Local Politics

Sunday, Oct 07 2012 12:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Shake up of water board may be in the works

By The Bakersfield Californian

The veritable stampede of candidates vying for seats on the Kern County Water Agency board of directors can only mean one thing: Unrest in Kern's water world that broke the surface two years ago has not been squelched.

Far from it.

Related Info

Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

In this week's paper, Lois Henry will have an article introducing all the candidates for Kern County Water Agency board of directors and their answers to specific questions about the delta, budget problems and even the Kern River.

Six newcomers and two incumbents are running for seats on this very powerful but usually under-the-radar board. That's a lot of fresh blood gunning for seats that have typically been de facto lifetime appointments.

It's worth paying attention to because this board has its hand on the rudder of about 25 percent of Kern's water and because we're all on the hook, to some extent, for the bill.

Let me explain.

The Kern County Water Agency's main job is to be the point agency for water delivered here by the State Department of Water Resources.

The Agency contracts with the state on behalf of about a dozen local water districts for nearly a million acre feet of water (when it's available. In recent years it's been closer to about 600,000 acre feet, though the agency still has to pay the full amount).

The water is brought to Kern from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the California Aqueduct and then distributed to local water districts, which are "member units" of the Agency.

The Agency also has responsibility for groundwater management, flood control and running a water purification plant for drinking water for some parts of Bakersfield. And it owns and operates the cross valley canal, a key feature that allows Kern to move water back and forth to the aqueduct.

As its responsibilities stretched, so did its need to assess fees on the general public.

Part of the Agency's funding comes from a portion of property taxes, but it also gets special fees through "zones of benefit."

You pay an additional fee in a zone of benefit under the theory that even if you aren't getting any state water, the Agency's efforts to bring it to Kern benefit you because groundwater is replenished and ag keeps the economy going.

That's why Agency directors are elected by the public, rather than landowners within the member units. And that's why it's important for us to pay attention to who's on that board.

Frankly, until recently it was a pretty dull group.

Directors held their seats for years, typically retiring mid-term so replacements could be hand-picked. Then those guys would, in turn, stay on for years and so on.

Things changed dramatically in the 2010 election when Ted Page, openly backed by several member units including Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, handily knocked longtime incumbent Fred Starrh off his seat.

Rosedale-Rio Bravo, in particular, was unhappy with the Agency's "prove it" attitude toward complaints that its Pioneer Project groundwater bank had allegedly pumped so much water out so fast during the recent drought that it sucked water out from under Rosedale-Rio Bravo lands and caused several wells to go dry.

Relations got so bad lawsuits were filed and next thing you know, farms throughout Rosedale were sporting "Ted Page" signs, even though he was running for a seat in another division.

Meanwhile, negotiations with state and federal entities over problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have dragged on, costing member units more and more money with no certainty of how much water they will get or how much it'll cost.

Then last year, the Agency revealed it was broke, having operated on deficit budgets for several years.

The Agency went to its member units last spring and asked for an extra $2 per acre foot of water to be used to fund its efforts regarding the delta.

The member units agreed, but in exchange wanted more input into Agency decisions and strategy. They wanted to help drive the cart.

"The feeling was if we're going to fund these activities, we should have more input in the process," Eric Averett, general manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo, recalled. "The Agency's response was, 'We don't want your money.'"

The $2 fee was never implemented.

Agency General Manager Jim Beck said it wasn't that the Agency didn't want to work with member units, he just found other ways to get the budget closer to balanced and the board opted to do that rather than charge member units more money.

This year's budget is still not balanced, but it's getting closer and Beck anticipated that next fiscal year, starting July 1, 2013, the Agency would be in the black.

He added that the Agency has worked much more closely with its member units in the last year. Averett agreed with that.

In fact, all the member unit managers I spoke with said the best outcome of the Agency's budget crisis has been increased communication. Though one manager characterized it more as member units becoming more "organized."

Whatever warmth may have been generated by increased meetings, it wasn't enough to melt concerns over the budget nor the perceived malaise in the Agency's delta dealings.

In fact, there was only one audience question at a candidates' forum Thursday night and that was "What can you do to move the ball forward" on the delta.

Both incumbents, Randy Parker and Fred Terry Rodgers, defended the Agency's actions thus far and said Kern is on the right track.

Citrus farmer Dick Porter couldn't have disagreed more, raising his voice and repeating that the Agency board had not done enough to "build a fire under management," meaning the Agency's staff.

Farmer and current Rosedale-Rio Bravo board member Royce Fast insisted that board members had to be more engaged. They should work on the political end, he said, meeting with other politicians and putting pressure on them to get things moving.

Kern River Valley rancher Bruce Hafenfeld said the board needed to be aggressive on the delta and later said he sees a real lack of leadership from the Agency board.

The frustration was evident.

We'll see if it carries through on election day.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com

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