Lois Henry

Saturday, Jan 18 2014 10:34 PM

LOIS HENRY: City should participate in groundwater committee

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

I'm all for better monitoring and managing of Kern County's groundwater.

After all, droughts will come and go, but groundwater is here forever.

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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.

Or, at least, it better be.

So, I applaud the efforts of the fledgling Kern Groundwater Management Committee. But my applause is tempered with caution.

The committee began around 2010 and is just now getting to its toddler stage. Meaning, its members are discussing whether to form a joint powers agreement (JPA). If so, the JPA would be recognized by the state and allowed to create a formal groundwater management plan.

As one might imagine, the committee membership has a large contingent of powerful ag water districts. And that's where my spidey senses warn caution.

Ag water districts can have very different attitudes about water from municipal water districts, which serve regular schmoes like you and me.

Ag districts serve a small number of landowners for whom water is a necessity, but it can also be a commodity to be bought, sold, traded, exchanged, banked -- whatever makes the best business sense.

The sole objective for municipal water districts is to keep the taps flowing in our homes.

Under the JPA the committee is considering, everyone would get an even vote, according to Eric Averett, general manager of Rosedale Rio-Bravo Water Storage District, who's heading the committee efforts.

I wondered how fair that was since municipal districts, specifically the City of Bakersfield, represent far more people than all of the ag districts combined.

The city, by the way, has wondered that as well. That's just one of the reasons it has refrained from "signing on" to the committee, though it regularly sends a representative to all the meetings.

Averett countered that, while the city represents more people, ag districts bring far more water into the county through the federal and state systems. Those efforts recharge the groundwater and benefit urban users at no cost to the city. (I would argue that plenty of us urban users pay for that benefit through our property taxes, under Kern County Water Agency "zones of benefit.")

That aside, Averett said, there's no downside to the city signing on to the committee because its focus is just to gather information. It can't force any members to operate differently from what they're doing today.

"The whole goal of this organization is to come to a common understanding of what's happening in the basin so we can make informed decisions," he said. "We're not requiring anything other than sharing information and engaging in dialogue."

Any management plan created under the JPA would be completely voluntary, he stressed.

He noted that the current situation, where each entity operates based only on information about its small portion of the basin, is potentially far more harmful to all water users, including the city. Besides, given rumblings from the state, the water entities may have no choice but to work together.

California is one of only two states that don't regulate groundwater.

That could change.

The governor's proposed 2014-2015 budget sets aside money for the Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources to begin collecting groundwater information and possibly more.

"The state should protect groundwater basins that are risk of permanent damage when a local agency is unable or unwilling to do so," according to the budget.

What's that mean, exactly?

John Laird, Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, told me the state would likely just provide "guidance" for local districts to follow.

But the state can no longer stay out of groundwater entirely, given reports of land subsidence in the Central Valley and salt intrusion in other basins.

The Kern County water basin is one that's long been considered "overdrafted," though several local water districts report that they are "in balance," or bringing in more water than their landowners use.

Part of what Averett hopes the groundwater committee will do is get an accurate handle on how the aquifer is doing overall and pinpoint areas of overdraft.

Looking at well permits issued by Kern County over the last few years, there's no doubt our aquifer is under increasing pressure. In 2010, 67 ag well permits were issued. That dropped to 50 in 2011 after the big water year. The number went up to 91 in 2012 as we suffered a fairly dry year. Then, last year, a whopping 129 ag well permits were issued as the drought deepened and surface water from the state and feds dried up. So far, this year, 16 well permits have been issued.

Kern County Supervisor David Couch, who served on the city's water board when he was a city councilman, is a member of the groundwater committee and urged the city's full participation.

"The city's a big player in this," he said.

He recognized the city's hesitancy considering some of the committee's members are currently suing the city.

"This is a broad effort," he said. "It's not just the water districts suing the city. There are other districts involved who are, frankly, suing each other as well. But they're all sitting down in an effort to solve problems and specifically avoid the continual overdrafting that takes place."

I agree the city should participate, share information, follow the process closely and represent the public's interests.

But let's not forget that the city has a big, fat wad of Kern River rights that draw ag districts like a pit bull to raw meat.

The city is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with one ag water district to get a chunk of its Kern River water back that the district had used under a 35-year contract. It's also seeking ownership of yet another batch of Kern River water forfeited by a different ag water district.

The city intends to run all that water down the dry Kern River bed through town, giving residents back at least a part of our river -- and, of course, recharging the aquifer from which we drink.

That is very precious cargo that must be closely guarded.

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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