Farm Bureau Fights Bakersfield Over Water Grab

Rebekah Kearn

BAKERSFIELD, Cal. (CN) – In the midst of California’s historic drought, several water districts and a county farm bureau claim Bakersfield’s approval of environmental studies puts the city one step closer to taking their water.

Four water districts, the City of Shafter, and the Kern County Farm Bureau sued Bakersfield on Dec. 2 in Kern County Court, asking the court to void the environmental reports and stop the city from implementing the Kern River Flow and Municipal Water Program until it complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Tulare County Judge Lloyd Hicks found in July 2015 that Bakersfield had erred in approving the original 2012 final environmental impact report for the project, as the report did not comply with CEQA.

In its re-circulated draft environmental impact report, Bakersfield said the project will increase flows to the Kern River channel to provide water for the city while simultaneously protecting the environment and local water supply.

“The proposed program would use existing water supplies and new, additional water supplies obtained through the city’s current application to appropriate, submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board. These water sources would be used to increase flows in the Kern River,” the Oct. 18 document states.

But lead plaintiff North Kern Water Storage District et al. say the new document still violates CEQA. Worse yet, they say the new water sources it mentions are actually theirs. Should the project go forward, it will deprive them of up to 160,000 acre-feet of water per year, which they use to irrigate “tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land” north of the Kern River.

Originating from headwaters in the Sierra Nevada, the 165-mile long Kern River winds through scenic canyons, making it popular for whitewater rafters, kayakers, hikers and trout fishermen, before discharging on the plains of the southern Jan Joaquin Valley about 10 miles east of Bakersfield.

Since the 1950s, approximately 200,000 acre-feet per year of Kern River water has been diverted to a public water storage project shared by all the plaintiffs, to irrigate agricultural lands for almonds, grapes, citrus, nuts and vegetables, and to build up groundwater reserves.

Bakersfield sits at the southern end of California’s Great Central Valley, the 18,000 square-mile, multibillion-dollar source of more than half the fruit, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States.

Other plaintiffs use their allocated water for domestic, municipal and industrial services for resident of several small towns, and to maintain habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, including 34 at-risk species.

The state Department of Water Resources has identified the area north of the Kern River as critically overdrafted, and several scientific studies indicate that reduced flows to the plaintiffs’ shared groundwater basin would increase levels of total dissolved solids, arsenic, and nitrate in the water, which would in turn harm crop yields.

A July 2007 study found that surface water supplies are expected to decrease by 100,000 acre-feet a year, leading to further use of groundwater in the region. Long-term declines in groundwater levels will have serious environmental impacts, including increased water salinity, deterioration of air quality, and economic harm to communities that need water for agriculture.

Despite these likely harms, Bakersfield’s 2012 notice of preparation for the diversion project stated that it would permanently change the point of diversion and use of approximately 160,000 acre-feet per year of Kern River water – approximately 90,000 acre-feet of which lawfully belongs to the North Kern Water Storage District, the water district says.

North Kern and the other plaintiffs objected to the notice and the ensuing draft environmental impact report: particularly the report’s failure to address the consequences of diverting so much agricultural water for city use, but Bakersfield certified the final report in September 2012.

Though Judge Hicks ordered Bakersfield to redo the report, the water districts say that none of its deficiencies were corrected in the new version.

Among other things, the project description is still confusing and inaccurate, its discussion of the water to be taken is misleading, and it still does not require Bakersfield to analyze impacts to the plaintiffs north of the Kern River, according to the complaint.

Nor did it identify or analyze the impacts of the city’s water grab, and its effects on the environmental resources in the project area, including surface water hydrology, groundwater resources, water quality, air quality, agricultural resources, or energy consumption.

Instead, the report focuses narrowly on the city and adjacent areas, the complaint states.

The re-circulated report erroneously concludes that these impacts will be less than significant, though it provides no explanation or analytical basis on which to stake that claim, and it rejects all alternatives to the project as unfeasible without justification, according to the water districts.

Nevertheless, the Bakersfield City Council certified the re-circulated final report in early November, though it explicitly stated it was not approving the project at the time.

The water districts say that was illegal, because three of the four actions taken by the resolution are normally, “and under the law must be, tied directly to such an approval.”

The Bakersfield city attorney’s office did not immediately return emailed requests for comment sent Monday morning.

The plaintiffs ask the court to set aside the city’s resolution to certify the environmental studies and all other associated documents until Bakersfield prepares an environmental impact report that complies with CEQA.

They also want an injunction preventing any work on the project until it complies with CEQA and state environmental laws, and with Judge Hicks’s 2015 judgment.

They are represented by Scott Kuney with Young Wooldridge, who did not immediately return emailed requests for comment.

Plaintiffs include the Kern Water Bank Authority, the Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District, and the Semitropic Water Storage District.

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