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GA votes to disallow WD to serve as Board Chair

BY PATRICIA FARRIS News Review Publisher –

During Public Comment at the December 13 Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (IWVGA) meeting, Judi Decker asked if the Water District’s new findings on double the amount of recharge in the Basin were submitted to the Water Resource Manager, Steve Johnson. Johnson responded that he had not received the information.

According to Chuck Griffin, a Board Member representing the Water District, “This is not a created study. It is a study that was done. The data has not been available due to litigation. The numbers have been put out, but we have not released the full report. I hope that the GA will look at it, and maybe we can reevaluate and look at some things because this will be the newest science available to this Basin.”

He said the new study “is not a compilation of old data, but it will be new to this Basin. It should be a good thing and beneficial to this valley.”

Philip Peters, Board Member representing Kern County, said, “As the Water District is a member of the GA Board, it concerns me that this was submitted to the newspapers before it was submitted to the GA. If the science and data are accurate, it would have big ramifications for groundwater. We are in the middle of our five-year review process. I think it would behoove the Water District to provide that information to the GA versus withholding it for the litigation.”

Griffin responded, “I fully agree that we need to use it in the five-year plan. It is coming up, and we hope to meet with the GA and come together as one and work out a solution.”

Peters responded that he is concerned that the District is a member of the GA Board, and they are creating data and withholding it from the GA of which they are a member.

Griffin says, “I don’t think we are looking at it that way as a Water District. What we are looking at is that we have a duty to the constituents of this valley to do what is best for them. If we can do it, if there is more water available and we have more water in storage, and that is provable through science, that provides a cheaper avenue for our customers. Our first duty is to make sure that our customers in this District are protected and given the best affordable water at the cheapest rate.”

Peters said, “Agreed and I believe that as the Water District is a member of the GA, that would be the answer to accomplish that.”

George Croll, Water District Manager, said, “As a member of the public, I would just say that it appears that the study was contributed by a number of people, and I don’t believe that any one member of the group that performed the study would have the authority to release it in full without coordinating with the others. And I don’t believe that has happened.”

Director John Vallejo, representing Inyo County, said, “I would welcome any new data that has been developed that we can rely upon that there is more water, more than half of the water of the overdraft that is currently occurring. Having that data to work with for our annual review would be a wonderful thing for us to be able to receive, consider, and accurately digest from a technical perspective.

“As an attorney, I want to see data before I reach any conclusions to see if it is the best available data or just another study that doesn’t have as much weight as some other studies might.”

Board Chair Scott Hayman said, “I concur wholeheartedly and would like to see the data.”

Griffin responded by saying, “I appreciate both of your comments, and the Water District does look forward to sharing that data and working with Stetson Engineers and getting that shared to a point where we can look at that data and use it. Thank you for that.”

Next on the agenda was the Resolution regarding the 2024 Board rotation. Legal Counsel Keith LeMieux said, “About the time that the Adjudication was filed, the Water District correctly began to assert that there was a conflict of interest between the Water District and the GA on the topic of the Adjudication. So, at this point in time, the General Counsel for Water District declined to participate in the rotation and tapped out, saying, ‘I’ve got a conflict.’ That’s why you keep seeing me here every year. When the topic of the office position came up, it was decided in years past that the Chair and the Board President have certain obligations, such as working on the agenda and other things that make it difficult if the Chair is not going to participate in some of the topics that are in front of the District and in front of Authority because of a conflict. So, a couple of years ago, as you recall, a majority of the Board made a decision not to rotate the Water District Representative as the Chair. So, the time has now moved on by our reasoning. This would be the year that the Water District would rotate in as Vice Chair. Of course, the Vice Chair has to act as the Chair in the absence of the Chair, so it is essentially the same issue with the Vice Chair. So the recommendation, I guess, from staff consistent with prior Board decisions is not to have that rotation again this year.”

Griffin said, “While this ties in with the litigation just as the previous item we were discussing during Public Comment, what is bad for this Board is the litigation. I do feel that the Water District should be the Vice Chair. We should be a part of this Board. We cannot fully participate in the Board due to the litigation. I, too, feel that the Water District should be the Vice Chair. We should be part of this Board, but we cannot fully participate in this Board due to the litigation. So, it is the same answer that I am being given for the Water District that I have to give for sharing data. It is really a terrible plan. So we need to have some coming together. I feel that the Water District should be a full participant and be able to Vice Chair or Chair a meeting. I think we are being singled out because our opinion is different. We should be able to have differences of opinion and still be able to work together as a Board.”

