Lois Henry

Wednesday, Apr 10 2013 02:00 AM

LOIS HENRY: Delta tunnel plans have water districts on edge

By Lois Henry

As details of the governor's plan to run water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta through twin tunnels continue to emerge, water districts in Kern that rely on that state water are having to make some tough decisions.

Some districts, including Kern Delta Water District, have already opted out of the planning phase, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), after having spent hundreds of thousands thus far on studies without any guarantee of more water or even just a certain supply.

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Other districts are having to dig deeper and lean on farmers to stay in the game.

For growers in the sprawling Semitropic Water Storage District in northwestern Kern, the options could include two new assessments that would add up to an extra $100 per acre of irrigated land, according to General Manager Jason Gianquinto.

The first $50 assessment would go toward debt and rebuilding reserves that have been used to pay operational costs as unstable state water supplies have taken a toll on the district's finances, Gianquinto said.

The second $50 assessment would pay for a long-term water solution that would involve BDCP, he added.

The district's landowners would have to approve the assessments in a special election. Semitropic's board will vote today on whether to put the question to landowners and when to schedule the election.

Semitropic isn't the only district going to growers for assessment increases. Buena Vista Water Storage District is as well and I'm hearing rumors of others.

Whatever happens in the delta, it won't come cheap.

BDCP's twin tunnels, if approved, would be paid for by state water contractors at an estimated cost of $14 billion.

Meanwhile, the costs of unpredictable state water are wearing on districts like Semitropic.

The district had been able to keep its land assessments relatively low, $38.40 per irrigated acre, for many years, Gianquinto said.

That was because the district has operated a massive groundwater banking system that brought water and revenue from large municipal users such as the Metropolitan Water District, which serves hundreds of communities in Southern California.

In really wet years, Gianquinto explained, Semitropic's bankers need the district to store as much water as possible, incurring fees at every "deposit." In dry years, the district makes money by charging to pump that stored water back out.

But in "neutral" years, where contractors get between 40 percent and 60 percent of their contracted allotment, the bank gets neither deposits nor withdrawals, which means fewer fees.

We've had a few years in a row at that level and this year, the state is predicting it will deliver 30 percent of contracted amounts, Gianquinto said.

"Our clients have enough water to get through this year," Gianquinto said. "If it goes beyond this, they will have to call on the bank to get water."

The problem isn't just California's notoriously fickle weather, he said. The problem is how the state is operating the system.

"In 2011, we should have had a 100 percent allocation," he said. "But because of the biological opinions on smelt and salmon, we only got 80 percent."

Declining populations of the endangered delta smelt salmon have meant pumping in the south end of the delta has been severely curtailed or ceased altogether.

Critics have said farmers brought these problems on themselves by using state water that was intended only to shore up groundwater to open up more farmland. An increase in permanent crops such as orchards and vineyards has only exacerbated water shortages because those can't be plowed under in dry years.

Gianquinto agreed that, like many other districts, Semitropic's demand has "hardened" in recent years, though it hasn't grown.

To try and head off more acreage going to permanent crops, Semitropic instituted a fallowing program in 2000 and has since purchased about 6,000 acres to keep the land from going to permanent crops.

It's an innovative program that other district officials said is unique in Kern.

Water banking was seen as a good way to moderate the feast-or-famine nature of California water. And it's helped keep groundwater levels in Kern from collapsing, Gianquinto said.

But it's not a profit making venture, he said.

"Our program is very infrastructure intense and that means a lot of debt service," he said. And that requires a steady stream of revenue.

I asked Gianquinto how Semitropic growers were reacting to the proposed assessments and he paused.

"Well, they're not high-fiving each other out there, but they all recognize the issues we're facing in the delta."

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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