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Water managers trying to bring groundwater into balance in the severely overdrafted Indian Wells Valley basin near Ridgecrest laid out a draft plan last month that would essentially mean the end of large-scale agriculture in that desert region.

"We are giving options to (ag) pumpers so they understand they have a limited future here and can make the best decisions for their businesses," said Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, who represents the area and sits on the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority board.

Last week, several ag companies fired back with a lawsuit.

It is the first lawsuit related to the state’s new groundwater law in Kern County, though the plaintiffs are quick to point out that this is not an “adjudication” lawsuit and that neither the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority nor its draft Groundwater Sustainability Plan are named in the lawsuit.

Rather, the lawsuit aims to force a “physical solution” to the valley’s groundwater woes without having a court specify how much water each user is allotted, which is the result of an adjudication.

The lawsuit alleges there is more than enough groundwater to continue operations as usual for the next 20 years if pumpers, including defendants Indian Wells Valley Water District, Searles Valley Mineral Inc. and Meadowbrook Dairy, agree to coordinate their draws with the plaintiffs in order to better manage the water table decline.

The problem isn’t a lack of water, so much as a lack of cooperation, according to the plaintiffs Mojave Pistachios LLC owned by longtime San Joaquin Valley farmer Rod Stiefvater, the Nugent and John Thomas Conaway family trusts and Sierra Shadows Ranch.

Large pistachio growers came to the Indian Wells Valley between 2010-2013 quickly planting more than 3,000 acres. And just as quickly, water tables began to drop, between .5 and 1.5 feet a year in some areas.

Then in 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and subsequent groundwater models showed an annual overdraft of close to 20,000 acre feet in the valley. (One acre foot can supply a household of four for a year.)

The Navy, which operates China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station near Ridgecrest, became alarmed at the groundwater drop and brought the issue to Kern County, which rezoned the entire valley in 2015, cutting out all new agriculture.

But that still wasn’t enough to staunch the overdraft.

“We have 7,650 acre feet of natural recharge,” Gleason said. Demand is about 27,000 acre feet. “That’s how much water we have to divvy up in the Indian Wells Valley. We’re trying to get the high-end water users to stop being high end. There’s just not enough water to go around.”

Gleason said he didn’t see the point of the growers’ lawsuit, other than perhaps a way to get a foot in the door before the groundwater authority approves its draft plan, which is scheduled to be heard Jan. 16, 2020 and must be filed with the Department of Water Resources by Jan. 31, 2020.

A DWR spokesperson couldn’t comment on the lawsuit other than to say it would not delay the SGMA process.

The problem for Stiefvater and other growers is SGMA requires 2010-2014 as the time frame for water managers to account for groundwater pumping. If you weren’t pumping then, you don’t have an established right. Or, if you had just started out, your pumping right is likely very small.

That became painfully clear in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s draft groundwater plan, which gave pumping allocations to a handful of users including the Navy and Searles Valley Mineral, which both have senior water rights, and the Indian Wells Valley Water District, which serves most of the area’s municipal needs.

About a dozen ag users were assigned a one-time pool of 51,000 acre feet to split between them. Ag users not listed on the chart were given zero pumping allocation.

The draft groundwater plan also laid out fees of $2,000 to $3,000 per acre foot for imported water, assuming the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority could, someday, bring in water via Los Angeles Department of Water and Power infrastructure.

But that’s its own thorny, and very iffy, issue.

“I fully expected there to be litigation,” said Don Zdeba, general manager of the Indian Wells Water District and acting manager of the groundwater authority. “Any time you’re discussing water, someone’s going to be upset. I get that they’re protecting their investment.”

But, he said, models indicate the valley needs to reduce its demand from about 27,000 acre feet a year down to 12,000 acre feet. And even at that reduced number, the groundwater authority will have to find another 5,000 acre feet a year to import.

The plaintiffs have a fundamentally different view.

The lawsuit alleges the basin holds between 67 million and 97 million acre feet of water of varying quality with 7 million to 9 million acre feet of good fresh water in the first 200 feet below ground surface.

Users could pump out 500,000 acre feet and the basin would still be 85 percent full of good, usable water, according to the lawsuit.

“Yup, some people out there strongly believe they aren’t in deficit. But they are,” said Bruce Hafenfeld, a Kern County Water Agency director whose district covers the desert area. The agency isn’t a regulatory agency or voting member of the groundwater authority but observes and assists where it can.

“Oh no, we’ve got enough going on over here,” Hafenfeld said of staying out of the desert water wars.

Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at lois.henry@sjvwater.org. The website is sjvwater.org.

