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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kern County, Calif., water becoming scarcer and rights misused

Storing Water for a Dry Day Leads to Suits

David Ahntholz for The New York Times
Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, with one of the affected residential wells that ran dry off Renfro Road in Bakersfield, Calif.
The New York Times, July 26, 2011

Precious Waters
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Peter Key knew something was strange when the water levels in his tropical fish tank began to go down last summer. Then the washing machine took 40 minutes to fill, and the toilets would not flush.
Too Much Too Fast?
This article is the second in a series about dwindling water supplies across the United States.
A blog about energy and the environment.
But even as Mr. Key and neighbors spent $14,000 to deepen their community well here, they had identified a likely culprit.
They blamed water banking, a system in which water-rights holders — mostly in the rural West — store water in underground reservoirs either for their own future use or for leasing to fast-growing urban areas.
So the neighbors’ small local water utility has gone to state court to challenge the wealthy farming interests that dominate two of the country’s largest water banks.
Viewed as test cases for the size and scope of water-banking operations, the lawsuits claim that enormous withdrawals of water by the banks lowered the water table, causing geological damage, service disruptions and costly repairs.
Water managers and the farmers they serve have long been major political players here in Kern County, a center of conservative political power. But even inside these tight circles, there is increasing friction as governments, businesses — especially agriculture — and a population that has swelled by 26 percent in a decade all compete for water. Even a trendy fruit, the pomegranate, plays a role in these water wars.
A memorandum of understanding between the small local utility that brought the suit, Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, which serves 20,000 customers, and the Kern County Water Agency, which operates one of the water banks, stipulated that any problems resulting from its bank would be the agency’s responsibility.
But the agency said it was not to blame, and made no effort to cover costs.
“For two years, we asked them to do it and they didn’t,” said Eric Averett, general manager of the district.
Instead, the smaller districts and the City of Bakersfield had to pay to deepen wells. The two water-banking operations, one public and one quasi public, have denied responsibility.
Water remains a contentious subject. Everyone’s complaining, said Mr. Key, a horse trainer, who had to borrow from his neighbor to water the horses he boards.
Water banking has been widely embraced as a tool for making water supplies reliable, sustainable and marketable. Groups traditionally at odds — environmentalists seeking full rivers for fish and farmers tending pistachio or pomegranate trees — agree that water banking is a useful strategy for managing a vital resource. A consulting group based in Idaho, WestWater Research, estimates there are up to 30 working water banks in the West.
As climate change produces earlier snowmelts, sending too much of the water into reservoirs in the spring and too little in summer, the need for storage grows.
“Water banking is a way of dealing with the volatility,” said Bruce Aylward, an expert in water economics who founded Ecosystem Economics in Oregon.
The economic concept is simple. Farmers, through the water districts that they control, have acquired land entitling them to use water, or have contracted for water supplies flowing to their region. Municipal and industrial water users also have rights.
While some districts limit sales to distant urban areas, others allow them. One Kern County district, Berrenda Mesa, sold part of its state entitlement for a one-shot payment of $3,000 an acre-foot — about 90 percent higher than its costs. The buyers were water districts supplying homes and golf courses in Palm Springs.
The value in banking lies in the certainty that water will be available when it is needed. In wet years, excess water recharges the depleted aquifer, a hedge against a prolonged drought.
The porous soil below the gravel and sand here, which are carried here from the Sierra Nevada by the Kern River, is ideal for the purpose. “It’s a huge bucket,” said Florn Core, the former water resources manager for the City of Bakersfield, which is located in a natural desert where rainfall averages 5.7 inches annually.
Yet with its local supplies and water deliveries from the state and federal governments, Kern County is an agricultural paradise of carrots, citrus, pomegranates and pistachios.
Changes in the agricultural economy over the last 15 years, including the rising popularity of pomegranates and pistachios, prompted many farmers to switch to permanent crops, taking away the option of letting fields lie fallow in dry years. So water banking expanded.
Since 1978, when water banking started here, 5.7 million acre-feet — about a third of the annual flow of the Colorado River — has been stored in the two largest banks, said James M. Beck, the general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, which regulates local use. The two banks’ combined storage capacity is about 2 million acre feet.
Pumping out huge amounts of stored water in dry years was thought to have little impact on the underground geology — at least until Mr. Key’s shower head sputtered. Now engineers believe it reversed the area’s underground hydraulic gradient, turning a hill-shaped water table, accessible by shallow wells, into a valley. The trigger for the huge withdrawals was a drought that began in 2007. Kern County’s allocation of water from Northern California was cut. Then, in the 40 months beginning in March 2007, roughly half the banks’ capacity was pumped out to keep fruit and nut trees alive.
“I don’t think anyone fully appreciated the magnitude of the impact they would have,” said Mr. Averett of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District.
POM Wonderful, part of the fruit-drink empire owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, makes its profits from pomegranate trees kept green by the Kern Water Bank Authority. The authority, technically a public agency, is controlled by the Paramount Farming Company, which like POM, is a subsidiary of Roll Global, a company owned by the billionaire Resnicks.
Ernest Conant, a lawyer for the Kern Water Bank, disagrees with the lawsuit’s main contentions — that the rapid pumping caused the well problems in west Bakersfield and that environmental reviews, in failing to anticipate the problem, were inadequate.
“You have the right to bank water and take it out, but you have to do it in a manner that does not cause significant harm to others,” Mr. Conant said. “We think our program accomplishes that.”
Mr. Beck, whose agency manages the Pioneer Water Bank and who is the defendant in the other suit, said, “We haven’t seen enough data to indicate that our operations are the cause of the decline.”
Because so much is at stake, many people expect a settlement before a judge can decide the issues. The water problems have eased, and some contend the aquifer healed itself — although Mr. Averett said the water tables were still lower than before. A separate suit filed by environmentalists a year ago challenges the 1990s deal that transferred the Kern Water Bank from the state to a group of water suppliers controlled by the Resnicks.
All three lawsuits could have broad consequences.
“Everybody wants to bank and sell. Everybody,” Mr. Core said. “If a lawsuit like Rosedale-Rio Bravo’s is successful, someone may be working on a banking project and it could come to a screeching halt — after they’ve started counting the money.”

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