California Desert Town Facing Its Potential End Due to Water Battle During Drought

by Matthew Memrick

One California town is on the brink of extinction as a statewide water battle heats up between the state and two companies.

Trona, a town in the Mojave Desert, has no clean water source and has looked to other water sources for decades. The town’s 1,700 residents get water by pipe from 30 miles away in the Indian Wells Valley.

Newsweek said 2016 legislation in California required towns to have groundwater sources nearby, and Trona can’t keep up with two companies using most of the groundwater.

Two Companies Take Most Of Water

Two pipelines bring aqua to the town, but first, it goes to a mining company. Searles Valley Minerals used the water with soda ash, boron, and salt before recycling the water for residents.

Another company, Mojave Pistachios, uses a large amount of that groundwater in the Searles Valley. 

According to UC Davis, pistachio trees need a fantastic amount of groundwater. Just one tree needs 50 gallons from July to late August. Similarly, almonds are another big California crop. Think about a gallon of aqua for one almond produced.

The Los Angeles Times reported that groundwater makes up “60 percent of California’s supply during a drought.” 

The newspaper did the math, saying that the Indian Wells Valley gets 7,650 acre-feet of aqua, but the yearly water usage is 28,000 acre-feet. Trona’s use, along with others, could put that water supply in grave danger.

California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2016 to protect aquifers and groundwater. Since then, the state officials say that of 515 basins, 21 were critical. Of the 21, Indian Wells was in that crucial pool.

Trona and other threatened areas are mandated to have a plan by 2040 to preserve the groundwater.

To keep the water supply going, Trona’s top water users must pay a replenishment fee. The Indian Wells Valley water district is also paying a fee.

Use Could Be In Millions 

Those fees will add up.  

An attorney representing the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority said both companies would need to pay around $25 million to protect their access to the aqua in the desert.

Keith Lemieux also said a pipeline to another source would be needed. In addition to the channel, the amount of used aqua needs to be balanced or reduced. 

The companies are resisting the fees, claiming that the restrictions will hurt residents. However, Lemieux disagreed.

Lemieux said the residents of Trona are not subject to the assessment and that the authority is trying to make sure those residents keep getting water.

Currently, the companies and the water authority are litigating the decision and the fees. The water authority ordered Mojave Pistachios to pay a $2,130 replenishment fee in June. Officials asked Searles Valley Minerals to pay a fee as well.

Trona is 128 miles east of Bakersfield.