After decades of extensive pumping in the rain-starved northwestern corner of the Mojave Desert, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Basin Authority is now tasked with managing one of California’s most critically overdrawn aquifers.
The region is currently facing a contentious proposal aimed at resolving its groundwater crisis. Critics argue that the proposal prioritizes urban consumers in Ridgecrest and the nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake over farmers and mining operations. The $200 million, 50-mile-long pipeline system is intended to transport water from the California Aqueduct in California City to a storage tank in Ridgecrest’s urban center.
According to authority officials, the federal government would cover $150 million of the project’s cost, leaving $50 million to be distributed among ratepayers, including pistachio growers and mining operations that recently faced a special “groundwater replenishment fee” of up to $6 million annually. Additional costs for water acquisition, planning, annual operation, and maintenance are not included in this estimate.
The authority emphasizes the necessity of ending the era where landowners could freely pump water from the Indian Wells Valley without restrictions. Keith Lemieux, serving as both Ridgecrest city attorney and groundwater authority counsel, acknowledges legal challenges from farmers and mining companies but stresses the imperative to avoid further overdrafting.
Failure to address the groundwater imbalance may lead to a takeover by state officials, as state law mandates local agencies to bring groundwater aquifers into balanced levels of pumping and recharge. Currently, the annual water flow into the valley’s underground basin is 7,650 acre-feet, while the annual usage is about 28,000 acre-feet, resulting in wells going dry and putting approximately 800 at risk.
However, this isn’t a conventional battle against overdrafting. The Indian Wells Valley aquifer lies beneath the intersection of San Bernardino, Kern, and Inyo counties in the eastern Sierra Nevada range landscape.
The Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, a significant contributor to the local economy, expressed concerns about groundwater encroachment in 2019, stating that water shortages could jeopardize its operations. Ridgecrest city officials argue that without an increased water supply, the base’s viability and the town’s future development are at stake.
The proposed pipeline, seen by the groundwater authority as a solution to the chronic water shortage, has sparked opposition from companies like Searles Valley Minerals and Mojave Pistachios. They claim the groundwater sustainability plan, including the pipeline, unfairly burdens them economically.
Legal battles over a replenishment fee imposed in 2021 are underway, with Mojave Pistachios and Searles Minerals resisting payment, citing potential threats to their water rights and business viability. The cases, heard in Orange County Superior Court, could set precedents for the implementation of the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.
Residents of Trona, dependent on groundwater supplied by Searles Valley Minerals, fear the economic impact if the company goes out of business due to increased fees and pipeline-related costs.
Environmental concerns have also arisen, with challenges from environmentalists and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The proposed pipeline’s route through historical wildlife habitats raises issues about its impact on species like desert tortoises, mountain lions, and Mojave ground squirrels.
Despite debates and challenges, proponents of the pipeline argue that the project can address the region’s water needs. They acknowledge concerns about environmental impact but express confidence in mitigating these issues. However, the crucial question remains: Can funding be secured for this controversial proposal? According to Ridgecrest city manager Don Strand, the answer to that question will determine the project’s feasibility.