By Don Zdeba
Much like the title of the 2009 film starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, the groundwater situation in the Indian Wells Valley can be summed up in two words…” it’s complicated.” As one of the 21 basins determined by the California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) to be in critical overdraft, the Indian Wells Valley was required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (“SGMA”) to submit a plan to bring the basin to a sustainable condition. That plan, the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (“GSP”), was developed, with stakeholder involvement, by Stetson Engineers on behalf of the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (“Authority”) and submitted to DWR for review January 31, 2020. DWR has yet to complete their review of the GSP. The legislation allows up to two years to complete their review.
Simply put, the GSP currently estimates natural annual recharge in the basin to be 7,650 acre-feet, while annual groundwater production is three to four times that amount. It should be obvious to all that groundwater pumping cannot be reduced to the level of natural recharge while still maintaining a desirable community with a reasonable quality of life and allowing for some level of economic growth. As much as we would like, there is no silver bullet that will bring the basin in compliance.
The actions under consideration by the Authority and local stakeholders include: importation of a water supply, recovery and use of recycled water from the City’s new wastewater treatment facility, reducing the footprint of agriculture, seeking additional opportunities for water conservation (refrigerated air vs. evaporative cooling, e.g.), and making use of basin brackish water resources. Each of these are in various stages of consideration or development. None of them are simple because they involve multiple agencies, environmental, state and local regulations, not to mention the need to secure funding.
Adding to the complexity is pending litigation that has been filed. Mojave Pistachios and Searles Valley Minerals have both filed separate lawsuits against the Authority challenging the GSP as well as the Replenishment Fee adopted by the Authority to pay for an imported water supply. Mojave Pistachios also filed a lawsuit against Indian Wells Valley Water District, Searles Valley Minerals, and Meadowbrook Dairy seeking a limited “physical solution” involving only those 4 named parties. These cases are currently being litigated in Orange County. The rulings will not only have a significant impact on our basin, but some of the legal points being argued may well establish precedent for SGMA-related issues.
Recently, yet another legal action was taken. On June 10th, the Board of Directors of the Water District authorized legal counsel to initiate a lawsuit referred to as a “comprehensive adjudication”. The outcome of this should be a determination by the court of the water rights and quantities of all groundwater pumpers in the basin. The Board believes this is a necessary action to protect and conserve the water supply that is vital to the health, safety, and welfare of all persons and entities within the basin.
Management of the local water supply is one of the most important issues we, as residents of the Indian Wells Valley and Searles Valley, face. As such, I encourage all to stay engaged as these projects and lawsuits progress. You may do so by visiting the Water District’s website at www.iwvwd.com or the website for the Groundwater Authority at www.iwvga.org.