In an attempt to stop overuse of this region’s overdrafted groundwater basin, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority wants to pay for water rights at varied locations throughout California by imposing a new Replenishment Fee on some but not all of the basin’s groundwater users.

Purchasing water rights throughout the state without the ability to deliver the purchased water to our region is an enormously expensive and risky scheme that will require vast new infrastructure undoubtedly costing countless millions of dollars and taking many years before even a drop of water can be delivered. And yet, without identifying how or when imported water supplies would be delivered, and despite significant local opposition, the authority recently voted to substantially increase water rates – deciding who wins and who loses in the Indian Wells Valley.

For Searles Valley Minerals, the authority’s sweeping decision will increase its water costs by 7,000 percent, or approximately $6 million per year, pushing the company to extinction after operating for more than 140 years.

In 2014, the State of California adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requiring the establishment of local groundwater sustainability agencies to help balance the state’s overdrafted groundwater basins. The authority is one of these agencies and by law must develop and implement a plan for sustainably managing the region’s groundwater by 2040.

Searles agrees that all must work together to balance the valley’s groundwater basin. But, jeopardizing the jobs of Searles’ 700 employees during one of our country’s worst economic recessions – without any concrete plans for our water supply future – is wrong.

Searles has been a valued and trusted community member for almost as long as Kern County has existed. Our water rights date back to the early 1900s and are the most senior water rights in the valley. The authority’s discriminatory new fee unlawfully and unfairly burdens Searles while leaving other water users, including the Navy’s Air Weapons Station at China Lake, untouched by the new fee. In fact, the authority is providing more water to the Navy than is actually needed or requested, while leaving Searles and other community members with no water and forcing them to pay an exorbitant fee for every drop of water pumped from the basin.

The authority’s efforts to manage the groundwater basin for the thousands of people who rely on it for their homes, farms and businesses must be more transparent, collaborative and fair to our entire community. Instead, the authority chose to divide the community by unilaterally picking winners and losers in the rights to use the groundwater basin’s limited supply. By unfairly ignoring long-established water rights, the authority decided to force water users like Searles to pay exorbitant fees while exempting others. The authority is displacing the men and women who rely on Searles for good paying jobs at a time when these jobs are most needed.

The imposition of the authority’s discriminatory new fee will create real economic hardship for many who live in the city of Ridgecrest and will devastate the historically disadvantaged Trona communities. In the last two years alone, these communities have faced two destructive earthquakes, a global pandemic and the resulting economic recession. Searles has been here supporting these communities through it all. Searles did not lay off any of its employees while it was shut down for 71 days to make repairs following the earthquakes. Designated by the Department of Homeland Security as a component of America’s critical infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic, Searles has kept all 700 employees employed despite a nearly 30 percent drop in sales volume since February. The community relies on Searles, and Searles relies on a reasonable supply of water to stay in business.

Searles supports the authority’s objective for a sustainable groundwater basin that can support the entire region for years to come. However, a more just and equitable process is needed – one that respects Searles’ historic water rights and recognizes the invaluable role the company plays in supporting the region’s economy and quality of life. Searles is urging the authority to protect the entire community and to develop a plan that will balance the groundwater basin while protecting the Ridgecrest and Trona communities.

Burnell Blanchard is the vice president of operations for Searles Valley Minerals.