By Deb Murphy
Water discussions at the Inyo County Board of Supervisors’ meetings usually focus on the Owens Valley and its relationship with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. But, not Tuesday when the critically over-drafted Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin got all the attention.
The valley spans Southern Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties, presenting a complicated scenario for forming a Groundwater Sustainability Agency, required by state legislation. Inyo Water Department Director Bob Harrington requested an official okay from the Supervisors for staff to participate in the formation of a GSA through a joint powers agreement. He and Fifth District Supervisor Matt Kingsley had been “wild catting,” Harrington said and it was time to make water discussions with the long list of involved agencies official.
The request was routine except for the additional request from Meadowbrook Dairy and the Meadowbrook Mutual Water District’s attorney to be included in the GSA. The fact Meadowbrook is a private water company raised an issue as to how or whether it could join an agency made up of public entities, including all three counties, Ridgecrest and the Naval Weapons Station. According to the attorney, the situation was unique but there were similar situations allowed in Kern County.
Interestingly, a public informational meeting on the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin was held by Kern County staff in October and specifically stated that mutual water companies were not entitled to form a GSA, though participation in one was not addressed in the presentation materials.
Meadownbrook grows alfalfa on 900 acres near Inyokern, using between 5,000 and 8,000 acre-feet of pumped water for irrigation.
Harrington explained that of the 500-plus water basins identified in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, fewer than two dozen were identified in a state of critical overdraft and Indian Wells’ basin was one of them. When asked by Kingsley if the mutual water company was willing to participate in the cost of the GSA, the attorney responded there was state funding available for that and his client “wanted to be an active participant to make sure the groundwater was properly managed.”
County Counsel Marshall Rudolph pointed out that the resolution before the Board didn’t exclude a private agency. The resolution passed as written.
The critical overdraft status of the basin came into play during the timed presentation by Planning Director Josh Hart. In the face of what were described as rumors of interest in growing pistachios on private land near Pearsonville, in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin, Hart requested a 45-day urgency ordinance prohibiting “new non-groundwater neutral agriculture uses.”
The ordinance has no impact on existing uses, just precludes the dreaded, water-sucking pistachios from moving in until the situation could be studied. Inyo/Mono Ag Commissioner Nate Reade explained that the ordinance would maintain the status quo, primarily transient, dry-land grazing until “we have time to sort out what’s going on down there.”
Pistachio and almond growers in the San Joaquin Valley have been demonized as mega-water users, responsible for the valley sinking into its rapidly-dwindling water basins. According to “Mother Jones,” it takes three-quarters of a gallon to grow one pistachio.
But, University of California, Davis has done extensive research on reducing water use by nut growers without killing the trees. According to UC’s publication on drought strategies for pistachios, water use per-acre in 1982 varied from 2.37 to 2.78 acre-feet depending on the irrigation method.
County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio was the first to step into non-PC territory by pointing out the irony of Inyo County’s status as an economic desert “due to water exports…. We can do the right thing on a regional basis,” he said but that means taking land out of potential economic development. “The Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin is in critical over-draft due to uses in Kern County,” not Inyo County he said.
Supervisor Dan Totheroh was “anti-groundwater mining,” the other four supervisors were conflicted. Kingsley asked the County to schedule a public meeting to inform Pearsonville-area residents, provided a place could be found to hold a meeting.