Kern County supervisors supported a measured response Tuesday to a west Kern water crisis that Supervisor Mick Gleason said endangers the future of China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station.
Gleason called for a six-month investigation of how to halt or reverse plummeting water levels in the Indian Wells Valley -- the desert plain that surrounds Ridgecrest.
He stopped short of bringing agricultural development in the region -- a critical new threat to the region's water independence -- to an immediate halt.
County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said the county will work to bring warring water users in the area together to develop a plan to use water treatment, new water sources, water conservation and other tactics to reverse decades of damage.
At the same time, she said, the county will develop a new land use plan for the Indian Wells Valley to balance the land uses with the amount of water able to serve them.
The two-pronged attack is a better option, supervisors said, than letting the situation collapse into a court fight.
Tuesday's discussion was triggered by a controversial report from Todd Engineering that reviewed decades of groundwater data from the area. The report found that area water users have been taking more underground water from aquifers than flowed back in since the 1960s.
But the problem has been accelerated, Gus Yates of Todd Engineering told supervisors, by recent development of more than 2,000 acres of pistachios in the region.
Water levels are dropping by two or three feet a year across the region each year. A total of 86 percent of wells with measurement equipment in the basin show declining water levels.
Growers attacked the report, calling it flawed and filled with assumptions.
They especially hated a PowerPoint slide presented by Yates that showed a massive deflation of the groundwater pool if all the acreage zoned for agriculture was planted.
That level of development will never happen, growers said.
But the county, Oviatt said, can't assume it won't.
"I have no way of telling someone not to plant something," Oviatt said. "We looked at what could conceivably be the worst-case scenario."
Representatives from the city of Ridgecrest, calling the situation a crisis, wanted the supervisors to pass an emergency ordinance banning all new agricultural development in the Indian Wells Valley.
Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner said she could not justify the situation as an "emergency" because the groundwater "overdraft" has been in existence for decades.
Supervisors Mike Maggard and David Couch wondered how anything could be considered an emergency if this situation can't be.
But they chose not to push forward an ordinance because, Maggard said, a lawsuit would be likely and that would delay a solution even further.
Ridgecrest Mayor Dan Clark said the city will support Gleason's plan and pursue a solution to the water crisis.
But they will look for serious progress in the next six months and hope other agricultural developers don't plant their ground and make the situation worse.
Delay is not an option, Gleason said.
"Our greatest need today is a strategic plan." he said. "It's taken way too long to understand our problem, but here we are."
Without a plan, he said, China Lake will become vulnerable in the upcoming round of BRAC -- Base Realignment And Closure, Gleason said.
He was commanding officer at China Lake when the federal government last considered which bases to close and how to move resources around to save money.
"I have firsthand knowledge of BRAC," he said. "The worst thing we could have happen with BRAC is to not have a plan."
If other bases find out that China Lake is sitting over a questionable water basin -- and the county doesn't have a plan to fix it -- Gleason said they will used the information to protect their own base.
"They'll pull out the knives and attack," Gleason said, adding wryly, "Those bastards aren't patriots."
"Don't make me censure you," quipped Supervisor Leticia Perez, the board chair, as the audience laughed.