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By The Bakersfield Californian
Q: Do the power companies along the Kern River pay any kind of rent or royalty to the county for facilities? Is the river and land for power generation free to them? Isabella Lake is so low, not touching the dam, must the river continue to flow for them (the power companies)? if so, what a sweet deal whether in good water years or bad.
-- Robert Lewy
A: Current and former officials with the Bakersfield Water Resources Department fielded this one together:
The power generating facilities pay nothing to the county or city or anybody other than some small fees they may pay to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the permit renewal process.
In a sense, the river is "free" for them to use (not consume) in the generation of electricity. Prior to the construction of the Isabella Dam(s), the four plants that were operating before Isabella had the ability to divert through their plants whatever was available in the unregulated river. Each plant had designed flow rates unique to that particular plant.
Meaning, the plants were built to make power on a certain amount of flow.
Subsequent to Isabella, the power companies retained flow rights (an exception is the one plant above the lake and therefore unaffected by Isabella).
The plants were there first, built in the early 1900s, and their rights were honored by the Army Corps of Engineers and by default, the downstream water rights holders. The later plants, Isabella Power and the Olcese plant, have no rights to flows other than what is in the river on any particular day.
Those plants can't get more or less water from the Corps as the other plants can by pre-established rights.
Most if not all plants own the ground they are built on. They're not leased or rented. One exception: the Isabella plant within the Main Dam, which is owned by the feds.
Yes, the river is to continue to flow to two of the plants, Borel and KR#1 (the PG&E plant has a loosely worded requirement, but it is lower than KR#1) even in low water years. Sometimes, in years like 2013, the Corps negotiates with the power company (SCE) to relieve flow obligations from Isabella by paying the power company "avoided cost" payments. (The cost the utility would incur if it were to generate or purchase power from another source because it couldn't make power off the river).
The downstream users end up paying these costs in the annual operation and maintenance fees from the Corps. That usually is cheaper than the cost to resurrect the Borel canal in the reservoir, via dredging, sand dams and such, plus new federal and state regulations on sediment transport and water quality. Generally, the KR#1 plant gets its flows as the avoided cost is much higher.
Ask TBC appears on Mondays. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to The Bakersfield Californian, c/o Christine Bedell, P.O. Bin 440, Bakersfield, CA 93302.