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Friday, Feb 28 2014 05:58 PM

District rakes in $14 million from water auction

BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

A local water district will make close to $14 million from selling 12,000 acre feet of its water to other Kern County growers left dry by California's drought.

The water will go to four Kern County agricultural operations per requirements set out by Buena Vista Water Storage District.

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Starrh & Starrh, $1,250 paf -- 1,000 af, total $1.25 million

Starrh & Starrh, $1,200 paf -- 1,000 af, total $1.2 million

Primex, $1,200 paf -- 1,100 af, total $1.32 million

Horizon Nut, $1,175 paf -- 250 af, total $293,750

Starrh & Starrh, $1,150 paf -- 1,000 af, total $1.15 million

Starrh & Starrh, $1,100 paf -- 714 af, total $785,600

Paramount Farming, $1,100 paf -- 7,142 af, total $7.856 million

AF sold: 12,206

Total: $13,855,350

Average price paf: $1,135

af = acre foot

paf = per acre foot

NOTE: Starrh & Starrh and Paramount are both part of the Belridge Water Storage District.

Primex is in Lost Hills Water District.

Horizon Nut is in Berrenda Mesa Water District.

Paramount Farming will get the bulk of the water, 7,142 acre feet, for which it will pay nearly $8 million.

Starrh & Starrh Farms will get 3,714 acre feet from four separate bids for a total of $4.38 million.

Primex Farms will get 1,100 acre feet for $1.32 million and Horizon Nut will get 250 acre feet for $293,750.

All the bids are pending contracts to be OK'd by the growers' water districts.

Buena Vista generated headlines and a lot of interest from water users up and down the state last month when it announced it would auction off the water.

The minimum bid price was set at $600 per acre foot, about three times what growers usually pay for state water.

Ultimately, 50 bids came in, with nearly 20 at $1,000 per acre foot or higher. In all, the bids reflected a need for more than 63,000 acre feet of water.

The highest bid was $1,350 per acre foot for 300 acre feet, or $405,000 from Harris Ranch.

Buena Vista initially accepted that bid but then learned Harris intended to use the water on local lands but also in an exchange with Westlands Water District in Fresno County.

"We said if that's what you're going to do, we can't approve the bid," said Maurice Etchechury, general manager of Buena Vista.

The district wanted the water used in Kern but also didn't want it to be used in exchanges that might keep other water out of Kern, Etchechury explained.

Harris ended up withdrawing its bid.

Buena Vista plans to use part of the proceeds from the auction to pay for a land fallowing program within its district. It has offered to pay farmers $400 per acre not to farm this year to reduce demand on the aquifer.

It had hoped to be able to fallow 4,000 to 5,000 acres.

The district ended up getting applications for 11,000 acres, Etchechury said.

After weeding through all the applications, he said, it looks like about 7,500 acres are eligible for the fallowing program, which could cost the district $3 million.

Not all the land was eligible, Etchechury said.

"Some people tried to enroll land that wasn't even in the district," he said. "And there was some land that had never been farmed."

The object was to take land out of production that would otherwise have been farmed this year.

Buena Vista's board of directors will sift through the applicants and make the final decision on which lands it will pay to fallow.

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