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(7) comments

Fram Smith

I would like to Thank Lois Henry for this thought provoking water story. Growing nut trees in an interior desert valley that is , geographically speaking , a kissing cousin to it's eastern neighboring valley , Death Valley , may not be a wise investment. I'm not certain how many experts would view having a large agricultural economy in Death Valley to be a good idea. Attempting to grow nut trees for export in eastern Kern County with no senior water rights , as well as no surface water flows , is a poor investment idea. Some folks were misled into thinking that they could use a resource they didn't own , ground water , by installing a well and pumping 24/7. But they do not own the water under the nut trees. Using vaste amounts of groundwater to grow nut trees in locations with over 30 days of over 110 °F is very difficult. Out in the middle of the desert near Amboy Crater , they are devastating the Cadez Valley water table by trying to grow citrus trees and grapes in a location with no surface water supply. It is not a sustainable water use practice. We will be spending millions of dollars here in the Central Valley to raise our canals due to the subsidence of the ground , from overuse of the groundwater. Like everyone else , the Eastern Kern County nut trees farmers with nonexistent groundwater rights can sue for whatever reason they like . People file lawsuits that have no merit everyday ; let's see what the court rules.

Masked 2020

Meet the California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined

How megafarmers Lynda and Stewart Resnick built their billion-dollar empire.

Josh HarkinsonAugust 9, 2016

Rafaela Tijerina first met la señora at a school in the town of Lost Hills, deep in the farm country of California’s Central Valley. They were both there for a school board meeting, and the superintendent had failed to show up. Tijerina, a 74-year-old former cotton picker and veteran school board member, apologized for the superintendent—he must have had another important meeting—and for the fact that her own voice was faint; she had cancer. “Oh no, you talk great,” the woman replied with a warm smile, before she began handing out copies of her book, Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business. “To my friend with the sweet voice,” she wrote inside Tijerina’s copy.

It was only later that Tijerina realized the woman owned the almond groves where Tijerina’s husband worked as a pruner. Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, also own a few other things: Teleflora, the nation’s largest flower delivery service; Fiji Water, the best-selling brand of premium bottled water; Pom Wonderful, the iconic pomegranate juice brand; Halos, the insanely popular brand of mandarin oranges formerly known as Cuties; and Wonderful Pistachios, with its “Get Crackin'” ad campaign. The Resnicks are the world’s biggest producers of pistachios and almonds, and they also hold vast groves of lemons, grapefruit, and navel oranges. All told, they claim to own America’s second-largest produce company, worth an estimated $4.2 billion.

The Resnicks have amassed this empire by following a simple agricultural precept: Crops need water. Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California’s byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state’s water than any other family, farm, or company. They control more of it in some years than what’s used by the residents of Los Angeles and the entire San Francisco Bay Area combined.

Such an incredible stockpiling of the state’s most precious natural resource might have attracted more criticism were it not for the Resnicks’ progressive bona fides. Last year, the couple’s political and charitable donations topped $48 million. They’ve spent $15 million on the 2,500 residents of Lost Hills—roughly 600 of whom work for the couple—funding everything from sidewalks, parks, and playing fields to affordable housing, a preschool, and a health clinic.

Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California’s byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state’s water than any other family, farm, or company.

Masked 2020

David Colgan | November 25, 2019

With increasing regularity, Californians are witnessing firsthand the destructive power of wildfires. But not everyone sees what happens after the flames die down, when debris is cleared, homes and lives rebuilt — and trees replanted to help nature recover.

New researchled by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm.

The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak. The research is among the first to demonstrate the potential of using genomics to inform conservation strategies — essentially giving species an evolutionary boost. The study showed that planting trees that are genetically better suited to higher temperatures makes them more likely to survive and grow to maturity.

“When we think about managing ecosystems under rapidly changing climates, we have to realize trees need to be able to survive past 50 years,” Sork said.

The paper also discovered something surprising: The valley oak, an essential component of many ecosystems in California, is already poorly adapted to its environment — even considering climate conditions in 2019.

“They actually seem to grow better in cooler climates than they’re in right now,” said Luke Browne, a postdoctoral scholar at the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Scienceand the study’s lead author. “They might grow better if climates were more like they were 21,000 years ago, during the last ice age.”

During the peak of the last ice age, summer temperatures were about 4 to 5 degrees Celsius colder, and ice covered most of Canada and mountainous areas of the U.S.

In the fields of conservation and land management, it is a common assumption that plants and animals are adapted to their environments — that’s how evolution and natural selection are supposed to work. The new research casts doubt on that assumption.

The study is part of an ongoing project initiated by Sork and Jessica Wright, an expert in conservation genetics at the USDA Forest Service, more than 10 years ago.