Direct Vallejo said, “I absolutely agree. Political differences and policy differences are what Boards are created for, to work through together. However, we are talking about a legal conflict of interest and that affects the ability to operate efficiently when it comes to discussions in closed sessions. I agree with you; we should be able to work together to work through political and policy differences, but we are not talking about that here. We are talking about legal conflicts of interest. My understanding is that it is created by a lawsuit created by your district.”

Phil Hall, Legal Counsel from Kern County, stated, “I don’t know if you can be the chairman of the GA whose job it is to manage groundwater and withhold data at that time. I don’t even know what the Department of Water Resources would do with that situation.”

Griffin, in response to Hall’s comment, said, “It’s very easy to be a chair or vice chair because you do what the board decides. The board makes a decision, and that’s what you do. You follow the direction of the board. But your opinion can be different from the rest of the board. The Water District is not trying to not work with anybody. The District is working with every pumper in this Basin. We are interested in every pumper and protecting the rights of every pumper. As I stated before, we have a duty as elected people to support the people in this valley. So far, our ratepayers have paid over 13 million dollars in Replenishment Fees, and nothing has been done to bring any water into this valley. I want to do what is right for my ratepayers, so everything we can look at, we need to look at. That’s all I am asking for. As far as this goes, why can I not be the vice chair or a chair? If four members of this Board vote to support a 779, which you are right, I did object to that, but I still have to say I agree to it. An article about that came out in the paper. They make a decision, they put an article out. Did I agree with the article? No. But that was what this Board voted to do. So to say because someone has a different opinion, they can’t run a meeting or be a vice chair, I disagree with that.”

Hall responded to Griffin by saying, “Mr. Griffin, wouldn’t it be a difficult position for you to be Chair for the GA, signing a letter in opposition that the GA had voted to support?”

Griffin responded, “I agree with you 100%, Mr. Hall; it would be hard. You have to do it because you are elected. If the Board makes a decision, you move forward with what the Board decides.”

Hall said, “Last year, the Water District signed a letter in opposition to 779. The GA signed a letter in support of 779. How do you operate if the GA is supporting something when the Chair is against it?”

Griffin, “That’s why you have a Board, for differences of opinion.”

Chairman Hayman said, “We are not discussing opinions on this. Director Vallejo and Counsel Lemieux were very direct in saying this is a legal conflict ordered by the Water District. Not an opinion. You would like to operate it on an opinion basis, but you don’t operate on an opinion basis. You operate it by legal constraints, so stick to the topic.”

Griffin responded, “I want to point out again, look, the legislation is an operational issue. I think it demonstrates the point.”

Hall then asked, “How do we, as this GA, whose responsibility it is to regulate the groundwater in this Basin, go through a 5-year Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) update when the Chair of the GA is not providing data that they want to use in a courtroom for review? I don’t know how we can possibly have a public agency whose job it is to review data, come to a conclusion about what the basic parameters are, or update that after five years. Let’s remember the Water District voted for the initial GSP. They were a deciding vote. I don’t know how we have them as the Chair at this point in time when we are supposed to have a public process to review that, and they are withholding data to gain an advantage in litigation. If you, the Chair, are withholding information, I don’t know how that could possibly function. You have a duty as a groundwater pumper to bring that information forward. You would prefer this GA not to exist so your data is only looked at by a judge in Orange County, not during the public process to develop the GSP. This is supposed to be a local problem, a local plan developed by the locals. We developed a Technical Advisory Commission (TAC) to go over the data to get to where we are now. And now we want to have a secret pact that includes those who disagreed with the original GSP. While we are talking about the original GSP, I think it is lost on people in this Basin. Who did the water model? Desert Research Institute. They have nothing to gain in this. If you, in fact, have data, you need to bring it forward so we can have it in the GSP. I do not know how you can sit as a Chair of the Board while you are not bringing the data forward.”

Griffin, “While you are making your comments, I will make mine. It is a two- way street, and that is the same with the Board. The Water District does not get all of the information for the GA because of the litigation. This is the same thing you are using against the Water District right now to say that we can’t provide, so we are not provided with full information. The way this whole thing is working is very convoluted. I anticipate a day when all of this will be settled, and we can get together and work together. That’s what I hope for. But you are bringing up old reports in which there was no science done. There was no new science when the GA’s GSP was built. It was all one report, which was the Todd Report, which compiled data from old reports, so it was not new science. We have done new work, so let’s bring that forward and put it out. We want to work with the GA. I’ve said it numerous times. As a Board, we are not trying to say that the GA does not exist. We want to work with the GA. We are saying, ‘Let’s look at the numbers.’”

During the discussion on the agenda item regarding the Board Rotation, Director Vallejo made the motion that we apply the Water District precedent for the District not to serve as Chair or Vice Chair until the conflict of interest no longer exists. The motion was carried with Griffin as the one dissenting vote.