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Imported water plans move forward, cost concerns remain


By BRIAN COSNER News Review Correspondent–  Efforts by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (IWVGA) to acquire an imported water resource are beginning to take shape. It’s been six years since the GA’s formation and two years since the board approved the Groundwater Replenishment Fee. The GA recently announced in a press release (see story below) that it has a tentative agreement with the State Water Project for an annual water purchase.

The agreement still requires approval from the State Water Contractor’s Board of Directors as well as an environmental review. According to the GA, based on the basin’s estimated recharge the valley needs some additional 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to meet basic water needs. This agreement secures 753 annual acre-feet.

The replenishment fee was passed in 2020 with the purpose of generating $50 million for a Table A water purchase. “Table A” refers to the maximum amount of water available to a State Water Project contractor. What the fee does not address is the infrastructure to get the water to the IWV.

During it’s July board meeting, Stetson Engineers reported that the GA had secured a $7.6 million state grant for pipeline design and environmental compliance regarding import infrastructure. Labeled as the “most critical [Groundwater Sustainability Plan] project,” the design phase is anticipated to be complete by 2025, followed by 10 years of construction.

Water Resources Manager Steve Johnson said that, historically, community users fund imported water, but that the GA would continue to search for grants and other funding support.

“I don’t think this community can afford it,” said Johnson. “We have to have outside funding.”

While updates on the water project deal and importation plans were encouraging news to many, the question of cost looms still.

What wasn’t discussed was the entire cost of water importation infrastructure – which has previously been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is complicated by the number of large pumpers legally challenging the Groundwater Replenishment Fee. Commercial users like Searles Valley Minerals and Mojave Pistachios have expressed nothing short of outrage at the fee, while the IWV Water District – a GA member agency – has called for a basin adjudication.

In addition, the GA’s financial practices are frequently called into question. During the meeting, staff announced that $125,000 was borrowed from the replenishment fee to pay back Kern County for prior services.

“It’s not clear to me how or when that money is going to be repaid to the replenishment fee,” said Stan Rajtora, the GA’s Water District representative.

“We don’t have a specific timeline for when that’s going to happen,” said General Manager Carol Thomas-Keefer. “But we do maintain it in our accounting. We will make sure it’s reconciled at some point.”

Thomas-Keefer said staff took similar action to repay the Water District for services in the past. But that loan has also not been paid back.

Members of the public have been critical of the GA’s spending and lack of financial transparency. The replenishment fee’s purpose is to secure imported water supply and was subject to a Proposition 218 hearing.

“The board assured the public the replenishment fee would be collected and used only for that purpose,” said Judie Decker during public comment. “If the board is going to use the replenishment fee fund as a slush fund to cover other expenses, there won’t be the money needed when the time comes to pay for whatever water rights or for the pipeline project itself.”

Trona resident Regina Troglin seconded Decker’s comments, adding that the scope for the replenishment fee seemed to “get bigger and bigger.”

The IWVGA will hold a special meeting to expedite some of it’s recent movement toward groundwater importation, though a specific day was not announced.