The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (IWVGA) held a public workshop on Thursday, April 5 to hear public feedback and to hold public discussion amongst the IWVGA itself on its proposed water pumping fee.

Agriculture in the desert

"I'm a new landowner and a new well owner, so I don't have a lot of the background that all of you have so I'd appreciate you saving the stones for outside the building where no one else will get hurt," said Doug Price during public comment.

He continued, "As my understanding goes, and it's a very simple understanding because I'm a simple man, but the base uses about a third of the water, the people of the valley use a third of the water, and the growers, the people with farms, use another third of the water."

It was unclear if Price meant that each of those thirds represents a literal, equal third of the water use in IWV, or if he meant that those are the three groups of concern. Either way, his comment serves as a good jumping off point into the topic of agriculture.

According to an Aquilogic presentation given to the IWVGA board in June of 2017, roughly 25,300 acre-feet of water per year is pumped out of the IWV groundwater basin.

Of that 25,300 AFY, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake (categorized as military) uses only a reported 1,500 AFY.

The presentation stated that private well owners use roughly 1,000 AFY, though that's a rough estimate as many of those wells are unmetered.

The number grows a little when it comes to industrial users such as Searles Valley Minerals. Industrial users pump a reported 2,500 AFY from the IWV basin.

Water usage then takes a big jump to the next category of municipal water users, which is mostly the Indian Wells Valley Water District and its customers. They use a reported 7,600 AFY.

Finally, the largest pumping group by far is agriculture, which uses a reported 12,700 AFY.

This is why agriculture was such a heated point of discussion through the workshop on Thursday. Many people who spoke questioned why farmers are even here in the first place when they need so much water for their crop. However, while some of the farmers are new, other farmers have been in this area for generations longer than many other residents.

Bob McDermott, speaking during public comment, said, "The date for implementation for all of this is 2040? I'm wondering if there's going to be any water left by 2040 if we're waiting that long to implement whatever there is to implement."

He talked about how he and his wife had gone on a hike in the area around Joshua Tree several years ago and came across a ghost town as dry as a bone. He saw a sign that said the area used to be viable farming area, but when it dried up the farmers moved on.

He said, "The priority is water for us to drink, and if it's all consumed and gone before 2040, what's going to happen? The rest of us will probably be worthless and the agriculture will move on. They'll find another place to get water."

Ralph Lachenmeier stated that he supported IWVGA limiting pumping in IWV.

"I feel sorry for those farmers that have been around here for 30 or 40 years. I don't feel sorry for those farmers that just moved in here. They knew what they were getting into," he said. "I've got a house here. It's worth about $400K, cross my fingers. It's not going to be worth anything if they pump the water out of this place. Every Ridgecrest resident that owns a house, you've got an investment in here. You ought to be worried."

He continued, "By the way, I'm all for agriculture dealing with the LA Aqueduct. Let them buy all the water they can. Just don't pump it here. That's their problem. If they want to bring it in by the truckload, let them bring it in by the truckload. It shouldn't be up to residents like me to pay for them doing it. I don't like these proposals that I saw."

Rod Stiefvater, owner of Mojave Pistachios, spoke early on during public comment. He offered insight into how water importing could work through making water trades around the state. He also added a note on the value of agriculture in Indian Wells Valley.

"I've heard many people say that they'd like to have agriculture out of here as quickly as possible. I think you have to ask yourself the question that once you develop the plan, you're going to have significant costs to do whatever it takes to get the water here. If you take agriculture out, they're no longer an economic entity to help pay those costs," he said.

He continued, "I'm asking you to think very carefully what you're asking for in terms of having adequate people to pay the bills."

Pistachio farmer and PAC member Pat Quist spoke after public comment. She brought up the point that IWVGA may want to consider the unique, seasonal cashflow situation many farmers find themselves in so that they can help pay the fee without going bankrupt. She noted that sometimes they don't see the cash until two years after a harvest.

She also commented on the topic of agriculture in IWV. She said that many of the farmers are aware of the problem and actively trying to be part of the solution.

"[My husband and I] have been farming here since the early 1970s," she said. "We've lived here and supported this community. We would like consideration for that. We know we're going to pay for water, we understand and appreciate that. We're willing to help out. We come to every meeting. We're trying to be part of the solution."

Following public and committee comments, the IWVGA board opened up discussion amongst themselves.

Board member Peter Brown responded to Quist, saying that he was not aware of how extreme their seasonal cash flow situation is, and that he'd like to work out a solution with them.

It was a point that IWVGA board member and Kern County First Disrtict Supervisor Mick Gleason agreed with.

Gleason also responded to the topic of agriculture in general. He said that he has spoken with many of the local farmers, and has found that many of them are very aware of the situation and that they often want to be part of the solution.

"In every conversation, I've ever had with farmers in this valley, whether they're a big farm or a small farm, they've demonstrated a keen understanding of the depth of the situation we're in. They understand it, they want to help out, they want to be part of the solution, and they accept the reality that they're going to take hits," Gleason said.

He assured them that his vote will never actively target one particular group, such as agriculture. But he said that at the same time, they're going to pay their fair share.

Correction: This article was edited on Thursday, April 12 to remove Coso Operating Company from the category of industrial users pumping water from IWV groundwater basin. Coso Operating Company told the Daily Independent they pump from Inyo County, but not the from IWV groundwater basin.