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Thursday, Mar 13 2014 07:15 PM

Urban water forum talks supply, conservation, innovation

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Most of the information presented at a forum of urban water purveyors held Thursday at Bakersfield City Hall was not new.

Nevertheless, bringing all the data together under one roof may have given water managers, city leaders and members of the public a more comprehensive understanding of metro Bakersfield's water outlook in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the city's history.

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Information from the Kern County Water Agency

In estimating the amount of water banked in underground storage, the agency noted that it maintains accounts for the following water banking projects:

* Pioneer Property

* City of Bakersfield 2,800 Acre Recharge Facility

* Berrenda Mesa Joint Water Banking Project

* Kern Water Bank

The estimated summary of banked water for the above projects.

As of Dec. 31, 2012: 1.7 million acre feet

As of Dec. 31, 2013: 1.46 million acre feet

(One acre-foot is 325,850 gallons of water, or enough water to cover a football field at 1-foot deep.)

Roughly, what portion of that water is set aside for municipal water use? Is a portion of it owned or controlled by agricultural interests? If so, what portion?

For 2013, water managers stored approximately 260,000 acre-feet of water on behalf of Improvement District No. 4, which provides a supplemental drinking water supply to the metropolitan Bakersfield area.

Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District and Tejon-Castac Water District had 6,026 acre-feet and 38,943 acre-feet, respectively. Both of these districts serve agricultural users as well as municipal and industrial suppliers.

What portion of the underground supply went to municipal water purveyors and what portion to agriculture?

In 2013, 271,000 acre-feet of water was recovered by the banking projects for which the agency maintains accounts. Improvement District No. 4 recovered 27,000 acre-feet for municipal and industrial users, and Tehachapi-Cummings recovered 2,122 acre-feet for ag and/or municipal and industrial.

The balance, 241,878 acre-feet was recovered for agricultural purposes in 2013. However, this number may be greater depending on how much Tehachapi-Cummings designated for agricultural purposes.

Source: Kern County Water Agency

Note: The total volume of banked water reported above reflects further refinement to the higher rough estimates provided by the agency over the past several months.

The purpose of the meeting, said City Councilman Russell Johnson, who organized and hosted the nearly two-hour forum, was "to share ideas and best practices, and talk about where we are in our urban water supply."

The ag industry, Johnson said to the audience of more than 100, "tends to dominate discussion" of this essential resource. But urban water management, he said -- including management of the area's valuable groundwater basin and promoting domestic water conservation -- is crucial.

The forum featured a discussion panel made up of managers from seven of the city's largest water purveyors, including California Water Service Co.; the city of Bakersfield's Department of Water Resources; Oildale Mutual Water Co.; Greenfield Water District; Vaughn Water Co.; East Niles Community Services District; and Improvement District 4, which is operated by the Kern County Water Agency.

Where urban supply is concerned, none of the purveyors was sounding the alarm.

"The city's water supply is not currently in a crisis," said Art Chianello, Bakersfield's Water Resources Department director.

But it's important, he said, that urban water users look at realistic ways to reduce their water use, especially in the irrigation of lawns and gardens, which represents 60 percent to 70 percent of home water use.

Chianello called outdoor watering "low-hanging fruit" because there are so many easy opportunities to reduce domestic water use by ending the common practice of overwatering.

It was a refrain repeated by all of the water managers: By all means, be water-wise, they said, but don't expect mandatory water rationing in your neighborhood anytime soon as supplies have not fallen to critical levels.

"We will not be requiring mandatory reductions from our customers," said Oildale Mutual's Doug Nunneley.

Per capita water use over the past decade has fallen by as much as 20 percent in some of the districts, managers reported, indicating that many local homeowners are indeed interested in reducing household water use. Low-flow showers, toilets and water-saving appliances and sprinkler systems have surely played a part.

And while 100 percent of Bakersfield's and East Niles' connections, and 93 percent of Vaughn's connections are metered, more that 23,000 of Cal Water's customers remain on a flat-rate system.

Nunneley spoke about his company's use of water patrols to identify and warn water wasters. Egregious examples of water waste may even draw a fine from the company.

Other water professionals in the audience spoke up during a public comment period.

Harry Starkey of the West Kern Water District said he was impressed by the gathering, but emphasized that the southern valley is part of a much larger Tulare Lake groundwater basin, and areas to the north are not as fortunate as Bakersfield in their water outlook and supply.

Indeed, another speaker cited a study that showed over the past 25 years, more than 80 million acre-feet of groundwater storage has been lost in the Tulare Lake basin, a sobering statistic.

For his part, Starkey urged water leaders to work on developing a groundwater management plan -- "with teeth" -- that would include the entire basin.

"Otherwise," he said, "the state may come in and regulate for us."

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