Lois Henry

Saturday, May 15 2010 06:45 PM

LOIS HENRY: Dry wells prompt groundwater lawsuit

By Lois Henry

Most people couldn't care less about the complexities of water, who owns it, how it's used and where it goes.

As long they turn on the tap and get water, they're cool.

Well, a lot of folks northwest of town are no longer cool. In fact they're pretty hot.

That's because an ever-increasing number of landowners in the Rosedale Rio-Bravo Water Storage District are watching their wells go dry.

Suddenly, those water complexities have become all-consuming.

So when Rosedale Rio-Bravo had a landowner's meeting at the Doubletree hotel Thursday afternoon, a lot of angry people showed up to sift through those complexities.

The bottom line, according to Rosedale Rio-Bravo General Manager Eric Averett, is that Kern County's much vaunted water banking projects in the Kern River fan area are sucking out water too fast, draining Rosedale's groundwater.

The water version of "I drink your milkshake," for fans of the film, "There Will Be Blood," the historical drama about the early oil industry in Kern.

After showing a bunch of graphs and charts that bolstered the district's position, Averett let it drop that Rosedale Rio-Bravo would file a lawsuit the next day.

And they did.

The crowd supported the lawsuit and so do I.

But make no mistake, this is the beginning of major groundwater wars in Kern County, where groundwater is really the final frontier as far as water goes.

Kern water districts have had a gentleman's agreement on groundwater use up until now. But this lawsuit could open up the can and force an accounting of all the worms.

"I'm hoping it's not the beginning of the groundwater wars," Averett told me.

Right now, the lawsuit only names the Kern County Water Agency as the operator of the Pioneer Project water bank, but Rosedale Rio-Bravo's attorney told me that could change to include the massive Kern Water Bank.

The main points in the lawsuit are that Pioneer is taking out water too fast, isn't adhering to agreements it entered into with adjoining landowners to cause no harm to their groundwater supplies and has failed to meet California Environmental Quality Act requirements when it increased the number of its pumps.

But there's an even larger philosophical question of whether the banks have now become main water suppliers rather than the back-up supply they were intended to become when they were created in the 1990s.

Forcing a new environmental review could have far-reaching effects.

At least one contentious development, the Tejon Mountain Village, was approved with the understanding that it would be able to tap into water it has stored in both Pioneer and the Kern Water Bank should its State Water Project supplies dry up.

At the meeting Thursday, landowners were furious at the idea that Kern's groundwater, their groundwater, might be going "over the hill" for Southern California suburbs at their expense.

"It's morally corrupt," one man said.

"I can't help but think of the Owens Valley," John Ackland added. "They're draining us dry."

But Averett said after two years of meetings and letters and pleas to talk about how Pioneer and Kern Water Bank were operating, Rosedale Rio-Bravo had no choice but to sue.

When he has repeatedly told the Kern County Water Agency of his concerns, Averett said, he's received no response or a response of "prove it."

Kern County Water Agency General Manager Jim Beck disputed that's been the agency's stance saying the agency has been working to understand the impacts, if any, of the banking projects on neighboring property.

"We're very sympathetic to landowners," Beck said. "But the difficulty is at this point, Rosedale hasn't identified any specific impacts to wells caused by the projects."

Groundwater reports commissioned by Rosedale Rio-Bravo and generated by the city show that historic mounding of groundwater under the Kern River channel has, in the last three years, changed to become a trough. That means groundwater is now running in toward the channel from neighboring land, such as Rosedale Rio-Bravo.

They both blame that change on more water being sucked out by banking projects that overlie the Kern River channel.

I asked Beck about that mounding/trough issue.

"Groundwater levels in the Kern ran are very dynamic," he said. "Our perspective is when you're looking at the impacts versus the benefits of the projects, we believe greater benefits continue to accrue to the basin overall."

Once this lawsuit gets going, I guess we'll find out for certain.

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

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