The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (IWVGA) held a public workshop on Thursday to hear public feed back and to hold public discussion amongst the IWVGA itself on its proposed water pumping fee.

IWVGA made no final decision on the fee at the workshop; that decision will come at the May IWVGA board meeting at the earliest. Thursday's workshop was only to discuss the ins and outs of the proposed fee, and to hear public feedback on the proposal.

The purpose of the fee is to fund a gap in IWVGA's budget as it proceeds towards its state-mandated goal of drafting a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) for the IWV groundwater basin.

The estimated gap, according to documents in the workshop package, is $2,541,586. It is the difference between the IWVGA's expenditures and the revenue it currently has from state grant funding and in-kind services.

IWVGA legal counsel James Worth gave a brief presentation at the beginning of the meeting to explain the proposed fee, how it would work, and what it's for.

He said that the fee is specifically to fund that budget gap, and the fee will end once that is complete. At the moment, IWVGA proposes implementing the fee on an acre-foot per water basis.

An earlier draft of the proposed fee suggested implementing the fee between now and late 2019. However, he said they are now favoring a spreading the fee out through the year of 2020.

"Using 31 months, the assessment would be about $45.55 [per acre foot of water]. Just for example, if we only ran it through the end of 2019, over a 19 month period, the monthly amount needed would increase to $133,767 and assessment would be increased to just over $74 [per acre foot of water] per month," Worth said.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the average person uses 80-100 gallons of water per day. There are 325,851 gallons in an acre-foot of water.

De minimis water users, those who use less than two acre-feet of water per year, are exempt from this fee, though they may be subject to future IWVGA fees. The average citizen of IWV, however, is not exempt as most are customers of the IWV Water District and the Water District is not a de minimis water user.

One point Worth made is that IWVGA understands that many people with private wells do not have meters to track water usage on their wells. He said IWVGA does not currently have authority to mandate well meters, but he would highly recommend people meter their wells. IWVGA is discussing other ways to charge non-diminimis water users without metered wells, and Worth said that adding a meter to one's well would help easily resolve any dispute.

The workshop focused entirely on the single issue of the proposed fee, but discussion on that issue went on for three hours. It was a long meeting, but also orderly and civil.

It began with Worth's presentation, then opened into just over an hour of public comment. People wishing to comment filled out comment cards, and were called to speak at the microphone in the order the cards were turned in. When all members of the public who had filled out cards had spoken, IWVGA board chairperson Peggy Breeden saw that there was still remaining time for public comment and allowed public who did not fill out cards to speak as well.

Following public comment, members from IWVGA's Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) and Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) spoke. When the committees were finished, discussion went to the IWVGA board to publicly discuss the fee and to respond to comments made throughout the evening by the public and by committee members.

Down to the dollars

Many who spoke commented on their desire to make sure the numbers in the fee are accurate.

Member of the public Raymond Kelso stated that he'd like to see IWVGA go through each item on the budget and justify them. He said he believes that many items do not contribute to IWVGA's mission of bringing IWV into groundwater sustainability.

Stan Rajtora urged IWVGA to form a standing finance committee, a comment he's made at IWVGA meetings for months.

"We're here today because we didn't do our work a year ago," he said.

Member of the public Stewart Greeley said that he would have liked to have looked through the budget in the workshop package if he had known it existed. He said that the paper did not mention a workshop package, but Greeley did not say which paper he was referring to. The Daily Independent directed its readers to the workshop package at IWVGA.org in its May 30 article "Public workshop to discuss new, local water pumping fees."

During the TAC's time for comment, TAC member Eddy Teasedale questioned the numbers IWVGA came up with for the fee.

"There's two variables that went into calculating this pumping fee," he said. "In the numerator, we'll call that the GSP costs. Then we'll put in the bottom of the fraction, the denominator, we'll put the volume, how much water is being pumped in the basin. When you start to look at those two variables, we better make sure that those numbers are defensible and were developed in a transparent way. I think it's obvious tonight from the thirty plus comments that they were not," he said.

He said that he believes there is potential room for error and would like to see both the PAC and the TAC go through the fee proposal.

He also advised IWVGA to look into the costs association with other Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) developing their GSP. He questioned if IWVGA's costs are within the same realm or wildly different.

When discussion came to the board, IWVGA board member Peter Brown said the numbers are not final.

"The numbers here are a first shot. Nothing is definitive," he said. "That's why we're here, having this discussion."

Breeden agreed, saying that these are rough numbers and stating that they will make efforts to continue refining the numbers.

IWVGA board member Bob Page address Teasedale's comment about comparing IWVGA costs with other GSA costs.

"While I appreciate the value we could get from comparing our costs to other basins, I want to caution people that I don't know if comparing our costs to other basins will be entirely accurate. The reason I say that is that every basin has different challenges," Page said. "Comparing ourselves to other areas will have limited benefits. It's not an exact science."

He gave examples of how different GSAs could have very different structures and procedures. IWVGA, he said, is very committed to involving the public, but that comes with costs due to staff time. Other GSAs, he said, might be able to get by with much simpler structure if they have only one entity running the GSA.

Page also put forth his own question. He wanted to know why the funding needed to bridge IWVGA's gap grew between the current numbers and the numbers put forth about a month ago, when the gap was stated to be around $1,508,820 rather than the current $2,541,586.

He stated that among the changes he saw were an additional $450,250 in support costs for Stetson Engineers Inc., the firm IWVGA hired as their Water Resources Manager; $210,660 in reimbursed funds to the City of Ridgecrest, which appeared to be mostly legal fees; and IWVGA legal costs which were previously stated at $100,000 were now on the budget as $350,000.

Worth said that the difference in IWVGA legal fees is not a certain cost, but a projected cost for IWVGA legal fees on IWVGA special counsel James Markman who may need to defend IWVGA in court.

IWVGA general manager Ron Strand spoke about the $210,660 reimbursement to Ridgecrest. Strand is also the Ridgecrest city manager.

Ridgecrest is one of the three primary groups represented on the IWVGA board. The other two are the IWV Water District and the County of Kern. The three rotate to the chair position of the board annually. IWVWD and Kern agreed to absorb the majority of staff costs during their time as chair, but Strand said that Ridgecrest is in a different position.

Strand said that Ridgecrest is providing its staff time as in-kind service to IWVGA, but is incurring legal fees as well that it feels it should be reimbursed for. He said one major reason is because if Ridgecrest absorbed all of the legal fee costs, those costs would come down to tax fees to its citizens. Those citizens are mostly IWVWD customers, and IWVWD is also represented on IWVGA. Therefore, Strand said, citizens would be hit twice.

Concerning the biggest item — the $450,250 in support costs to Stetson — Worth said IWVGA and Stetson that amount would be needed to complete the GSP, but he said he would defer to Stetson president Steve Johnson to answer in more detail.

Johnson did answer, but in generalities. He acknowledged each budget item listed under the IWVGA support costs and stated why they are necessary. However, he did not state why these costs were not in the previous draft budget.