Freeway sign marks significant chapter in California water history

June 14, 2023
by Lois Henry
Northbound Highway 99 traffic passes by a sign announcing the Howard Frick Pump Plant, which marks a significant chapter in California water history. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Travelers along northbound Highway 99 may have noticed a large – very large – sign a little ways past Highway 166 that says “Howard Frick Pump Plant” in massive white letters on a blue background.

Well, who the heck is Howard Frick, some drivers may wonder.

Howard Frick

Frick was one of the main people who ushered in the era of groundwater banking in Kern County, now one of the biggest groundwater banking regions in the state, if not the country.

The pumping plant at the feet of that giant freeway sign, how it connects to the California Aqueduct and the deal behind it all are a significant chapter in California’s water history.

And it as all written right here in Kern County with Howard Frick at the center.

On Wednesday, the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, where Frick served as board president for many years, honored that legacy with a formal dedication of the plant as the “Howard Frick Pump Plant.”

Frick, who died in 2018, was part of a longtime farming family in the Arvin area.

His father, Forrest, had helped create the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District more than 80 years ago. At that time, south San Joaquin Valley farmers didn’t have any surface water and groundwater tables were in a nose dive from excessive pumping, said Edwin Camp, the current Arvin-Edison board president at Wednesday’s dedication.

“They saw they had a problem and needed to fix it and they did,” he said of the farmers of that era. The fix was convincing the federal government to build the Friant Dam just north of Fresno and the 156-mile-long Friant-Kern Canal to bring San Joaquin River water to farms and towns all the way to Arvin.

“When you think of that system, it’s nothing short of a miracle,” Camp said.

Howard Frick followed in his father’s footsteps, farming in the Arvin area and serving on the Arvin-Edison board for 26 years

Edwin Camp

In 1985, Frick and others conceived an audacious idea to partner with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to park MWD’s water in Arvin in flush years and send it back in dry years – less a small percentage of water and, of course, fees to pay for the recharge, pumping and conveyance costs.

Arvin-Edison is a federal contractor and MWD contracts for water though the state system on the California Aqueduct. So, while the water molecules are the same, rules for how and where those molecules are handled are very different. And ag-urban partnerships were far from common.

Such a collaboration was unheard of back then.

When the Arvin-Edison team brought it to MWD it was received as an intriguing and “bold proposal,” wrote former Deputy General Manager Tim Quinn in a statement read at the dedication.

“Who could oppose such a brilliant idea?” he asked. “Everyone.”

Some of the most stringent opponents were Arvin-Edison’s fellow contractors on the Friant-Kern Canal. An initial vote by Friant Water Authority members rang up a decided 24-1 “no” on the proposal.

Howard Frick was undaunted and after two years of explaining and lobbying, Camp said, another Friant vote came in 24-1 but this time in favor of the proposal. By 1997 Arvin-Edison was sinking MWD state water below its fields.

Over the years, revenue from that deal has brought in $150,000 million that Arvin-Edison has used to build other facilities and make more deals, Camp said.

Frick wasn’t just focused on infrastructure. His mantra: “Connections, connections, connections,” included people as well, Camp said. It was all with an eye to make sure water could flow through the district to wherever growers most needed it.

“Howard thought of the problems of the future and how to solve those problems now,” Camp said.

These days, numerous water districts in Kern County and elsewhere have deals with a wide array of urban water purveyors. Arvin-Edison was the model.

“It all started because of Howard Frick,” said Arvin-Edison’s General Manager Jeevan Muhar.

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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