Lois Henry

Saturday, Dec 14 2013 09:01 PM

LOIS HENRY: How water from Kern grows sprawl in Madera

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

So, a pile of water banked in Kern County is being used to support a massive urban development in Madera County.

Before you try and wrap your head around how that's geographically possible, there's the whole question of whether the banked water (and other water slated for the project) even can be used for that purpose.

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Then let's tack on whether it's cool that public resources are being used throughout this deal to basically benefit private businesses.

I swear when I started this I just wondered how the water would "move" up to Madera.

Why can't anything ever be simple?

 

Let's start in Madera County.

A 2,000-acre development called Gateway Village was proposed way back in the 1990s by Castle & Cooke as a "master planned" community of more than 6,500 homes with parks, commercial space, etc., in the southeast corner of the county just north of Children's Hospital Central California along Highway 41.

The taps and toilets for all that urbanization will require more than 6,300 acre-feet of water a year, according to Gateway's environmental documents. (Imagine 6,300 football fields each covered with a foot of water -- it's a lot).

Of course, the question is where will that water come from?

The development is in the Root Creek Water District, formed a little before Gateway Village was first proposed. It covers about 9,200 acres and is home to citrus and grape farming.

Root Creek's groundwater is severely overdrafted and the district has no other surface supplies.

The district is not a contractor within the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), which moves water through the Friant-Kern Canal from Millerton Lake north of Fresno to the Arvin-Edison Water District in Kern County.

Gateway developers came up with a plan under which Root Creek would buy "excess" water from the neighboring Madera Irrigation District, which is a CVP contractor, and from the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the CVP.

Both of those supplies are described as "when available" in Gateway's documents.

Considering the vagaries of Mother Nature, the Madera County Board of Supervisors wasn't comfortable with that and sent Root Creek/Gateway out to look for a backup supply of water.

They found it in Kern County.

 

First, a quick stop in Tulare County.

That's where the Root Creek "backup" water originates.

It's owned by Paramount Citrus Association, one of the many companies owned by billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick.

Paramount owns Rayo Ranch in Tulare County, which has rights to 9,000 acre-feet a year of Kaweah River water.

Paramount doesn't use all its Rayo water, so, for years, has moved some of it through the CVP system to other Paramount lands.

Like Root Creek, Paramount is not a CVP contractor. It has to partner with Tulare Irrigation District, which is a CVP contractor, to move that Rayo water.

Paramount releases its Rayo water to Tulare Irrigation, which, in turn, sends a like amount of water down the Friant-Kern Canal to the North Kern Water Storage District here in Kern County. North Kern isn't a CVP contractor but has access to the Friant-Kern Canal.

In order to use the CVP system, Paramount had to have an "environmental assessment" (EA) approved by the Bureau of Reclamation.

In that EA, it very clearly states that the Rayo water is only to be used for farming and groundwater recharge.

It also states the water cannot be used in such a way that would trigger any land use changes, such as from ag to urban.

 

OK, so now, much of that Rayo water is banked in North Kern, where Paramount is a huge landowner. Paramount also bought some water from the Nickel family and has it banked in North Kern.

Here's where Root Creek comes in.

In 2009, another Resnick company, the Westside Mutual Water Company, made a deal with North Kern to pull some of that banked Paramount water out and give it to neighboring Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District for ultimate delivery to Root Creek in Madera.

The deal is phased, starting at 3,500 acre-feet of water per year up to a maximum of 7,000 acre-feet, if needed.

Shafter-Wasco is a CVP contractor so it can take that Paramount water and have the Bureau of Reclamation release a like amount of water from Millerton Lake to the Madera Irrigation District.

Madera Irrigation would then deliver it to Root Creek through two turns-outs soon to be constructed on the federally owned Madera Canal.

Again, all those swaps, including constructing the turnouts, had to pass muster with the Bureau of Reclamation in an EA.

And, again, the Bureau EA clearly states that the Paramount (Westside Mutual) water and any water Root Creek buys directly from Madera Irrigation or the Bureau is to be used only for ag or groundwater recharge.

It can't be used in a manner that results in land use changes -- ag to urban.

But that's exactly what this water will do. That's what it's intended to do. That was the whole point of this long, elaborate deal.

 

I asked the Bureau about that.

First, I confirmed that, yes, the Bureau did put those ag-only limitations on all the water movements involved in this deal and that the water cannot be used for "M and I" (municipal and industrial).

The Bureau does follow up on these deals annually but mostly to make sure the right amount of water is being moved to the correct recipients.

It's up to Root Creek to tell the Bureau how it used the water.

Um.

My guess, backed up by what Root Creek's attorney told me, is Root Creek will simply say the water was used for groundwater recharge per the Bureau's limitations.

End of story.

Of course that's not the end of the story because the water will have been pumped right back out and put into the taps and toilets of Gateway Village, as was the intent all along.

 

I'm not arguing against Gateway Village. It may be the greatest piece of leap frog development ever to grace the fertile fields of Madera County.

That's not the point.

The point is that taxpayers, who built and own the CVP system, seem to be giving quite an assist to the bottom lines of two private enterprises.

Oh, and Root Creek was also awarded a $4 million grant from the State Department of Water Resources to help pay for those turnouts on the Madera Canal in order to curb the district's severe groundwater overdraft.

All of which makes me wonder, what's in it for us?

The owners of Gateway Village (Castle & Cooke sold it in 2010 to unnamed investors) aren't going to give the Bureau a cut of every lot they sell.

And Paramount/Westside Mutual certainly isn't going to share any of the loot it makes off selling water to Root Creek.

 

The loot, by the way, could be pretty substantial.

Paramount/Westside Mutual has spent at least $2.6 million up front to sink four wells and build pipelines between North Kern and Shafter-Wasco and pay both districts "stand by" fees for the water.

But companies appear to have made about $3.5 million back from Root Creek, which has been paying $180 per acre-foot a year for the last five years for Paramount/Westside Mutual to hold its water in reserve.

If Root Creek ever needs the water, the price will go up by $420 per acre-foot for a total of $600 per acre-foot.

 

I gleaned most of those figures by scouring through agreements with the ag districts and talking to district managers and the attorney for Root Creek.

I would have liked to get a more accurate picture of the finances involved but Paramount/Westside Mutual wasn't talking.

"We're a private company," I was told by Westside Mutual President Bill Phillimore. "I don't think there's any advantage to us participating in this story."

Yeah, and that's what concerns me.

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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