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Saturday, Nov 02 2013 09:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: You like water mysteries? This one's a doozy

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

A water grab is a water grab is a water grab. No matter how AquaHelio Resources LLC tries to dress it up, that's what I believe its proposed Fremont Valley Preservation Project amounts to.

I wrote about this mysterious company's initial proposal last year when it was just a solar/water banking project.

That has now changed to include a "native groundwater" sales scheme that I believe will ultimately put Kern County water into Los Angeles taps and toilets.

And AquaHelio is hoping Kern County itself will help do the deed in exchange for a tempting prize, a cut of the water.

•••

Here's how it would work.

AquaHelio is proposing to pump 114,000 acre feet a year out of the fragile desert aquifer beneath Fremont Valley (about 10 miles north of Mojave) and sell it to local users, such as Edwards Air Force Base, Rosamond, Mojave and California City, according to its recently filed environmental impact report.

The company says it would give Kern County 10 percent, in water, of whatever it sold.

Having access to 10,000 acre feet of water a year would be huge for the county. And that's just the start. AquaHelio's EIR states the company could pump double that amount in later years.

The more AquaHelio were to sell, the more water Kern would get its hands on.

Just the thought of it seems already to have infected officials with liquid gold fever.

"The county is interested in the opportunity this project presents that there might be water available for other Kern County residents," said Kern County Planning Department division chief Craig Murphy.

"Water is a commodity."

Couple of problems, though.

First, those desert communities don't use nearly as much water as AquaHelio proposes to pump. Even combined, their water usage barely adds up to a tenth of 114,000 acre feet a year.

Not only that, AquaHelio would have to spend potentially millions up front to build pipelines at least 15 miles to get the water into the Antelope Valley Eastern Kern Water District system to serve those communities.

All that for a few paltry sales? That makes zero business sense.

"No, there's no money to be made in the short term from selling locally," acknowledged Dave Morton, vice president of operations for A-C Electric Co., which is working with AquaHelio. "But there could be future growth and you have to have the infrastructure in place to make money later."

I pointed out that would be an exceedingly long-term strategy.

"AquaHelio wants to be a good citizen," said Morton.

Uh huh.

•••

What does make business sense to me, is for AquaHelio to tie into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's aqueduct, which runs right next to the project, and sell our water south.

And, oh yeah, AquaHelio is also proposing a water banking deal with LADWP, which would necessitate tying into the LA Aqueduct.

Darn the luck, though, Kern forbids selling native groundwater outside the county without a special permit.

Morton insisted AquaHelio isn't even seeking such a permit.

Not at the moment, but it had considered applying for an out-of-county sales permit when it filed its initial paperwork for the project last year, planning official Murphy told me.

So, it's certainly not out of the question.

If the project is approved and Kern starts getting a few dribbles of water from its 10-percent cut of in-county sales, it's easy to see what a huge incentive it would be for the county to approve even more sales out of the county.

That 10-percent cut strikes me as nothing more than a bribe.

•••

If the county does go through with this project, it would likely be a short lived bribe, however.

The Fremont Valley Aquifer doesn't have enough water to sustain the kind of pumping outlined in AquaHelio's EIR.

The aquifer was already drawn down by decades of intensive farming. Though the land is idle now, the aquifer is recharged by area streams very slowly, according a hydrogeologist's analysis in the EIR.

After accounting for current use by area residents, the hydrogeologist theorized the aquifer currently holds between 164,086 and 204,086 acre feet.

If AquaHelio wanted to pump out 10,500 acre feet a year, no problem.

But 114,000 acre feet a year would cause significant and potentially irreversible damage to the aquifer, the hydrogeologist states.

"We're not going to pump 114,000 acre feet a year, year in and year out," Morton said of AquaHelio's plans. "We've described (in the EIR) what could happen."

OK but the EIR also foresees that amount doubling in future years.

Morton explained that would only happen if AquaHelio needed to make space in the aquifer.

Which brings us to the water banking part of the proposal.

AquaHelio wants to inject 200,000 acre feet a year of "excess" LADWP water into the Fremont Valley aquifer and return it per the utility's needs.

If LADWP banked the full 200,000 acre feet a year for several years without making a withdrawal, Morton said, AquaHelio might need to pump out more native groundwater to make room.

•••

Again, couple of problems.

LADWP doesn't have excess water.

The LA Aqueduct's total capacity is 215,000 acre feet and all that water is used for ongoing city needs, according to an LADWP engineer.

AquaHelio's banking proposal would also have LADWP leave 10 percent of its banked water in the ground. (This is totally different from the 10 percent of water AquaHelio proposes to give to Kern County.)

Why would LADWP give up water when it's advertising all over the place to buy more water?

Well, AquaHelio needs a way to recharge the aquifer so it can pump more water out on the back end.

And if the end game is to sell water south, leaving 20,000 acre feet with AquaHelio would be a small investment by LADWP to reap 90,000 (or even 180,000) acre feet later.

If you're confused, I don't blame you.

Three-card Monte isn't set up so the mark can win.

•••

Aside from my very, very deep skepticism about this project, I don't understand why AquaHelio is seeking Kern's approval at all.

Kern County doesn't have authority over water banking projects. Nor does it have jurisdiction over groundwater, except in cases of out-of-county sales (and even that may be dubious, according to my water lawyer pals).

AquaHelio needs an EIR -- approved by Kern County -- " for another agency to interconnect with us from a water standpoint," Morton said.

A certified EIR makes AquaHelio much more attractive to potential partners or buyers.

I had to wonder, though, if the county doesn't have jurisdiction to stop such projects, how does it have authority to approve them?

Kern Planning official Murphy didn't get back to me on that question.

Morton insisted my fears were misplaced.

All the water will be metered and monitored, he said. The company is even seeking to create a joint powers authority made up of local leaders and water districts, overseen by Kern County, to ensure water is flowing only where it should. It's even promised to give Kern County $100,000 a year to hire someone to oversee it all.

Yet another bribe?

"The people will be protected," Morton said. "I've seen 'Chinatown.'"

So have I.

Big money got all the water and Jake got the shaft.

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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