Joe Mathews on the fight over groundwater rights in the California desert

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Eleven thousand square miles of the western Mojave falls under the purview of the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority, which has approved a politically incendiary groundwater plan, explains Joe Mathews. Photo by Shutterstock.

All of California is officially facing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And much of the state is in extreme or severe drought after the dry winter. Now a fight over groundwater rights is brewing in the desert northeast of LA. It could be a sign of bigger problems ahead for the state. In this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California,” commentator Joe Mathews says at the heart of the dispute is a state law that was passed half a dozen years ago.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Can California regulate groundwater without destroying its own communities?

That’s the question being posed as regions implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the historic 2014 state law regulating California’s diminishing groundwater supplies. 

Groundwater is buried in aquifers, underground spaces between rocks, soils, and sand. Layers of aquifers are called groundwater basins. California has hundreds of them. Eight-five percent of Californians depend on groundwater, which constitutes roughly 40% of California’s water supply.

SGMA was designed to protect the most overdrawn groundwater basins by requiring plans to balance the amounts of water being pumped from, and recharged into, aquifers by 2040. Achieving this groundwater sustainability should reshape our landscapes, with agricultural land retired, and local ecosystems restored.

SGMA tried to cushion these disruptions by giving local agencies new power to form a new species of local government — Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, or groundwater authorities. The idea was that local boards would be more inclined to listen to all stakeholders and to develop groundwater sustainability plans that would minimize local pain. 

But the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority — covering 11,000 square miles in the western Mojave — has disdained conciliation and approved a politically incendiary groundwater plan that could spread water conflict beyond the desert.

If the plan survives legal challenges, it could swiftly end agricultural production in the pistachio-growing area, force the closure of the valley’s oldest business, and cut off water to the unincorporated community of Trona.

At the heart of this conflict in the desert is, ironically, the U.S. Navy. The Indian Wells Valley is home to the Navy’s largest single landholding, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, covering 1.1 million acres, larger than Rhode Island. Ridgecrest, the valley’s biggest, is a military town, owing its economy and higher education levels to the presence of this research and development installation.

Local officials have fought for decades to protect the Navy base. To make sure that SGMA wouldn’t affect Navy water, they set up a groundwater authority that largely excluded major water pumpers in industry and agriculture. In the process, the authority produced a bizarrely one-sided groundwater plan.

Rather than phasing in changes over the next two decades, as the law anticipates, the authority plan immediately imposes enormous new fees that would effectively ban agriculture or water-needy industry. Mojave Pistachios says the fees would force it to abandon a $35 million investment in trees made in 2011, before SGMA. Searles Valley Minerals, a going concern since 1873, says its water bills would increase by 7000%, forcing immediate closure.

Even stranger is the plan’s justification for such high fees: paying for major infrastructure to import new water into the Mojave. Such a project is literally a pipe dream, since it would mean taking water away from the Central Valley or Los Angeles.

This ill-considered plan has already backfired. Pistachio growers and Searles refused to pay new fees, filed expensive lawsuits against the groundwater authority, and campaigned publicly against the water authority. The controversy has drawn attention in Sacramento and in Congress, bringing greater scrutiny and risks to the Naval base, which the groundwater plan was supposed to protect. Searles, in legal documents, has attacked the Navy, claiming that its water rights are senior to that of the base.

The good news is that compromise seems possible. Despite today’s overdrafts, both sides agree that there is enough groundwater in the basin to last hundreds of years. Pistachio growers have proposed alternatives that would raise fees and reduce water usage to the authority’s preferred target, but over the two-decade period set up by the law. 

If a deal can’t be done, the state should step in. Unfortunately, state leadership in water is rarer than rain. And there are already signs of local conflict and litigation threats at other authorities. So now is the time for the state legislature to beef up oversight in SGMA.

For starters, the state should provide more technical and financial support for the inexperienced local people designing these plans. California should also require that all stakeholders in a basin have real representation on groundwater authority boards.

California water planning is enough of a battle, without the high desert igniting a water war.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Darrell Satzman