Busy Interstate 5 stop won’t go dry, but the water will be pricey

January 14, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Kettleman City is a popular stop for motorists on Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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The popular motorist pitstop town of Kettleman City has sealed a deal to keep from running out of water.

Kings County officials finalized a deal with the Mojave Water Agency this week to purchase 235 acre feet of water for Kettleman City from the southern California water agency at a cost of $1,400 per acre foot for a total of $329,000.

“It is expensive but when you have no other water…unfortunately that’s just the way it is,” said Brian Skaggs, civil engineer and owner of Summers Engineering, the district engineer for Kettleman City. “We’re going to have to deal with this.”

Skaggs said it could have been worse as he’s heard of some water priced at $2,500 per acre foot.

“We are happy to help a fellow water purveyor that is in imminent need during this drought,” wrote Allison Febbo, general manager of Mojave Water Agency, in an email. “Good water management crosses jurisdictional boundaries. We are all in this together.”

Kettleman City sits next to the California Aqueduct, which transports water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south to farms and cities as far away as Los Angeles through the State Water Project, which is managed by the Department of Water Resources (DWR).

The town was on track to run out of water by  the end of 2021. It had survived on carryover water from 2020 up until the end of the year. Under DWR’s 5% allocation for 2021, the town only received 45 acre feet last year and was at risk of running dry with no supply for 2022 in sight. Kettleman City needs a minimum of 310 acre feet per year to serve its residents and the plethora of restaurants and gas stations that attract thousands of motorists from nearby Interstate 5.

DWR agreed to initially provide an additional 96 acre feet of water for health and safety but that wasn’t enough to sustain the town’s businesses so Kettleman City officials pursued other options.

Kings County is using a reserve fund to buy the water on behalf of Kettleman City. That money will be recovered, said Skaggs. DWR awarded $165,200 to Kettleman City through its small community drought relief program which will partially reimburse the cost of the water purchase. The county might also help with the cost and officials will continue to look for other funding sources as needed, Skaggs said.

On Friday, the Mojave Water Agency board of directors approved a contract with Kings County on behalf of Kettleman City. Paperwork has been sent to DWR for final approval.

The crisis has triggered a new water plan for Kettleman City to avoid similar emergencies  in future droughts. DWR is funding a new well and rehabilitation of one of Kettleman City’s old wells at $2.1 million.

Water from the town’s two wells had been contaminated with arsenic and benzene. It took a decade to build a surface water treatment facility to get Kettleman City residents off the contaminated groundwater.

Returning to groundwater will only be an emergency backup option, said Richard Valle, board supervisor for Kettleman City’s district.

“We’re happy we’re able to find water for the community,” said Valle. “We had to do right by those folks and I’m glad we purchased the water to keep that community healthy and safe.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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