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Saturday, Dec 15 2012 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Mystery company stalks desert, seeking our water

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dawn Martin stands in her neighborhood in Cantil, the same area where the Fremont Valley Preservation Project site will be located. Martin is one of the people opposing the project.

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  2. 2 of 4

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dawn Martin stands in her neighborhood in Cantil, the same area where the Fremont Valley Preservation Project site will be located. Martin is one of the people fighting the project.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    It's sunset behind these jagged mountains near Lake Isabella Monday evening.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    On the Morgan's ranch in the Cane Brake area Santa Claus has a good spot waving to the motorists passing by on Highway 178.

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BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

Bad ideas and zombies have a lot in common.

Neither want to stay dead. And no matter how many times they come back, they never get any fresher.

Related Info

Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Who is AquaHelio?

AquaHelio Resources LLC and AquaHelio Solar Energy, LLC are limited liability corporations that were registered in Delaware earlier this year. Envirowater LLC is also a Delaware company registered in 2008.

As such it's impossible to get a listing of partners, directors or officers for either company.

Attorney John Musick, vice president for Envirowater, told me Envirowater is a non-managing partner in AquaHelio, but said all other information was proprietary.

The AquaHelio companies are managed through a California corporation called AquaHelio Management, Inc.

Though an anonymous article posted on www.ilovecaliforniacity.com suggests that a Chinese solar panel manufacturer is an AquaHelio investor, Musick said that company, Chaori Solar Energy Science & Technology Co., is simply one of the possible panel vendors, not a partner.

That article also stated Chaori had invested more than $115 million in the Fremont Valley project. Musick said he had no idea where that information had come from, nor who had written the article.

Solar money

Unlike other forms of renewable energy, solar operators don't have to pay increased property taxes on land they develop.

I wondered, then, why any county would be interested in approving large-scale plants.

Turns out Kern County thought of that too and planners have come up with a formula to get the county's take.

As part of the approval process, solar operators must agree to pay about $25 a year per 1,000 square feet of panels directly to the county. That money goes to fire and law enforcement. If a public utility, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), buys the project, it pays that fee plus $1,000 per megawatt annually for the life of the project.

With 3.6 million photovoltaic panels being proposed and the possibility of purchase by LADWP, the Fremont Valley solar project, could be a big haul for Kern's coffers.

Out on Kern's desert, a zombie of a water banking/export scheme has risen from the grave once again. This time around it's attached to a ginormous solar facility proposal.

But the water bank portion of the plan is the same smelly, old brain eater it was 15 years ago.

Back then, a Santa Monica company called Samda wanted to pump groundwater from the Fremont Valley, about 10 miles north of Mojave, and sell it to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

The deal didn't go through. But it did prompt a suitably alarmed Kern County Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance that Kern's water cannot be shipped out of the county without a conditional use permit that requires the deal won't harm the local economy or environment.

Well, here we are again, faced with a proposal to move water to LADWP from the Fremont Valley. Only now we're being told the proposal is good for us.

No, it's not.

Kern planners need to kill it quickly and move on to the solar side of the proposal.

If approved the solar plant would be Kern's largest, with 3.6 million photovoltaic panels sending 1,000 megawatts down the line to Los Angeles homes.

Solar might be a great match for this area. The nearly 5,000 acres being considered were farmed extensively by the Arciero family up to about 20 years ago, so it's not undisturbed land. Parts of it are extremely salty and, at one point, the Arcieros applied sludge to some of the acreage.

But the water side of the plan is bristling with red flags.

Under the plan, company called AquaHelio Resources LLC (see box), would inject up to 200,000 acre feet a year of "excess" LADWP water via the Los Angeles Aqueduct into Fremont Valley's aquifer and then return up to 100,000 acre feet with the "capability to deliver the entire volume of water" to LADWP and other area water districts.

The first question that popped into my mind was, "What excess water?"

That was a puzzler for LADWP as well, according to a string of internal emails I stumbled on.

The emails, starting late last month when news of the project first broke, conclude: "LADWP cannot possibly meet this project's requirements," according to water engineer John Miller.

The entire LA Aqueduct's capacity is 215,000 acre feet and all of that is used for city needs, Miller wrote. With the exception of a heavy snow year (in which case LADWP has plenty of storage options), there is no excess water.

Miller also noted AquaHelio's plans wouldn't work using water exchanges as that would require pumping, driving up costs, among other problems.

"Nearly all of these barriers apply to one acre-foot of water, not just 200,000," he states.

If that sounds like LADWP is an ally in protecting Kern's water, don't be fooled. It would gleefully relieve us of every drop given the opportunity (and I'm not so sure they aren't already up to their elbows in this deal given the numerous LADWP sitings residents have reported in Fremont Valley). Which is another reason to squelch this deal. Because once LADWP gets its hooks in, that's it. Bye bye water. Just ask the folks in Owens Valley how that worked out for them.

As if all that weren't enough of a deterrent, LADWP also has to answer to Inyo County, where it pumps out huge volumes of groundwater, said Terry Rogers, longtime Kern County Water Agency director for the desert. Banking supposedly "excess" water would definitely pique Inyo's interest.

"LADWP can't take water from Inyo if they don't need it," Rogers said. "And if they're banking it, they obviously don't need it."

Sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen, right there.

AquaHelio attorney John D. Musick, Jr., himself highlighted two more major red flags -- who actually owns Fremont Valley groundwater and whether surface water can safely be injected into the aquifer.

Back in early 2009 he wrote to the California Energy Commission opposing an adjacent solar plant's water plans. Beacon Solar Energy, a 250-megawatt plant just south of AquaHelio's, had wanted to pump substantial groundwater for mirror washing. Musick, writing on behalf of the Arciero family, opposed that saying the water rights beneath Beacon's land were "reserved" by the Arciero family, which sold Beacon some of its property.

Beacon's parent company NextEra, said no such reservation existed. Musick said they never came to a conclusion on those water rights. But, he said, AquaHelio absolutely does own the water rights below its lands, which it bought from the Arciero family.

I wouldn't be so sure of that. Water ownership can be tricky in a basin, such as the Fremont Valley, that hasn't had groundwater rights officially settled through a process called adjudication.

Longtime, continuous users have "rights" to use the groundwater. Selling it or moving it out of the basin is another proposition, however. And considering the Arciero family hasn't pumped that water for decades, California's "use it or lose it" attitude toward water rights could create another snag.

Finally, in those 2009 letters regarding Beacon's solar project, Musick brough up the issue of groundwater contamination. Beacon at one point was poised to use reclaimed waste water from area towns

Musick vehemently opposed that plan for fear the wastewater would leak into groundwater creating another "Hinkley" disaster by tainting the entire Fremont Valley aquifer.

Instead, he offered to sell Beacon Fremont groundwater for a onetime payment of $15 million, plus $11.4 million a year for supply and service. Ultimately, the Beacon project, now owned by LADWP, switched to photovoltaic panels and will use hardly any water at all.

Now AquaHelio wants to inject surface water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct directly into the aquifer and area residents are worried about contamination.

"Surface water, by definition, isn't potable," said Michael Powell, manager of the Rand Communities Water District. He noted that the aqueduct's first stop is a treatment plant before the water is allowed into Angelenos' taps.

Fremont Valley's water is pristine, he said. Residents pump it straight from the ground into their taps without any treatment required. If surface water is injected, as proposed, he feared the aquifer's purity would be destroyed.

"People are upset," said Dawn Martin, who helps keep the community wells going for the tiny enclave of Rancho Seco, right on the edge of AquaHelio's proposed project. "They're messing with our water and that's our life's blood."

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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