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A Fair and Equitable Way to Finance Fixing the Aquifer

One of the most often heard objections to the tiered water rates proposal put forward recently by the Borrego Water District is that those who pump more than 90% of the water each year pay nothing for the water they use and historically have contributed nothing to the cost of groundwater management and fixing the aquifer, will be unaffected by the new rate structure. These are the pumpers , i.e., corporate agriculture, golf courses, and all of those who draw water from the aquifer using their own private wells.

Although not a reason to scuttle the tiered rate proposal, it is a valid concern. The most equitable way to address it and broaden the base of contributors to groundwater management, and only effective means of distributing the rapidly rising costs of ground water management over all groundwater users in the Valley, is to impose a pump tax - a remedy, incidentally, that has been endorsed by Bill Mills, the corporate agriculture cartel’s own groundwater consultant.

A pump tax, also known as an extraction fee, production assessment, or basin assessment fee, is an assessment levied by a public agency such as the BWD based on the amount of groundwater pumped from a basin to finance groundwater management activities within the basin. Such a levy ensures that all beneficiaries of groundwater management also contribute to it in proportionate measure.

Economic theory holds that a free or inexpensive resource drives up demand and encourages waste. A fair price for water will not only encourage responsible use and conservation but, through price competition, assure that water flows to the greatest need. Only when water is fairly priced and all users pay for the water they consume can we be confident that this increasingly scarce resource will be put to its most beneficial use, generate sufficient revenues to mitigate damage already done, and manage our dwindling groundwater reserves on a sustainable basis.

Representatives of corporate agriculture in the valley contend that, according to AB 3030, a replenishment assessment such as a pump tax cannot be imposed unless there is indeed replenishment. However, according to a written opinion from the BWD’s counsel dated 15 June 2004, (p. 3) the BWD’s authority to levy a groundwater extraction fee derives not from AB 3030, but from the Groundwater Management Act, Section10754.2. Based on authority provided in Section 10754.3 of the Groundwater Management Act, counsel concludes “that the district can collect water extraction fees for the extraction of groundwater and use the proceeds for any groundwater management purpose even though it does not import replenishment water” provided that ”the fee must be approved by a majority vote.” (p. 4)

Nonetheless, the board completely ignored it when, after finally being dragooned into putting a groundwater extraction fee on their agenda at the 30 June 2004 meeting of the Borrego Water District Board of Directors, members betrayed their stripes (color them yellow) and took a dive.

The purpose of the measure was two-fold:

  1. Ensure that all consumers of ground water pay a fair share of ground water management costs amounting to many hundreds of thousands of dollars and, until now, borne solely by BWD ratepayers;
  2. Act as a brake on consumption and ensure that our precious groundwater flows to its most beneficial use.
The pumpers were out in force and packed the meeting in an obvious, organized and orchestrated attempt to continue their free ride by derailing this cost-sharing and conservation measure. Although couched in noble and high-sounding language, their objections to the proposed fee were, in fact, entirely selfish and self-serving.

Nonetheless, when confronted with this charade, the Board crumpled like a cheap suit. They quickly swept the issue off the table without a moment’s consideration, let alone any action. They once again revealed an amazing lack of backbone and moral courage, and a total inability to do the right thing – or anything else. It was a depressing, disturbing and disgusting spectacle that bodes ill for the future of groundwater management in the valley, our sole-source aquifer, and all those who depend on it.

With the fate of our aquifer in the hands of “stewards” like these, anyone who loves this valley and is concerned about the increasingly serious overdraft should be afraid – very afraid. Imposing a price on all water pumped from the aquifer may appear a daunting task to the BWD Board of Directors. Be that as it may, it is one that must be accomplished, and the sooner begun, the sooner done. If the current board can’t or won’t step up to their responsibility, then they should step down or the residents of the district should replace them with a board that can and will - as soon as possible. There is no time to waste.

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