Lois Henry

Saturday, Feb 01 2014 08:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: High prices mean thirsty water districts will have to dig deep

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

I applaud a local agricultural water district's innovative thinking on a new program aimed at bolstering local water supplies while simultaneously reducing the pull on groundwater.

But -- yowser! -- the price tag.

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Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Buena Vista Water Storage District is offering to sell other Kern County ag water districts up to 12,000 acre feet of its stored water for a minimum price of $600 an acre foot.

That is pretty steep for ag water.

Considering the crisis ag is facing locally, one might even use the term "gouging" for a price like that.

For comparison, State Water Project water costs about $120 to $200 an acre foot in a year when contractors can get their average allotment.

I understand this isn't an average year --the state just announced it would be deliver zero percent of water allocations. But still, $600 an acre foot for ag is high.

Especially when you understand that water districts still have to pay 100 percent of their state water capital costs, regardless of how much state water they actually receive, or don't.

For example, Kern Delta Water District should get an average of 12,000 to 15,000 acre feet a year, for which it pays $2 million.

Under the current zero-percent situation, though, the district gets nothing but still has to pay $1.5 million in capital costs. That's for the facilities and upkeep on things like pumps, canals, valves, etc., that make up the State Water Project. Districts get a small break in that they don't have to pay for the power to move the water through the California Aqueduct.

Without any state water, Kern Delta farmers will rely on what little Kern River water there is this year, and groundwater.

"When my guys can pump for $50 to $100 an acre foot, no one has any interest in paying $600 an acre foot," Mark Mulkay, Kern Delta's general manager, told me of his view on the Buena Vista water.

I'm also not so keen on the bidding process Buena Vista is using. Seems like a way to drive the price up even further through desperation. Why not just set a price and sell, even at $600?

When I brought up the champagne price to Buena Vista's general manager, Maurice Etchechury, he explained that the water sale is just part of a larger overall program.

The district is also offering to pay its farmers $400 an acre to fallow their land this year. The district is hoping to fallow 4,000 to 5,000 acres this year but won't know until later this week how many farmers are interested.

The idea is to reduce demand on the aquifer during an historically dry year when many others, such as farmers in Kern Delta, will be heavily reliant on groundwater.

To pay the farmers, Buena Vista needs to sell water.

"It helps fund that program and will help us in the future with other programs on the books," Etchechury said. That includes more water banking, installing pipelines to move water without evaporation losses, districtwide meters, etc.

"We're responding to a call from the (Kern County Water) Agency," Etchechury said. "They want people to be creative and generate more water locally to help people out."

Like I said, I applaud the idea.

And even though the water was only offered for sale to Kern County ag water districts, I wondered how Buena Vista could ensure it wasn't sold again out of county.

"I can't be sure," Etchechury said. "That's the responsibility of the Agency, which has a policy against water leaving the county."

KCWA indeed has a policy that if water leaves Kern it has to be part of a program that will, ultimately, be a net benefit to county.

Such as, if you sell water to, say, the Coachella Valley, you have to show, first, that you're not taking out more groundwater than you're putting in, commonly known as overdraft. And, second, that the money will be used to bring in more water than you sold.

Hmmm. That's a good policy if it's iron- clad. It isn't. Or at least it hasn't been.

I could say I hate to keep bringing this up, but I don't -- the Nickel water. That's 10,000 acre feet the Nickel family got from KCWA in a convoluted deal back in 2001. The Nickels have sold that water up and down the state ever since, with 10 percent of every sale going to KCWA.

There's no net gain to the county, unless you count KCWA's 10 percent, which I do not.

But I digress.

Etchechury is probably right. In a year like this, it's hard to imagine KCWA letting a single drop out of the basin.

And, compared with overall need, 12,000 acre feet is barely a drop in the bucket, Etchechury said.

Even so, since Buena Vista put its water on the market two weeks ago, interest has been intense. Kinda scary intense.

The giant Westlands Water District in western Fresno County called asking if Buena Vista would sell out of county, promising to make it worth Buena Vista's while.

"I said, no, that is not our intent," Etchechury said. "They said they would pay a lot of money, a lot."

He wouldn't tell me how much "a lot" was.

However much it was, Etchechury said this water is for Kern County.

"We want to help people here."

The deadline for bids is Wednesday.

I guess we'll have to wait till then to see how desperate Kern districts are for that water.

Stay tuned.

 

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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