Take Our River Back

Saturday, Nov 30 2013 06:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Like old man river, Watermaster just keeps rolling along

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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    Chuck Williams, left, works with Steve Lafond with the Water Recources Department in July 2005 in this photo courtesy of the city Water Resources Department.

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    Chuck Williams, left, in a photo courtesy of the Bakersfield City Water Resources Department.

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    Chuck Williams, in a photo courtesy of the North Kern Water Storage District.

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    Chuck Williams as a child. Photo courtesy of North Kern Water Storage District.

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By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

Regardless of how Chuck Williams feels about turning 85 this coming Dec. 23, there will likely be some folks out there who won't be celebrating.

Because every tick of the clock forces them closer to having to face the truth.

Related Info

Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Williams cannot serve as the Kern River Watermaster forever.

He's done it for the past 36 years. On Dec. 29, it'll be 37.

"I suppose when I'm pushing up daisies, then they'll have to make a decision," joked Williams.

"They" are the Kern River interests, entities that have Kern River and/or Lake Isabella storage rights. (City of Bakersfield, Kern Delta Water District, Buena Vista and North Kern water storage districts and the Kern County Water Agency)

Williams works for them. Sort of.

They have no succession plan for Williams because, basically, they don't trust each other.

It's nothing new.

When Williams was first appointed Watermaster in 1976, the wary river interests would only allow him to be named the "acting, interim" Watermaster, recalled Gene Bogart, Bakersfield's former water resources director who first worked with Williams back at Tenneco West in 1969.

"Everyone was suspicious of everyone," Bogart said of the river interests in the '70s. "But everyone knew Chuck and trusted him."

Still, the "acting interim" title stuck for about 20 years until, at a river interest meeting, Bogart "...made a damn motion to knock that off. It was silly. So, Chuck became the Kern River Watermaster."

And it looks like that's how it's gonna stay.

To hear Williams tell it, being watermaster isn't exactly taxing. He puts in about 40 hours a month, for a salary of $60,000 a year.

Of course, there's a lot to the job, which everyone tells me Williams has done extremely well these past 36 years.

The water master was created after the Isabella dam was built and the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to deal with just one person for releases.

Back then, the Kern County Land Company owned most of the river, canal companies and farmland that relied on the water.

So, Bill Balch, who ran the canal division for the Land Company, was appointed the first ever Kern River Watermaster in 1955. The Land Company was sold to Tenneco West and Balch continued as watermaster under Tenneco.

Then in 1976, Tenneco sold all its water and river assets to the City of Bakersfield.

That precipitated a break up of various entities that had once been under Tenneco, including North Kern and Kern Delta.

Each entity suddenly had its own board of directors, engineers, attorneys "and their own ax to grind," Bogart recalled.

And the city was operating the river.

"That really got some people's goat," Bogart said.

Balch stepped down as watermaster in 1975 and, for a time, things were a bit chaotic.

Williams left Tenneco to take over as manager of North Kern and "everyone was reaching in to hire the old Tenneco guys," Bogart said.

When Williams was made "acting, interim" watermaster in 1976 it was a stabilizing force on the river, Bogart said.

Williams had started as a hydrologist for the Land Company straight out of Stanford in 1956.

He had designed almost all of the canals and other facilities associated with the river and are still in use today.

"No matter what happened, flood years or dry years, when people felt like this was the worst ever, old Chuck would dig up the records and show everyone this was nothing new," Bogart said. "He set everything straight."

The job is mostly about understanding the river flow, how the Corps operates, storage rights in Isabella and being able to talk to people. Communication is key and everyone agreed Williams has a knack for it.

And it's not just dealing with valley folks. Williams said he works as much, or more, with people from the Lake Isabella area who don't understand why the lake is low or why the river can't support rafting some years. Not to mention all the power companies on the river.

You have to know the rights and honor them, Williams said. But it's not up to the watermaster to intervene in any rights disputes. The job is strictly about operating the system.

"One of the problems is, in the past, when people would talk about doing something with the watermaster position, people want to make more out of the job than it is," Bogart said. "That can't happen. You don't want to create a dictator on the river. Chuck appreciates that and keeps it that way."

So, who else could do the job? Because, at the risk of belaboring this point, Williams is about to turn 85.

Bogart?

"No! No way," was Bogart's reaction.

Same from retired city water resources director Florn Core.

Both men know the river rights, the history and the system.

But neither wanted the job. Also, I hear some of the other river interests would never let the city "get its hands on the watermaster."

There's another name that's been floated as having strong watermaster potential, Dana Munn.

Munn, Engineer Manager for North Kern, knows the rights, the system and he can talk engineer with the Corps.

"Every time I've brought it up, he just laughs it off," Core said.

I cornered Munn, so to speak, about the idea and after a few deflections, he told me he wouldn't say no if asked.

"But I'm building some really cool stuff right now and my job's really fun," he argued. (Pshh! Engineers.)

Besides, he predicted at least one of the other river interests would lobby against him.

Which is typical of the Kern River, I suppose, where politics and suspicion often flow higher than water.

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

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