Desert groundwater agency to pay $8,500 per acre foot for valley water rights

August 2, 2022
by Lois Henry
The Indian Wells Valley groundwater basin in eastern Kern County only gets about 7,650 acre feet a year of natural inflow but users pump nearly 28,000 acre feet out making it a critically overdrafted basin. SOURCE: Department of Water Resources
Lois Henry

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The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority in eastern Kern County has signed a “letter of intent” to buy the rights to 750 acre feet of state water for $6,396,000 from a State Water Project contractor in Kings County.

The purchase is part of the authority’s plan to bring that overdrafted groundwater basin into balance.

The seller is Utica J.L.J. LLC, which purchased the Jackson Ranch and is developing a truck stop and industrial center on 400 acres at Utica Avenue and Interstate 5, just south of Kettleman City.

If approved by the groundwater authority, Dudley Ridge Water District and the Department of Water Resources, this would be a permanent water sale  – not a one-time purchase.

Cost per acre foot would be $8,528.

That’s a 55% increase in price since the last time state water out of Dudley Ridge was permanently sold in 2009. Back then, John Vidovich sold 14,000 acre feet of his State Water Project contract water to the Mojave Water District in Apple Valley for $5,500 per acre foot, or $77 million.

The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority isn’t a State Water Project Contractor but it could work out a deal for an existing contractor to take and store the Dudley Ridge Water on its behalf.

The authority has been in discussions with the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency to make such a deal. Though nothing has been settled, the agencies are starting a feasibility study to look at extending an existing AVEK pipeline from California City 50 miles north to the Indian Wells Valley using a $7.6 million grant from DWR.

Assuming the Dudley Ridge water purchase goes through, this would be just the beginning for the desert basin, said the authority’s attorney Keith Lemieux.

Given environmental and other constraints on the State Water Project’s ability to deliver contractors’ full allotments, the reliability of the 750 acre feet of water brings it closer to 400 acre feet a year on average, Lemieux said.

That’s a drop in the bucket of what the authority needs. The valley only has 7,600 acre feet of natural flow every year while nearly 28,000 acre feet is pumped out, prompting some to deem it “the most upside down” basin in the state.

Those numbers are why the authority imposed a hefty “replenishment fee” of $2,130 per acre foot charged to all groundwater pumpers in the basin over the next five years. It’s anticipated the fee will raise $50 million, which the authority will use to buy and import more water.

It also imposed strict groundwater allocations that will take agriculture from its current 62% of the area’s total groundwater use down to 0% by 2040. That’s when the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which prompted these actions, is fully implemented.

Meanwhile, the City of Ridgecrest received $2.5 million from the State Water Resources Control Board toward a wastewater recycling facility that is hoped will provide 2,000 acre feet a year that can be injected back into the aquifer.

Though DWR gave the authority’s groundwater sustainability plan its seal of approval back in January, the basin is still mired in legal uncertainty.

Two groundwater users filed lawsuits against the plan based on the replenishment fee. Mojave Pistachios and Searles Valley Mineral, both sued to stop the fee but in late May an Orange County judge denied their request for injunction. Neither entity has paid into the replenishment fee, Lemieux said.

The Indian Wells Valley Water District also filed a suit seeking  a “comprehensive adjudication” of water rights in basin, which could reconfigure who has rights to how much groundwater, a fundamental underpinning of the groundwater sustainability plan. The water district has consistently paid the replenishment fee.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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