Lois Henry

Wednesday, Aug 01 2012 03:00 AM

LOIS HENRY: A good water idea bubbles up right here in Kern

By Lois Henry

The biggest water news flash recently may have been the governor's pledge to use tunnels to keep Sacramento River water flowing south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

But that doesn't mean it was the most important, or even realistic, turn of the faucet.

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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.

The state already requires at least some level of groundwater monitoring through its recently established CASGEM, or California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring, Program.

At some point all information collected under this program will be "made readily and widely available to the public," according to the CASGEM website.

I see nothing on their website yet, but you can stay tuned here:

http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/pdfs/CASGEM_Brochure2-What%20is%20CASGEM.pdf

The Kern Groundwater Management Committee doesn't have a regular meeting scheduled yet. But when it does meet, the public can attend.

I think a homegrown effort that's quietly been chugging along for the past two years is one of the wisest, long-term exercises Kern's water folks can engage in.

On the surface, it seems so simple that it makes you wonder why we haven't done this already.

Agricultural and urban water districts are working on a plan to monitor the valley portion of Kern County's groundwater basin.

How much groundwater do we have? How much are we using? How much are we putting back?

The group, the Kern Groundwater Management Committee, hopes to use that information for better management of this precious resource in order to "maintain local control and provide long-term surety for all basin users," according to its objective statement.

"We're trying to show the state that we are managing the basin, thank you very much, so the state doesn't come in and try to manage it for us," said Mark Mulkay, general manager of Kern Delta Water District, a member of the groundwater steering committee.

There aren't any laws or regulations, per se, that would let the state take over our water basin, according to Eric Averett, general manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District. But locals say they can see the handwriting on the wall.

Several pieces of legislation passed in recent years are nibbling around the edges of a state-run monitoring and management program, Averett said.

"We're trying to head that off."

The committee is still deciding what information to gather, in what mode and how to present it in a consistent, useful manner.

Though Averett hopes to have a first report out at the end of this year, everyone agrees that's a very aggressive timeline.

If you're wondering why they can't just get all the ag and urban water districts to pony up that information, you should know nothing in water is ever that simple.

First, Averett had to get all the water folks to even agree this was something worth pursuing. Then he had to calm fears that they would be told how to manage their own groundwater supplies.

No easy feat considering the history here.

The late legendary deal maker Tom Clark of the Kern County Water Agency tried and about 10 years ago to get a basin-wide groundwater agreement.

He failed badly.

His approach was much different. In typical Clark fashion, he wanted to lay out all the disagreements, get those settled first and then work up an agreement to move forward.

All that led to were interminable bouts of finger pointing, Mulkay remembered.

There was also a suspicion that districts flush with water would be forced to contribute to districts in groundwater deficit.

Needless to say, the effort crashed and burned, Mulkay said.

This time around two things are different.

Districts are united by a common enemy -- the state (or at least the fear of state intervention, which is just as motivating).

And an assurance written into the guiding principles of the committee that water transfers between districts would only be done based on "free market forces." Meaning, if District A has extra water and District B needs it, District B better come up with some cash, Averett explained.

"And there's an awareness that what each of us does, affects the other," he said of greater district cooperation this time around.

That actually makes Averett's position as facilitator of this effort quite interesting since his district sued two other districts over groundwater issues.

Toward the end of the 2007-2009 drought, Rosedale complained to the Kern Water Bank and Kern County Water Agency that they were pulling their banked ground water out so fast, it was sucking away Rosedale's groundwater.

No one was willing to talk then so Rosedale sued. Those two complaints have now been put on hold as the three parties have agreed recently to try and settle their differences.

What Rosedale wants from the Kern Water Bank and Kern County Water Agency sounds very similar to what the groundwater committee is trying to achieve.

"We are seeking responsible operation in the groundwater basin from all parties," Averett said.

Hmmm. Not a bad idea.

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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