Lawsuit aims to save desert ag

February 6, 2020
by Lois Henry

Water managers trying to bring groundwater into balance in the severely overdrafted Indian Wells Valley basin near Ridgecrest laid out a draft plan last month that would essentially mean the end of large-scale agriculture in that desert region.Mojave Pistachios Complaint

“We are giving options to (ag) pumpers so they understand they have a limited future here and can make the best decisions for their businesses,” said Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason who represents the area and sits on the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board.

Last week, several ag companies fired back with a lawsuit.

It is the first lawsuit related to the state’s new groundwater law in Kern County, though the plaintiffs are quick to point out that this is not an “adjudication” lawsuit and that neither the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority nor its draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan are named in the lawsuit.

Rather, the lawsuit aims to force a “physical solution” to the valley’s groundwater woes without having a court specify how much water each user is allotted, which is the result of an adjudication.

The lawsuit alleges there is more than enough groundwater to continue operations as usual for the next 20 years if pumpers, including defendants Indian Wells Valley Water District, Searles Valley Mineral Inc. and Meadowbrook Dairy, agree to coordinate their draws with the plaintiffs in order to better manage the water table decline.

The problem isn’t a lack of water, so much as a lack of cooperation, according to the plaintiffs Mojave Pistachios LLC owned by longtime San Joaquin Valley farmer Rod Stiefvater, the Nugent and John Thomas Conaway family trusts and Sierra Shadows Ranch.

Large pistachio growers came to the Indian Wells Valley between 2010-2013 quickly planting more than 3,000 acres. And just as quickly, water tables began to drop, between .5 and 1.5 feet a year in some areas.

Then in 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and subsequent groundwater models showed an annual overdraft of close to 20,000 acre feet in the valley. (One acre foot can supply a household of four for a year.)

The Navy, which operates China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station near Ridgecrest, became alarmed at the groundwater drop and brought the issue to Kern County, which rezoned the entire valley in 2015 cutting out all new agriculture.

But that still wasn’t enough to staunch the overdraft.

“We have 7,650 acre feet of natural recharge,” Gleason said. Demand is about 27,000 acre feet.  “That’s how much water we have to divvy up in the Indian Wells Valley. We’re trying to get the high-end water users to stop being high end. There’s just not enough water to go around.”

Gleason said he didn’t see the point of the growers’ lawsuit, other than perhaps a way to get a foot in the door before the groundwater authority approves its draft plan, which is scheduled to be heard Jan. 16, 2020 and must be filed with the Department of Water Resources by Jan. 31, 2020.

A DWR spokesperson couldn’t comment on the lawsuit other than to say it would not delay the SGMA process.

The problem for Stiefvater and other growers is SGMA requires 2010-2014 as the time frame for water managers to account for groundwater pumping. If you weren’t pumping then, you don’t have an established right. Or, if you had just started out, your pumping right is likely very small.

That became painfully clear in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s draft groundwater plan, which gave pumping allocations to a handful of users including the Navy and Searles Valley Mineral, which both have senior water rights, and the Indian Wells Valley Water District, which serves most of the area’s municipal needs.

About a dozen ag users were assigned a one-time pool of 51,000 acre feet to split between them. Ag users not listed on the chart were given zero pumping allocation.

The draft groundwater plan also laid out fees of $2,000 to $3,000 per acre foot for imported water, assuming the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority could, someday, bring in water via Los Angeles Department of Water and Power infrastructure.

But that’s its own thorny, and very iffy, issue.

“I fully expected there to be litigation,” said Don Zdeba, general manager of the Indian Wells Water District and acting manager of the groundwater authority. “Any time you’re discussing water, someone’s going to be upset. I get that they’re protecting their investment.”

But, he said, models indicate the valley needs to reduce its demand from about 27,000 acre feet a year down to 12,000 acre feet. And even at that reduced number, the groundwater authority will have to find another 5,000 acre feet a year to import.

The plaintiffs have a fundamentally different view.

The lawsuit alleges the basin holds between 67 million and 97 million acre feet of water of varying quality with 7 million to 9 million acre feet of good fresh water in the first 200 feet below ground surface.

Users could pump out 500,000 acre feet and the basin would still be 85 percent full of good, usable water, according to the lawsuit.

“Yup, some people out there strongly believe they aren’t in deficit. But they are,” said Bruce Hafenfeld, a Kern County Water Agency director whose district covers the desert area. The agency isn’t a regulatory agency or voting member of the groundwater authority but observes and assists where it can.

“Oh no, we’ve got enough going on over here,” Hafenfeld said of staying out of the desert water wars.


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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