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.

The proposed fee could be around $45 to $80 per acre-foot of water used per month. The purpose of this fee is to patch up IWVGA's budget so they can complete their Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the IWV groundwater basin by the state-mandated deadline of early 2020.

Once the fee has patched the budget up, it will end. However, it will likely be replaced by other fees as IWVGA moves beyond making the plan and into enforcing the plan.

The purpose of the workshop was to discuss the fee, but the fee is unavoidably linked to the sustainability plan and many in attendance made comments on just how to achieve water sustainability in the desert.

Sustainability

The first order of business in creating a Groundwater Sustainability Plan is defining exactly what sustainability means. As it turns out, that's a more complex task than one would think.

During public comment, Ralph Lachenmeier asked how the IWVGA board how they define sustainability in order to meet the California state mandate to regulate groundwater basins into sustainability.

"It's my understanding that the recently passed law that has brought all this GSA stuff up is that we're supposed to maintain the 2015 levels of water," he said. "How are we going to get back to that if we keep pumping."

Later in the meeting, after the comment time had ended, IWVGA board member Mick Gleason responded to Lachenmeier's comment. Gleason said that an official from the California Department of Water Resources at one point had confirmed with IWVGA that "sustainable" would mean maintaining 2015 water levels according to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

However, that official has since left DWR and IWVGA has now been informed that his information was wrong, according to Gleason. Gleason said that now their best information is that they do not have to achieve 2015 water levels, but just have to sustain water levels and that "sustainability" will be defined by both IWVGA and DWR.

IWVGA legal counsel Keith Lemieux added to Gleason's answer. Lemieux said that DWR is defining "sustainability" as maintaining water levels that avoid undesirable results.

"Something to focus on is that one of the undesirable results is declining water levels," Lemieux said. "I think the phrase is 'unreasonable and unnecessary declining water levels.' What is 'unreasonable and unnecessary' is for this board to decide. "

Finding solutions

While the exact definition of "sustainability" may remain unclear for the moment, what is clear is that IWVGA must do something to reduce the rate at which the IWV groundwater basin is going down, both in order to meet state law and in order to sustain IWV communities.

IWVGA Technical Advisory Committee member Don Decker said, "The thing that's important to realize is that our water shortfall is not something that was invented by the state or the county or local officials, it's what the valley is performing at."

One group entirely too familiar with the shortfall is IWV's domestic well owners.

Lyle Fisher is an IWV Policy Committee Member who represents domestic well owners. He said, "We, as domestic well owners, are the tip of the spear. We are the first ones to be impacted by the declining water levels."

He said that in the 40 years since he became a domestic well owner, he's seen the water level at his well drop 60 feet.

"It became necessary a few years ago to deepen my well at the cost of about $13, 000. Luckily the deepening worked. Sometimes it doesn't work and you have to make a new well which would cost over $25,000," he said.

Michael Powell is a member of the IWVGA TAC and the general manager of the Rand Communities Water District, which pumps water from the Fremont Valley Groundwater Basin to the southwest of IWV.

"We've had problems like this up in our water district for a long time. Our wells, they just went dry years ago. We started sucking air. We had to become sustainable one way or another. It took a lot of money, a lot of time." he said.

He implied that whatever the solution to sustainability is in IWV, it's likely going to increase the cost of water. He said. "The value on the cost of water as I see it here, I mean the scales are tipped in the wrong direction. Right now I've got the best tasting drinking water in the state of California, but according to the Kern County Managerial report, I also have the most expensive water too."

The primary solutions discussed primarily revolve around conservation, importing water, and looking for alternative water sources. Most likely, a mix of all three.

There's a range of alternative water sources, from recycled wastewater to brackish water--refining groundwater that's currently too salty for use.

Josh Nugent, reading a letter from landowner and pistachio grower William Schweizer, said, "Brackish water resources could also be developed to utilize otherwise unusable water."

Others at the meeting doubted that brackish water could contribute to IWVGA sustainability goals.

Fisher said, "Treating brackish water in the Indian Wells Valley does not aid our critical overdraft situation since the brackish water is not new water and will only accelerate the decline of the water table. For all of us to continue our current lifestyles in the valley, as they are today, will require us to import water from a source outside of this valley. We have no choice."

Importing water seems to be the primary solution IWVGA leans towards, but it will not come without a cost. IWVGA will need to pay for the infrastructure to accept that water, as it currently does not exist. Following that, there will be the persistent costs of maintaining that infrastructure, paying for water rights, and paying for the water itself. As IWVGA is a government institution, that cost will almost certainly come down to some sort of fee or tax on those in the IWV.

Gleason said, "I don't think we get out of this without importing water, and we understand the cost associated with that. I can assure you we’re looking at it from a construction and infrastructure aspect."

During public comment, farmer Rodney Steifvater offered the IWVGA insight into water trading from a deal he just made. He described how he didn't simply buy from one source, but rather obtained water through buying water rights in a distant location, then trading those rights through multiple parties until he was able to receive water from a source that's best for him to transport it from.

He said, "Those sources of water can be traded to DWP or DWP customers, and then DWP can deliver the water, hopefully, through a facility that will be built here."

There is much work to be done, but IWVGA members remained optimistic that they will complete the plan by the early 2020 deadline and will be able to implement that plan to achieve water sustainability in IWV.

IWVGA board member Peter Brown said, "It's not so dreary as it sounds, it's just a pain in the butt to get there."

Powell, the Rand Communities Water District general manager, also expressed optimism, if nothing else, based on the conversations and cooperation he saw at the meeting. And he has a stake in IWV becoming sustainable, as he joked that he wouldn't want to be the neighbor to a critically overdrafted IWV that he and Rand have to come bail out.

"I think it can be worked out," he said. "I mean, I don't see any police here like I have at our board meetings, so I think it'll all work out."