Kern River water may be plentiful this year but it’s never cheap

May 8, 2023
by Lois Henry
The Kern River heading west from Allen Road in Bakersfield. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

Share This: 

The Kern Water Bank Authority paid $35,000 just to file an application for a temporary permit to take up to 300,000 acre feet of Kern River flood water. 

There’s no guarantee the permit will be approved. Nor that the conditions in the permit – that rights holders are so full they can’t take more water and it’s in danger of being lost to the county – will ever be met.

That may seem like a high price for a slim chance. But if the permit is approved, and the water comes through it will have been the deal of the century. 

Especially considering what water bank participants currently pay just for the hope of Kern River flood water.

First, some background.

The Kern County Water Agency bought a right to high flow river water back in 2000 for $11.2 million out of a $23 million grant it received through Proposition 13.

That right, known as Lower River, doesn’t materialize often. The river has to be flowing at about 150% above average for it to kick in. The river is currently running at about 490% of normal.

Since 2000, the river has run high enough for the agency to claim Lower River water six times, including this year.

The other five years were: 2005, when the agency took 77,440 acre feet;2006, 97,120 acre feet; 2011, 145,3572 acre feet; 2017, 408,139 acre feet; and 2019, 135,264 acre feet, according to numbers provided by the agency.

The agency anticipates being able to claim 748,000 acre feet of Lower River water this year. Whether it can store all that water remains to be seen.

The agency makes much of that water available to its “member units.” The agency holds the contract for State Water Project water on behalf of 13 local agricultural water districts, known as member units.

If those member units chose, they can pay an annual fee for the ability to take Lower River water – regardless of whether it materializes. The fee varies by member unit as it’s based on how much water the district contracts for from the state.

There are three member units that participate in the Kern Water bank and pay the annual fee for Lower River water. 

Those are: Semitropic Water Storage District, which pays $102,300 a year; Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District, which pays $130,078 a year; and Tejon-Castac Water District, which pays $3,483 a year.

On top of the annual fee, the agency also charges $5 per acre foot for any actual Lower River water the member units take.

Anticipated amounts and costs for the three water bank districts are: Semitropic 26,923 acre feet for a cost of $134,615; Wheeler Ridge, 34,361 acre feet for a cost of $171,805; and Tejon-Castac, 899 acre feet at a cost of $4,495.

For those keeping score, that means Lower River water will have cost the Kern Water bank districts $235,861 in annual fees, then another $310,915 for water received for a total of $546,776.

That doesn’t include all the years the water bank districts paid the annual fee but Lower River water never materialized.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that a chance at 300,000 acre feet for $35,000 is far cheaper than what water bank participants are currently paying.

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.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER