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Wednesday, Feb 05 2014 11:01 PM

MICHAEL TURNIPSEED: The backbone of Kern County's precious economy is at stake

Last week, the California Department of Water Resources cut water deliveries from the State Water Project from 5 percent to zero. This means that water users from the East Bay to southern California, including many in Kern County, can now expect to receive no water from the project in 2014, although they will still be required to pay fixed costs associated with maintenance -- even though they might not get a drop of water.

Except for small amounts of carryover water (water these users saved on their own), project customers will receive no deliveries from the system in 2014 if widespread dry conditions persist. Almost all areas served by the project have other sources -- groundwater, local reservoirs or other supplies -- but the project is the main supply source for many farmers in Kern County and provides water to urban Bakersfield.

In a formal request, the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asked the State Water Resources Control Board to modify requirements for freshwater outflow in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect stored water that may be needed for health and safety needs and to keep cold water upstream for protection of salmon and other species.

The petitioners do not believe there is enough water to meet all obligations under the Water Resources Control Board's "Water Rights Decision 1641," which dictates operation of the water project. Without adjustment, "there exists a substantial risk that by late spring 2014 and into 2015 the project's major reservoirs will be drafted to dead-pool or near-dead-pool levels, at which point reservoir release capacities will be substantially diminished." Dead-pool level refers to when water can no longer be released from a reservoir using gravity.

The petition seeks to minimize adverse impacts to cold water stored in reservoirs for downstream fisheries and to provide some salinity control later in the season. Otherwise, water project operators risk losing ability to control salinity in the Delta. But none of these potential actions are likely to result in a drop of water to project contractors, including the Kern County Water Agency.

This year, the agency will pay the Department of Water Resources $80 million without any water deliveries. That's right: Local taxpayers will be paying for nothing, though this is nothing new. Since its inception in 1960, the water project has required the creation of 21 dams and more than 700 miles of canals, pipelines and tunnels, although these constitute only a fraction of the facilities originally proposed. The project has only delivered an average of 2.4 million acre feet annually, compared with total entitlements of 4.23 million acre feet. Part of this is due to hydrology. In years like this, there simply isn't enough water to deliver the contracted amount. But, in recent years, environmental restrictions have increasingly led to significant reductions in deliveries.

Since 1960, it's been broken promise after broken promise. Customers have received 57 percent of the water they purchased. Where did the other 43 percent go? To meet the "needs" of Delta smelt, salmon and water quality standards.From 1998 to 2005, California's average water supply was 83.4 million acre feet. Environmental uses averaged 41.4 million acre feet per year (49.6 percent). Agricultural uses averaged 33.2 million acre feet per year (39.8 percent). Urban uses averaged 8.8 million acre feet per year (10.6 percent).

Water is the primary public asset and has been regulated by public policy and court decisions for well over 100 years. In 1928, voters approved Proposition 7, amending the state constitution to prevent waste, excessive use and diversion of water. It came about in part because drought conditions affected California during the 1920s, and because major California Supreme Court decisions affected water rights.

Kern County must step up and develop a strategic plan for bold action to effectively manage a precious resource that is absolutely essential to maintaining our local economy. This core issue has reached critical mass and must be addressed to support the continued viability of our economy. In 1960, the state's population was 15.8 million. Today, California has 38.3 million people, and growth will continue.

Our state has lost its way, misallocating the financial resources provided by taxpayers, creating disassociation between taxpayers and the services they pay for through assessments, fees and taxes. The foundation of Kern's economy is a reliable water supply -- and it is at stake.

Michael Turnipseed of Bakersfield is executive director of KernTax .

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