Kern County agricultural water district begins mining mountain stream under pilot program

April 8, 2022
by Lois Henry
The south fork of the Kern River is hidden in trees as it dribbles toward Lake Isabella in the distance in this March 12, 2022 photo. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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Water flowing down the south fork of the Kern River began running through Lake Isabella earlier this month with a name and destination attached for the first time in its history.

The water will eventually make its way 60 miles down river to its owner, the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in northwest Bakersfield under a two-year pilot program that began April 1.

“We got it going and that’s a huge accomplishment,” said Dan Bartel, General Manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo, which bought the Onyx Ranch and some other properties with rights to the south fork of the Kern back in 2013 for $25 million in hopes of bringing that water to valley farms.

The district approved a final environmental document for the project in January 2021 and was immediately beset by opposition — not from environmental groups  but other entities with interests in the river. Those entities feared Rosedale-Rio Bravo would take a slice of their water, or otherwise gum up longstanding operational agreements on the river.

“Our (environmental document) called for coordination with the Kern River Watermaster and the other Kern River interests so we started that process right away,” Bartel said.

The product was this pilot agreement to allot a certain amount of flow out of Lake Isabella to Rosedale-Rio Bravo.

The other five river interests include the City of Bakersfield, Kern Delta Water District, Kern County Water Agency and Buena Vista and North Kern water storage districts. Those groups also have storage rights in Lake Isabella. Rosedale-Rio Bravo doesn’t have storage rights in the lake but any water coming through that space is highly scrutinized.

As such, the pilot agreement is about logistics and record keeping, explained Kern River Watermaster Mark Mulkay

“How much water truly is available? The next question is transportation: Does it physically get to the reservoir, at what rate and in what amounts? And once it’s in Isabella, how do you manage it down the river so it doesn’t interfere with or curtail any other river units,” Mulkay said.

The agreement calls for careful daily measurement of the South Fork flow, minus irrigation demands and losses incurred through evaporation and seepage, calculated at 20%. It also caps the amount Rosedale-Rio Bravo can accrue in each of the pilot agreement years at 5,000 acre feet total. That’s lower than the amount Rosedale-Rio Bravo has said is available, which it estimates at 5,000 to 7,000 acre feet on average each year.

“That was one of the added protections the Kern River Interests added into this pilot agreement,” Bartel said. “It’s a dry year, so we’re not going to get anywhere near there anyway.”

Per the pilot agreement, the river interests began alloting between 16 and 18 cubic feet per second each day to Rosedale-Rio Bravo starting April 1. The run will probably last through July and add up to about 2,000 acre feet this year, Mulkay said.

This first run isn’t actually coming directly to Rosedale-Rio Bravo, Bartel explained. It will go to the City of Bakersfield for use in its drinking water treatment plants, for use in Riverwalk Park and possibly a small July 4 run in the riverbed itself through town.

In exchange, the city will give Rosedale-Rio Bravo a block of water previously stored in its 2800 Acre recharge facility.

“It has taken time to put into operation and it’s only been a week, but so far, it’s working extremely well,” Bartel said. “Our landowners are very happy that we’ve been able to take their $25 million investment and turn it into real water coming to the Kern subbasin for their use.”

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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