“Drop out” from race for seat on a powerful Kern water board appears poised to win

November 11, 2022
by Lois Henry
Eric Averett, left, said he would drop out of the race for a seat on the Kern County Water Agency against incumbent Phil Cerro. Even so, Averett appeared to be winning the seat according to early vote counts. Lois Henry / SJV WATER
Lois Henry

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If challenger Eric Averett maintains his lead over incumbent Phil Cerro for a seat on the powerful Kern County Water Agency board, it may prove just how effective a campaign statement can be.

Averett said he tried to withdraw his name from the ballot after belatedly learning Cerro would run. But he missed the deadline to have his name removed, Averett told SJV Water in September.

He vowed not to campaign – dropping out of the race in spirit – and said he would support Cerro.

But when Averett filed his paperwork to run, he did one thing Cerro didn’t, he submitted a campaign statement.

That short paragraph is sent to all Kern County voters in their sample ballots. For more obscure races that don’t get much media coverage, that snippet is often all voters have to go on to pick their candidate.

As of Nov. 11, the last official count posted on the Kern County Elections website, Averett held a substantial lead with 64.71% over Cerro’s 35.29% of the votes.

That percentage reflects about 13,495 votes counted out of a roughly estimated total 25,275 ballots voting in this particular race. That means there are approximately 11,780 outstanding ballots still to be counted for the Division 4 seat. Cerro would have to capture 9,860 of those votes to win.

The count could always change, but it would be very steep math for Cerro to overtake Averett’s lead.

Averett did not respond to several phone and text messages seeking comment for this story.

Cerro was philosophical about his apparent loss.

“I was questioning whether I wanted to run again earlier this year,” he said. “So, I”m not terribly devastated by the results.” Cerro has been on the agency board since being appointed in 2016 to fill a vacant position.

He acknowledged that not filing a campaign statement was a mistake.

“I didn’t know I’d have an opponent so I didn’t file a campaign statement,” he said. “Eric filed a very well-written statement and that might have been a lot of what had to do with the results.”

On his statement, Averett listed his occupation as “Homer Water/Farmer” and listed a long history of working in Kern County water.

Averett worked for the Kern County Water Agency managing its drinking water arm, known as Improvement District 4 before moving to the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage district where he served as general manager for 13 years until January 2021. He left Rosedale to go to work for  Homer LLC as head of the private company’s water division.

It was his work with Homer that raised eyebrows when Averett filed to run for a seat on the agency board.

There has been a lot of concern about Averett’s potential conflicts of interest when it comes to the agency’s mission versus Homer’s interests.

Averett previously told SJV Water that wouldn’t be a problem as the agency has a robust conflict protocol that he would adhere to.

“We’ll see how it goes,” said Ted Page, the agency’s board president. “He’s employed by a group that seems to be involved in every single thing we’re doing.”

The agency’s reach is extensive.

It is the second largest contractor for State Water Project water and deeply involved in questions about the proposed  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel.

Locally, the agency provides wholesale supplies to water purveyors serving large sections of east Bakersfield. It owns rights to high flow water on the Kern River. It is one of six entities that control the massive Kern Water Bank.  And it is one of three members that govern the Kern River Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which monitors water tables and can set pumping limits.

The agency also controls the movement of significant amounts of water into and out of the county through its Cross Valley Canal, which can move water east and west from the California Aqueduct, connecting to numerous other canals all the way to central Bakersfield.

Homer, meanwhile, is part of a large and relatively opaque network of individual LLCs involved in a wide variety of water projects. Because it’s a private company, its activities aren’t open to public scrutiny.

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.

Similar to the agency, RRG’s reach is also extensive.

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. And it has been named as a possible investor in increasing the carrying capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal.

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.

If Averett wins a seat on the agency board, it won’t be the first time an RRG member has served 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.

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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