Researchers gathered 11,000 seeds from 94 locations throughout the trees’ range, which stretches from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Cascade foothills in the northern part of the state. They grew them to saplings in a greenhouse and planted them in two large experimental gardens, in Chico and Placerville, California. They tracked how well trees from different locations grew, and sequenced the genomes of their mother trees to link genetic information and growth rates.

The researchers then identified which genetic variants would be more likely to thrive as climate change continues to warm California. They predicted that, under predicted future warmer temperatures, trees containing beneficial genetic variations would have 11% higher growth rates than the average for all of the trees in the experiment, and 25% higher growth rates than the trees without the beneficial variations.

Information like that could help the U.S. Forest Service, for example, in its efforts to restore forestswith species that have the best chance for long-term survival.

“Studies like this one provide valuable insights that help land managers make informed decisions on reforestation projects,” Wright said. “When planting trees in a particular location, managers have to decide where to collect the acorns.”

By 2070, average temperatures in the state are projected to be up to 4.8 degrees warmer than they were during the mid- to late 20th century.

“That’s going to have consequences for how fast these trees grow,” Browne said. “We’re at a challenging time to figure out the best way to do conservation science. This paper shows one approach we could use that takes advantage of modern genomics.”

The study did not determine why valley oaks are not well adapted to their environment. It might be because the climate has already warmed up so much, the trees’ long lifespans — up to 500 years — or some other, unknown factor.

The valley oak is the largest oak in California; it grows to over 100 feet tall, and has dark green leaves and a deeply grooved trunk. It is considered a foundational species because it provides habitat and food for a variety of animals, including squirrels, birds, deer and insects. In parts of the state, it is one of the only species of tree that exists. Valley oaks provide benefits to humans, too: filtering water and providing shady places to escape the heat.

Although it focuses on the oak, the paper has broader implications for conservation science in a changing climate — especially for species that evolve and adapt slowly. That’s what Sork and Wright were thinking when they initiated the project.

At the time, they hoped to find conservation strategies that could eventually be implemented using genetic information alone — without extensive field experiments.

“Not everyone in the world is going to be able to collect 11,000 seeds and plant them in a common garden,” Sork said.

Jerry Todd

Cities like Bakersfield have turned down technology that could cut their watering demand 20-25%. Instead they took grant money to install sensing devices that tell you if it's raining and if the soil is wet. Wouldn't it be great if the systems would demonstrate better results the technology installed simply in the irrigation lines as did the Fruitvale and Standard School Districts?

The same holds true for stressed irrigation districts and/or the growers in them. I know of 25,000 of these devices installed around the world, doing wonders in water, energy and yield. I love pistachios and hope they can keep growing them out there.


The agribusinesses (and I’m specifically talking about the orchards that have grown like a fungus along Brown Rd over the past 8 years) don’t care about sustainability. They care only about profit sustainability. They’re happy to quickly or slowly draw down the aquifer until they pump it dry. Then, they’ll write it off as a business loss, buy cheap land somewhere else, and start the process all over again.

Meanwhile, a very important government base is going to die. When it does, the whole city dries up and blows away. Thanks to Mick Gleason and hid cronies, this is the future for the area. Instead of learning the local history of water rights along the Eastern Sierras and Owens Lake, his made sure the agribusiness camel got its nose under the tent. Good luck surviving, IWV, but I doubt you’ll win. Thanks, Mick!

Jerry Todd

I'm not a grower, but one of the reasons we're seeing more tree crops is their cash value. The despotic State of California is making it harder for growers to produce the much wider range of crops we got used to.

Keep in mind, we had a great opportunity for groundwater recharge with all the rain and snow last year. Instead the environmental groups that control thinking in Sacramento saw to it the pumps remained at bare minimum output to save a virtually non-existent non-native Delta Smelt and even the Chinook salmon fry planted at the cost of millions for the non-native striped bass to wipe out.

Time to start thinking of stewardship.



State of California is not responsible for mono-cropping. You know this, I know this. Growers ( companies ) mono-crop because it's cheaper for them. Period. Same equipment, plants, spray rigs, computer programs, etc...

We have to ask ourselves as consumers, how many liters of wine must we consume or tons of oranges or pistachios do we need to ship.

As we starve from lack of healthy produce and die of heart disease because of cheap farming practices which cause dust bowl situations, loss of top soil, pesticide application by the ton and unnecessary water use, agri-business doesn't care.

We are the perfect example of a mistake. Business stripping the earth and leaving the residence in a dry, used up waste land.

You mention " ….all the rain and snow last year." well, that was nothing. Damning isn't a long term solution. Smart irrigation systems help, but it isn't the solution either. Dry brings on dry.

Maybe we need to let the soil, lakes, rivers, streams rest. If they want to flow to the ocean, let them.

God knows Bakersfield people sure do.

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