Member of the public Mike Neel criticized the GA, specifically Board Chair Mick Gleason, pushing for these measures without more financial oversight, despite constant pleas from other boardmembers and the public to establish a GA finance committee.

“Mick Gleason opposed [a finance committee] from the very beginning,” said Neel. “So the spending went through the roof and here we are having to pay for it.”

The Proposition 218 hearing to approve the fee is scheduled for Aug. 21, but meetings have been limited to virtual attendance due to COVID-19 precautions. Valley property owners have the ability to prevent the fee’s approval, but a minimum of 9,977 protest letters would be needed to meet Prop 218 requirements.

The GA mailed out notices for every affected Assessor's Parcel Number. Property owners can submit a protest vote for each property they own.

“Does everybody hear this discussion we’re having right now?” said Water District President Chuck Cordell. “The GA wants to vote on this in less than four weeks, and we have no clue what it’s actually going to cost.

“[The Water District has] 12,000 water users as far as meters go. Anybody concerned with this needs to go out, beat the bushes and talk to people and get them to submit protests.”

“Why is this fee being rushed?” asked Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors spokesperson Donna Hocker during public comment. “Is the Water District Board concerned that the GA is trying to pass policy during a pandemic that limits public input?”

Protests must be mailed to the IWVGA at 500 W. Ridgecrest Blvd. or dropped in the Water District’s dropbox by Aug. 21. Envelopes should be clearly marked “protest” and letters should include the property owner’s name, address or APN and signature. Pre-written protest letters are also available at Cordell Construction and the RAAR office, among other locations.

Kicinski said he would bring the request to postpone the hearing to the GA Board when it meets Aug. 20.

Story First Published: 2020-07-31