Lois Henry

Saturday, Feb 08 2014 06:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Count on every drop of water being counted these days

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

Water deals that rarely, if ever, got noticed before are coming under a lot more scrutiny as supplies tighten.

And not by regulators or yours truly.

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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.

It's the agricultural water world itself that's putting nearly every movement of every drop under the microscope these days.

Take for instance a recently proposed sale of between 2,000 to 4,000 acre feet of groundwater to Kern growers by Jim Nickel. He would pump it from his Rio Bravo lands near the mouth of the canyon.

That's not a lot of water given the need out there, but you'd still think Nickel's offer would be met with sighs of relief, even a pat on the back.

Nooooooo.

You're pumping groundwater? From where, exactly?

Moving it how?

Selling to whom?

You've done this in the past? When? And how'd it work then?

Those were just some of the questions Nickel's proposed sale was met with, particularly from the "river interests," or groups that have Kern River rights.

Then there's the whole issue of whether it's OK for a landowner to move groundwater outside the basin where it originated without some kind of legal permission.

In California, groundwater isn't regulated. But according to the state constitution all groundwater is "owned" by the state to be managed for the benefit of the public.

Overlying landowners have use of the groundwater but that's limited to "reasonable" use on overlying lands. Meaning, they're not supposed to suck up all the water and leave their neighbors high and dry.

Groundwater can be "appropriated," or used outside the basin, according case law. But appropriative rights are secondary to overlying rights.

Either way, selling it out of the basin to other growers would seem to indicate the landowner doesn't have a need, reasonable or otherwise, for the water on his overlying lands.

So, does the state need to issue a permit for such a sale?

"That's not our call," said Mark Mulkay, general manager of Kern Delta Water District, which has the first rights to Kern River Water. "I just asked the question."

Mulkay and other river interests, including North Kern Water Storage District, Buena Vista Water Storage Districts and the City of Bakersfield had a lot of questions about the sale, mostly along the lines of "How will this affect us?"

I had hoped to talk to Jim Nickel about his proposal. But he didn't return my calls or my email.

Most of the other river interests I spoke with didn't mind the idea of Nickel selling water to help out fellow farmers.

Their biggest concerns were the details.

They wanted to know if the water was good quality and who would take the losses when the water is moved. Any time you move water, there are losses from seepage and evaporation. All that stuff has to be worked out in advance.

And it will be, I was told by Chuck Williams, the Kern River Watermaster. He's the one who oversees any trades or exchanges involving the river so that everyone is satisfied that everyone else has played fair.

None of the river group members were interested in buying the Nickel water.

It will most likely go to growers in western Kern, where state water has been cut off completely this year.

"I think this is something we'll be seeing more of as individuals and districts look for ways to be creative and move water where it's most needed," Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, said of the proposed Nickel sale.

In fact, he said, the agency is talking with the Nickel family to find a way to keep another 10,000 acre feet of water owned by the Nickels in Kern this year.

That's water the Nickels have through a complicated deal with the agency done back in 2001. The agency bought the Nickel's so-called "lower river right " for $10 million. The lower river right averages 50,000 acre feet a year, but only during high flow years. The agency got the bulk of that water.

As part of the deal, the Nickels retained 10,000 acre feet a year from their right, deliverable by the agency. That water has been sold to developers and will be used for the Newhall Ranch subdivision in Santa Clarita and various developments that Tejon Ranch has planned. Those developments, however, are years out.

"We're working on a mechanism to possibly keep that water here this year," Beck said.

That's great news. In a year like this, every drop counts.

And, apparently, every drop will be counted.

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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