Lois Henry

Tuesday, May 20 2014 06:24 PM

LOIS HENRY: It’s time for water conservation measures

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

It’s way past time for the City of Bakersfield to call for some kind of mandatory water conservation measures.

Even a small effort would be better than the city's current head-in-the-sand stance.

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Water contract

The contract being proposed tonight is for up to $385,000 to secure a specific water supply. But the money wouldn’t be used to purchase actual water. It’s to pay pumping costs for water that the city already bought and was socked away underground by the Kern County Water Agency’s Improvement District 4 (ID4) division on behalf of the city.

ID4 runs a water treatment plant that supplies drinking water to a number of purveyors, including the city. The city is concerned about having enough water this summer for its customers in the northwest portion of the Rosedale area. So, it’s calling on that banked water from ID4. Pulling that water up will cost about $75 per acre foot.

The contract before the council tonight would provide enough money for ID4 to pump up to 5,000 acre feet, if needed. The city may not need that much as the snow melts bring a slightly larger trickle to the Kern River.

The city typically sends its Kern River water to ID4. As more river water is available, it will send that to ID4, which will reduce the need to pump and the city’s costs, Water Resources Manager Art Chianello said.

“We’re calling (the contract) a contingency plan,” he said.

The city has its own banked water supply in the 2800 Acres Water Bank and Chianello said the city is pumping from that bank as well as other domestic wells.

But the pipeline to get the water to the Rosedale area is too small, making it difficult to get the needed amount to homes on demand. The city plans to put in a larger pipeline during the Rosedale widening project, he said.

Meanwhile, contracting with ID4 for the banked groundwater was the cheapest, most efficient option to make sure homes have an adequate supply.

The contract would expire in December 2014.

Especially considering the council is poised to approve spending up to $385,000 for a water supply from the Kern County Water Agency at its meeting tonight.

Wait ... what?

That’s right, nearly $400k to secure a “contingency” water supply despite the fact that the city’s position has always been that it has plenty of water.

Soooooo, why the big bucks for a water supply from another agency?

The answer is typically complicated (see sidebar). It is water, after all.

But the bottom line is that city water managers are scrambling to find ways to shore up supplies in order to meet demand.  That’s not an insignificant tidbit and the City Council needs to pay attention. The contract being proposed tonight is a prudent move by the Water Resources Department in response to realities on the ground — we are bone dry.

But it’s not enough.

Council members need to start the ball rolling — now — for a water conservation ordinance. Giving residents water-wise tips and asking them, please, to conserve isn’t cutting it.

In fact, Cal Water customers (about 50 percent of Bakersfield water customers) are using more water per capita this year than last, according to Rudy Valles, district manager for the Bakersfield office.

“I’m probably committing a sin by bringing it up, but we need to start talking about an ordinance,” Valles told me.

An ordinance can be as simple or draconian as council members like. But until the city gets serious about water, residents don’t think they have to worry.
And they do.

We have nearly zero surface water this year. The State Water Project is only delivering 5 percent of its promised allocations. And the Kern River is down to 19 percent of its average flow, making it one of the driest years for the river in recorded history. That means everyone is pulling on the aquifer and groundwater levels are dropping fast.

Cal Water has had to lower the pumps in 11 wells so far and has seven more to do. The city is lowering pumps in six to 10 of its wells, according to Water Resources Manager Art Chianello.

If the water table drops drastically this summer Chianello said the city could institute emergency measures, but that would be a policy decision for council members and the City Manager.

We should not wait for this emergency to come to us.

Since the city has never done any rationing or mandatory conservation, it likely doesn’t have the resources to enforce emergency restrictions. It would take a massive media campaign and personnel to respond to complaints and enforce fines or water shut-offs.

You can’t go from 0 to 60 in a day, or even a week, on something as complicated as changing people’s water habits. Council members need to get to work on this now.

This is an actual real issue. (As opposed to panhandlers who are apparently upsetting the bourgeoisie with their insufferable poverty and pesky constitutional right to freedom of speech ... but I digress.)

I will say, however, that this epically dry year is an argument in favor of the city’s plan to run water down the Kern River bed that it had been selling to ag water districts.

Had we been doing so regularly, instead of just when there was a dribble to spare, our aquifer could easily withstand a few drought years without sending water managers scrambling to keep taps flowing.

But that’s a story for another day.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or lhenry@bakersfield.com. Her column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.

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