Effort to bring South Fork Kern River water to valley farmland buffeted by lawsuits, called a “joke”

August 3, 2022
by Lois Henry
The south fork of the Kern River near Weldon still had some water in this March 2022 photo. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Drought cut short a pilot program to bring South Fork Kern River water through Lake Isabella and down 60 miles to farmland northwest of Bakersfield.

Now, a raft of lawsuits could upend the environmental impact report in support of the project, which has been a goal of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District since it bought the old Onyx Ranch in 2013.

The project was doomed from the start, said one board member of the water district that led the lawsuit charge.

“It’s a joke,” said John Vidovich, a board member of the Buena Vista Water Storage District, one of five entities that hold rights on the river. “They bought an abandoned farm and took river water to irrigated it and now they think they have a riparian right and can take that water all the way to Rosedale? That’s a very long reach.”

He argued that if taking water off rivers were that simple, anyone could buy land along, say, the Sacramento River and ship its water anywhere they wanted.

Even if Rosedale does have a right, Vidovich said, they aren’t participants in Lake Isabella, made possible by the Army Corps of Engineers dam. Existing river interests helped pay for recent repairs.  “You can’t just take water through the dam without paying your share,” Vidovich said. “It’s insulting.”

It was Buena Vista that terminated the pilot program and filed suit on the Onyx EIR, prompting all the other Kern River interests to also file suits on the EIR.

However, Buena Vista’s dim view of the project is at odds with the fact that Buena Vista sought to buy Onyx Ranch from Rosedale on more than one occasion. Even as recently as this past winter, confirmed Buena Vista General Manager Tim Ashlock.

“It was more of a proposed water swap,” he wrote in an email. “I think there is a large difference between the two parties on how much water the project will generate. This makes it difficult for a deal to be made.”

He disagreed that Buena Vista’s lawsuit is a form of leverage to encourage Rosedale to sell.

“The CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuit stands on its own,” he wrote in an email. He said Buena Vista questions the modeling used in the Onyx EIR to determine how much water is truly available, which Rosedale has estimated is 5,000 to 7,000 acre feet, on average.

Rosedale’s General Manager Dan Bartel confirmed Buena Vista has made more than one proposal on Onyx but that the ranch is not for sale.

“(Rosedale) needs real water as part of its SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) sustainability plan and Onyx is a key piece to that puzzle,” he wrote in an email. “Selling water to BV, who has water in excess of their sustainability goals, doesn’t make sense from a basin management perspective.”

As for the specific concerns Vidovich laid out, Bartel said they are all answered in Rosedale’s Onyx Ranch environmental documents.

“He’s saying that riparian water can only be used on the parcel adjoining the river,” Bartel said. “But in our research, which was exhaustive, we determined most of the Onyx water rights are appropriative, so that water can legally be moved.”

And, yes, if Rosedale were storing water in Isabella it should pay for a share of the dam costs. But it’s not holding water in the lake. This is a pass-through project, Bartel said.

“If we worked out a deal with one of the river interests that does have storage in Isabella, the water would be held under that entity’s rights and all the costs would be paid through that entity,” Bartel said.

The pilot program showed the Onyx project is viable, he said.

South Fork flows were measured daily by an established US Geologic Survey gage east of Weldon. And measurements were taken at the lake both by Rosedale and the City of Bakersfield to verify exactly how much water was entering the lake, Bartel said.

Rosedale moved 880 acre feet in April and another 234 acre feet in May before the South Fork’s flows dropped too low to continue.

For the pilot program, Bakersfield took that water for its drinking water treatment plants and gave Rosedale a like amount from its banked supplies, Bartel said.

“It was all working as planned,” Bartel said. “We coordinated well with the city and the (Kern River) Water Master and made substantial measurements to confirm there was no injury to the other Kern River rights holders.”

Bartel said Rosedale hadn’t received any complaints from the other river interests – which, besides Buena Vista, include Bakersfield, the Kern County Water Agency, North Kern Water Storage District and Kern Delta Water District.

He added that the district it planning to restart the pilot program with Bakersfield in November when, it’s hoped, there will be more water flowing in the South Fork again.

But Colin Pearce, the city’s water attorney, said it’s unlikely the city will participate in another Onyx program as the agreement under which the previous program operated is now void. All the Kern River interests have to agree to a new program, not just the city, he said.

“The city can’t act unilaterally on the river,” Pearce said. “Unless everyone is on board and agrees Rosedale can move the water, the city has no practical or legal ability to make that happen.”

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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