Definitions of what a de minimis groundwater user might or might not be came up at Indian Wells Valley Water District water management committee Friday afternoon, along with cash flow issues connected to the IWV Groundwater Authority.

The committee, consisting of board members Ron Kicinski and Chuck Cordell, with general manager Don Zdeba and operations manager Jason Lillian, discussed the topic along with members of the public. 

The discussion connected with the decision by the Groundwater Authority’s decision to implement a monthly groundwater extraction volumetric fee of $30 per acre-foot pumped. The groundwater authority board plans to adopt the fee at its July 19 meeting.

The fee will help cover a $930,000 budget gap identified in planning a groundwater sustainability plan and submitting it to the Department of Water Resources by Jan. 31, 2020. The plan must show how the basin will achieve sustainability over at least the next 20 years, as required under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

De minimis users (those who pump two or less acre-feet per year) are exempt from the fee, and won’t have to register their wells, unlike major pumpers.

Zdeba mentioned that the IWV Groundwater Authority has released an updated Frequently Asked Questions document, including what defines a de minimis user. The document also includes reference to well-sharing agreements, including groups of four homes or less on a well and those who enter the definition of “state smalls,” or larger well co-op groups.

“If it’s four homes sharing a well, and you’re using less than two acre-feet for domestic purposes, that’s the definition,” Zdeba said. 

Cordell asked about where that definition ends if a homeowner has a “greenbelt,” or landscaping of a half-acre or more. Members of the public mentioned that would be located in California’s code of regulations, according to material handed out by resident Donna Thomas.

Thomas’s material reinforces comments made by Elaine Mead at a June Groundwater Authority board meeting, where the first reading of the pump fee ordinance was voted on.

Kicinski mentioned that he has five acres and yet managed to not use two acre-feet of water per year. But he added he strictly observes how much water he uses via a meter for irrigation and which periods of the year he doesn’t use water.

Pat Farris expressed concerns about the apparent lack of data the Groundwater Authority had regarding de minimis well owners are in the IWV basin.

“Until we get this to be more definitive, I don’t know how this will work and be fair until it’s more definitive of how many are de minimis,” she said. “For fairness, there’s got to be a way we can get a complete record of all the well owners.”

While Kicinski mentioned old-fashioned canvasing might be necessary, Cordell noted the idea might meet with resistance from local property owners.

“With individual well owners, you’re maybe going to get 20 percent of people saying they got a well, and that’s common especially with the way government acts these days,” Cordell said.

Kicinski said he’s heard similar attitudes, adding “I don’t know how we’re going to get people on board.”

Resident Stan Rajtora suggested an alternative to the pumping fee.

“I would like to propose the water district support an initiative to transfer or kill the pumping fee for these next few months totally and go to an agency assessment,” Rajtora said. “Whatever the shortfall can be paid for by the agency assessment.” 

He noted that was what Kern County did with the Cuyama Groundwater Authority in the Central Valley when the board of supervisors agreed to advance $38,000 on June 26.  Kern County is only a minor part of that basin.

The county also agreed to advance $500,000 to the IWV Groundwater Authority to address cash flow concerns until revenue from the pump fees starts rolling in. However, the nature for the advance is different from the money given to Cuyama.

Rajtora said the logical way to do it would be based on how much water is pumped in which area overseen by each of the five general agency members.

“My feeling is that the member agencies need to be value-added, and right now they’re just sitting up there making demands, adding to our taxes and bills,” Rajtora said. “People are already paying for health and safety issues right now through the taxes through the city or county. I would like to see through the [groundwater sustainability plan] that the agencies stand up and pay their share of costs through an assessment.”

He said Kern County’s jurisdiction includes Inyokern and most of the agricultural-zoned area.  San Bernardino County has water going to Searles Valley, and Inyo County’s involvement in water ends in Pearsonville. Rajtora said that the water district and Ridgecrest should figure out a reasonable split on their end.

Cordell noted the water district already contributed a $500,000 advance in December to help with cash flow issues. Rajtora said perhaps his proposed assessment would factor that in.

“This pumping fee, I think, has gotten out of hand … and everyone who says their water and need to be part of the GA should pay,” Rajtora said. “I think all this problem with the pump fees should just go away until after we have a GSP.”

Kicinski said the possibility of closing the gap is already close, given the county’s advance. He said the water district — through its board member and groundwater authority representative Peter Brown — has already floated the idea that the city could forego reimbursement of an estimated $210,000.

He said the budget gap at that point would be reduced to a few hundred thousand dollars, reducing the amount or time of a pump fee or negating it all together. Doing so, he said, will allow the groundwater authority some breathing room to obtain the data needed for the sustainability plan.

Resident Larry Mead suggested using the option as a public relations piece for the most vocal opponents.

“Clean it up and get the people that are being boisterous, calm them down, get to through the process,” Mead said.

Resident Sophia Merk called the pumping fees an ironic twist on the nation’s founding principals moving away from taxation without representation.

“I don’t think they’re going to come forward with registering their wells if there’s a pumping fee right off the bat,” Merk said. “A lot of these people don’t have a lot of money; some of them do ... and it’s really unfair to take advantage of a disadvantaged community.”

She added that without an accurate count and definition of the wells in the valley, it might cause the Department of Water Management to raise an eyebrow and likely step in to assume management of the basin.

Kicinski said he’s noticed that the groundwater authority board has been inching closer to implementing no fees until after the sustainability plan is established — something being pushed by Peter Brown. At that point, the plan would require a series of fees or assessments in order to be enforced and overseen.

Kicinski said he thinks the point is taken from suggestions by the public.

“We really want to look out for things,” he said. “Even though we represent our ratepayers, we feel that we represent the basin in its entirety and the community. Everybody needs to pay to play.”

He added that perhaps one good thing to come out of the negative feedback was “that people are now listening, are now perking up and saying something is going on.” It’s everyone’s responsibility, he said, to provide people with the correct information.