MEETING NOTES: Residents in Kern County desert groundwater basin need to represent their own water interests in ongoing court action

April 1, 2024
Sonia Lemus, freelance for SJV Water
by Sonia Lemus, freelance for SJV Water
The Indian Wells Valley in northeastern Kern County is considered in critical overdraft. Courtesy Department of Water Resources
Sonia Lemus, freelance for SJV Water
Sonia Lemus, freelance for SJV Water

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Meeting: Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board of directors

Date: March 29, 2024

Agenda and Packet: CLICK HERE

Background: The basin depends on 7,650 acre feet of natural inflow each year but users pump out nearly 28,000 acre feet annually, creating a severe overdraft. As the Authority has worked to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) to bring the basin into balance numerous legal actions have erupted.

The Authority restricted pumping for most users. The U.S. Navy, which operates the China Lake Naval Weapons Base in the basin, got the lion’s share of pumping. While agricultural users, such as Mojave Pistachios, which started planting in the high desert around 2010, received zero pumping allocation. 

Mojave Pistachios and other users, including the Indian Wells Valley Water District, which serves the majority of residents in the region, would have to pay a $2,130-per-acre-foot “replenishment fee,” under the Authority’s plan. That fee is intended to raise $50 million so the Authority can buy and import water from elsewhere in the state.

It is pursuing a water purchase from the Palmdale area and is seeking federal funding to help build a pipeline to bring that water north through the desert.

The Indian Wells Valley Water District, filed an “adjudication” action. It is seeking a comprehensive court review of water rights and uses in the basin.

On its website, the water district states that filing the action “was also the only way to bring the federal government into the lawsuit to finally determine the Federal Reserved Water Right in the Basin” in reference to whether the Navy truly has a right to the bulk of the basin’s groundwater.

That adjudication is essentially a lawsuit against anyone who owns property in the basin, or claims a pumping or water right. That includes people who may have a small well for just their home.

Separately Mojave Pistachios sued over the replenishment fee but recently lost on appeal and is now seeking review by the California Supreme Court.

Small pumpers: At the Authority’s March 29 meeting, Legal Counsel Philip Hall noted that small well owners will need to be present at  adjudication hearings in order to advocate for their water rights. As the court had ruled everyone in the basin needed to be present and have representation for their water rights. If a party failed to be present, that party’s water rights would be ruled on without them present.

He said the Authority had requested small pumpers be excluded from the adjudication but was unsuccessful.

In a “frequently asked questions” paper on its website, the Indian Wells Valley Water District suggests anyone with property, regardless of whether they own a well, should consider participating in the lawsuit. 

“It is unclear how the judgment will impact private property owners with wells or wanting to install wells in the future,” the FAQ states. “There is a risk that if you do not participate, your right to install a well in the future could be cut off or impacted.”

The district also has information on how to participate in the case on the “adjudication” section of its website.

Well mitigation: The Authority also discussed two applications for shallow well mitigation funding for two residents. 

Director Chuck Griffin stated his disagreement with giving the full funding recommended by staff. Griffin said the district should only pay applicants for the cost of the well at current market value, not additional costs for deepening the wells.

Griffin said this was because the action item stated the funds were for well replacement due to declining groundwater levels. However, Griffin said charts provided by Stetson Engineers INC, showed water levels in the wells since 2005 had increased, not decreased.

Griffin made motions to pay $10,000 for one well and $20,289 for the other. Both motions died as they were not seconded by any other member of the board.

Action: The motion to pay $69,078 for the two wells from the Shallow Well Mitigation Program passed.

How to attend: Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority meets at 11 a.m. on the 2nd Wednesday of each month at Ridgecrest City Hall located at 100 W California Ave., Ridgecrest. You can also watch online via their Youtube channel Live Stream.


Sonia Lemus, freelance for SJV Water

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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