Water Wars Heat Up in California

Competition is heating up among California cities over an increasingly rare and valuable commodity — water.

The Kern River, seen here nearly dry on a day in February 2021. While often raging and deadly with class 2-5 rapids, the river is so heavily diverted that by the time it flows into Bakersfield there’s little to nothing left. (Courthouse News photo / Dustin Manduffie)

(CN) — Water makes the world go ‘round, and a major player in California’s breadbasket doesn’t want to part with more than they have already.

The Kern River has played a serious role in summer adventures for generations. Fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt near Mount Whitney, people flock to the river for everything aquatic from fly fishing to whitewater rafting.

It’s the closest whitewater run to Southern California and the river frequently appears on lists of the best rapids in the state. It’s also a crucial source of drinking water for Kern County.

And it’s dangerous. Nicknamed ‘Killer Kern” by locals, as of May 2020 the river has claimed 307 lives and nearly ended countless others. It’s dangerous enough that local country music legend Merle Haggard wrote a famous song about it.

The river is bone dry at the moment though, with not so much as a damp patch of soil in sight. Local environmental group Keepers of the Kern released a snow report in January finding the southern Sierra snowpack’s water content is currently 45% of where it would normally be this time of year and water volume for the year is forecast to be a paltry 49% of normal.

“It’s dry a lot of the time, they are fighting over that now. Most of the water is diverted and used elsewhere,” decried Brian Adams from the Kern River Fly Fishers Club, a local fishing club organized about 50 years ago. Luckily, Adams said the water diversion has yet to impact the group’s favorite places to fish on the river.

Enter the contestants in one of California’s longest running battles — who gets the water.

In 1975, the city of Bakersfield purchased a substantial allotment of Kern River water rights from an agricultural company called Tenneco. To pay for those water rights the city sold off a portion to nearby towns like Rosedale and Irvine. That sale set the stage for a contentious showdown that’s now coming to a head.

Bakersfield and the Kern County Water Agency are suing water districts in those cities over their plan to skim water from Kern County sources for transport to other parts of the state — water that county officials say they need for themselves.

The Kern Fan Groundwater Storage Project is a $246 million dollar water storage project planned for California’s south San Joaquin Valley.

The water bank, which was awarded $67.5 million in California Prop 1 water storage funds, would eventually store up to 100,000 acre-feet of unallocated water from the Kern River and local State Water Project sources during wet years. It’s projected to begin operation in 2029 if all goes to plan.

The current design includes up to 1,300 acres of recharge basin facilities in Kern County, construction of up to 12 recovery wells in the county and construction of water conveyance facilities including a canal, pipelines and pump stations. 

It also calls for a new turnout at the California Aqueduct to convey water between project facilities and the establishment of an “ecosystem account” that would provide for the storage of up to 25,000 acre-feet of unallocated water.

The Kern River flows through the foothills and into the southern San Joaquin Valley a few miles northeast of the Bakersfield, and locals have been diverting and using this water — when it’s actually available — to meet their growing needs over the years. 

Because of Bakersfield’s explosive growth since 1976 and the expansion of local agriculture, residents are increasingly dependent on water from the Kern River as other sources dry up.

Kern County was wracked by a major drought at the end of the last decade, and it’s been slowly recovering since 2015. The petitioners say one of the more troubling aspects of the project is a plan to sell or transfer water from the Kern River out of the area to Southern California, including Orange County, all without the knowledge, much less the approval, of Kern County residents and local farmers.

According to the complaints, project planners have intentionally obscured that part of the plan to avoid public scrutiny.

“The question of who decides, in the absence of the GSAs [groundwater sustainability agencies], constituents, and stakeholders all coming together, ultimately it’s the court, and that’s what I’m hoping that we can avoid,” said Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, at an environmental law conference last fall. “The problem is that if you look at the adjudications around the state, there is no clear standard.” 

Bakersfield and the Kern County Water Agency claim the project, approved by the Irvine Ranch Water District and Averett’s Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, will “alter and affect the environment in Kern County” and threaten a vital source of water for the community.

According to the complaint, the project could hamper water reliability, degrade the quality of the region’s drinking water, harm the local environment and threaten drinking water access across the county.

As it stands now, many valley farmers are trading water like wares on an internet marketplace. Like anything else in a consumer economy, farmers with too much water place listings that farmers with too little water can bid on. Supply and demand dictate the price — and higher prices paid by farmers inevitably trickle down to consumers.

“The water trading is a little bit more like Craigslist than it is Nasdaq, but it creates an opportunity to link willing sellers and willing buyers through the platform where they can begin negotiations with respect to their water purchases or sales,” Averett said.

Petitioners claim the water districts involved are attempting to rubber-stamp the project in secret without performing the kind of comprehensive environmental study that normally accompanies a project of its size and scope. They believe such a study would reveal enough deleterious effects to call the entire project into question, which they say is precisely why project planners have avoided doing one.

Representatives from the Kern County Water Agency, the city of Bakersfield, the Groundwater Banking Joint Powers Authority, the Rio Bravo Water Storage District and the Irvine Ranch Water District all declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation.

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