Indian Wells Valley groundwater in critical overdraft.
In September of 2014, California set forth groundwater regulations. It was the last Western state to do so. Part of the new rules include the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), and Inyo County will now be partnering with Kern and San Bernardino for the Indian Wells Valley (IWV) Groundwater Basin GSA. IWV includes Ridgecrest, Inyokern and Pearsonville, the boundary of Inyo.
The IWV is in critical overdraft, meaning more water is being pumped out than is going in. The State regulations mandate that basins in overdraft need to be drafted, meaning the problem of a depleting water source must be fixed. The point of the GSAs, according to Kern County’s Chief Deputy County Administrator Allen Christiansen, is to try and come up with solutions cooperatively before the courts decide what’s best. The State’s goal is to keep groundwater at a sustainable level.
Inyo County Water Director Bob Harrington brought a resolution regarding the GSA formation to the Board of Supervisors on January 5. Inyo agreed to join the agency. In a pre-emptive measure, Inyo Supervisors voted to pass another resolution, a 45-day moratorium on water use for new agricultural uses. The temporary restrictions will not affect current users.
Inyo County Supervisor Matt Kingsley said that the key word is “temporary.” “I am never happy to take action that is detrimental to agriculture,” he said, but added that the resolution can be lifted at the end of the 45-days or extended up to two years.
Some supervisors were peeved that Inyo has to block business opportunities because of a Kern County problem. “The responsible thing to do is address the problem,” Kingsley said. He added that Inyo might not have been a player in the IWV’s depletion, but that depletion is an issue that affects the basin and its neighbors.
IWV makes the shortlist of basins in extreme overdraft, Harrington explained. IWV’s overdraft is exacerbated by agriculture. The big cash crop in the IWV is pistachios, and pistachio trees require a lot of water. Kern County took drastic measures and rezoned many areas for agriculture to other classifications.
The state’s new groundwater laws should bring more stakeholders to the table—and hopefully fewer to the courtroom.
Historically, California’s groundwater regulations have been “hands off,” Harrington said. A property owner has the rights to the water under the ground and if there’s a problem, you can take it up with your neighbor, or take the neighbor to court, he said.
Should the stakeholders be unable to reach an agreement regarding a basin’s groundwater, the issue would be taken to court for adjudication. The adjudication process is expensive and time consuming. The Antelope Valley, including Lancaster and Palmdale, is just finishing up the process more than 10 years after it was started.
Once adjudicated, a judge cuts the water into equal pieces so everybody gets some. But equal means residential use gets plenty while agriculture gets a much smaller portion of what it needs.
Harrington added that if local agencies cannot or do not form an agency, the State Water Board will make them, and send the County the bill. The State will make quick decisions about a basin and probably not an agreement that would make people happy.
“They’re the hammer and everything looks like a nail,” he said.
Christiansen said the IWV overdraft problem has been on the table for years, but the players hem and hawed until the new law gave the effort “a good shove” and brought people to the table.
What is the fate of the IWV basin? Without a water supply, the major employer in that area, the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, will assuredly be closed or moved.