Challenger for seat on powerful Kern water board “withdraws,” at least in spirit

September 12, 2022
by Lois Henry
Eric Averett, left, and Phil Cerro
Lois Henry

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Would-be challenger Eric Averett said he is “withdrawing” from the race for a seat on the powerful Kern County Water Agency board of directors.

His name will still appear on the ballot, however.

Averett said he couldn’t get his name off the ballot as the deadline to do so had already passed when he decided not to run against Incumbent Phil Cerro.

“I had been advised that Phil was stepping down,” Averett said in an interview Sept. 9. “I tried to confirm that before I filed. By the time I was able to connect with Phil, the deadline to get my name off the ballot had passed.”

With the drought and other issues, Averett said, the agency board needs to maintain “continuity” and he didn’t want an election battle to become a distraction. Three other agency board members are running unopposed. Those include Laura Cattani, Ted Page and Charles Wulff.

“I will support Phil in this election and look towards the next election cycle as a potential candidate,” Averett wrote in an email.

Cerro said Averett called him Sept. 8 to let him know he would not be actively campaigning for the District 4 seat but didn’t say why he was stepping aside.

“I don’t know, but I will be actively campaigning,” Cerro said, noting that with Averett’s name remaining on the ballot he, technically, still has a challenger and will work to get the word out to voters about his work for the agency and focus on bringing in as much water to Kern as possible.

Not only will Averett’s name remain on the ballot, but he also filed a candidate statement. Cerro did not include a statement.

Those statements are included in sample ballots sent by the county Elections Department to all Kern voters.  Sample ballot information can be extremely influential, particularly in more obscure races with little to no media coverage giving voters less information to help inform their choices.

Meaning, even without an active campaign, Averett could win. It happened back in 2020 in a race for a seat on the Panama-Buena Vista Union School Board. Paula Van Auken dropped out too late to remove her name from the ballot and won a seat. She credited the sample ballot, which listed her as a “retired teacher.”

Cerro is listed as “Retired Farmer/Incumbent” on the ballot. Averett is listed as “Homer Water/Farmer.”

Averett said he manages 1,600 acres of almonds and pistachios in the western Kern County water district Berenda Mesa for his employer Homer LLC.

His employment with Homer had raised several eyebrows in the water world when Averett filed for a seat on the agency board.

The agency has an impact on just about every aspect of water in Kern County and wields a great deal of clout statewide as the second largest contractor on the State Water Project. It also has a stake in the massive Kern Water Bank, owns Kern River rights, is a key partner in a groundwater sustainability agency that covers most of Bakersfield and approves water transfers, exchanges and sales into and out of the county, among other things.

Homer, meanwhile, is part of a large network of individual LLCs throughout California connected to a wide and growing variety of water projects.

The company and its affiliates have been described to SJV Water by various water managers as “one of the biggest players in water that you’ve never heard of.”

Homer is associated with investment company Renewable Resources Group (RRG), co-owned by Cole Frates and Ari Swiller, and more than 50 other limited liability corporations, which share RRG’s address in Los Angeles.

The various water deals under this network are almost too numerous to list.

RRG, or one of its affiliates, own land or have stakes in water banks in Tulare and Kern counties as well as the Antelope Valley. RRG has also been named as a possible investor in increasing the carrying capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal. And it owns the intellectual and licensing properties of Sun World International LLC, a large Kern-based table grape grower and breeder. RRG even, apparently, has a stake in a farm labor contracting company called California Harvesters, Inc.

Back in 2013, an RRG affiliate, RENU Resources LLC, sold the Onyx Ranch above Lake Isabella to the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage district, where Averett was then General Manager.

As head of Homer’s water division, Averett is working on a private water bank project in the Berenda Mesa Water District near Keck’s Road.

Given RRG’s many water projects, there were questions about whether Averett would be too hampered by conflicts of interest to be a productive member of the Kern County Water Agency’s board.

Averett told SJV Water he was confident the agency’s existing conflict protocols would allow him to fully participate on the board.

If Averett does win a seat despite his stated withdrawl from the race, it would not be the first time RRG has had a member of its team on a key water board.

In 2019, Nicole Neeman Brady, listed as a “principal” at RRG, was appointed to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power board by Mayor Eric Garcetti. Prior to that appointment, Brady had served on California’s Colorado River Board as its public member.

Brady is also listed as chief executive officer of an investment company called Sustainable Development Acquisition that was formed in January 2021 by RRG and Capricorn Investment Group LLC. 

The prospectus for Sustainable Development Acquisition notes that since 2002, RRG has been involved in water investment and that since 2008 RRG and Capricorn have been “developing and optimizing the financial value of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet in water supplies and water storage capacity.”

In its voluminous list of potential risks to investors, the prospectus states one of the risks as: “public policies that may be negative toward investment in water resources.”

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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