Local News

Friday, Jul 02 2010 06:52 PM

Environmentalists sue to stop water banking

BY LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

Another lawsuit focusing on Kern County's groundwater was filed Friday.

It joins three others recently filed in Sacramento and Kern County that jointly call into question ownership of the massive Kern Water Bank and how that bank and one other operates.

This latest suit, against the Kern County Water Agency, is phase two of a previous action filed against the state Department of Water Resources by a coalition of environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Center's basic allegation in both lawsuits is that the state illegally gifted public property to a private entity when it gave the Kern Water Bank to the Agency as part of what was known as the Monterey Agreements. The Agency then gave the bank to a public entity known as the Kern Water Bank Authority, made up of the Agency and several local agricultural water districts.

The lawsuits seek to stop all banking operations, have the bank revert to state ownership and have all the money ever earned by the bank given back to the state, according to Adam Keats, an attorney for the Center.

He didn't know how much that could be, but considering the massive amounts of water that have moved through the bank, it would be substantial.

Besides the Kern Water Bank Authority and the Agency, the suit also names all the districts that own the authority and several specific corporations that control those districts, including Paramount Farming, Roll International and Tejon Ranch Company.

The next step is for the Center's group to file public notices in several newspapers, which will open the process for interested parties to join the lawsuit on either side.

A Kern Water Bank Authority representative could not be reached for comment and the Agency had not yet seen the lawsuit.

Tom Clark, the former general manager of the Agency who helped forge the Monterey Agreement, wasn't surprised by the recent lawsuits.

The Monterey Agreement was prompted by Kern County after a terrible drought that lasted from 1986 to 1994, he explained.

"We were threatening to litigate because we were taking all the shortages (rather than cities sharing in the shortages equally)," he said.

Instead of going to court, the agricultural and municipal contractors on the State Water Project agreed to a set of principles including that all shortages would be shared equally.

The Kern Water Bank, which the state hadn't been able to get past the planning stages at that time, was also thrown into the negotiations, Clark recalled. Kern's ag water districts all agreed to give up 40,000 acre feet of their state water allotments in exchange for the Agency taking over the water bank.

"Yes, we made a good deal, but we had to give up water to get it and it was in bad shape, we didn't really know what we were getting," Clark said.

The Planning Conservation League sued over the deal and eventually settled.

But Clark said he always expected another suit.

"They (environmental groups) never really put it aside. It was just a matter of when," he said.

Meanwhile, two other suits are brewing locally over how the Kern Water Bank and the Pioneer Project groundwater bank, owned by the Agency, have been operated.

Rosedale Rio-Bravo Water Storage district filed the lawsuits alleging that both entities have pulled water out too fast, damaging Rosedale's groundwater table.

Those suits were filed in Kern County but are awaiting a change of venue, according to Rosedale General Manager Eric Averett.

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