Kings River floodwater dispute goes to the state
A bid by Kern County farmers to take Kings River floodwater officially got underway Tuesday as state regulators hashed out procedures and next steps with the various parties.
An initial hearing had been set for April 15, but may now be pushed back to July, depending on how Administrative Hearing Officer Nicole Kuenzi rules.
Kuenzi discussed coming deadlines and other procedural issues with representatives of the Kings River Water Association, Semitropic Water Storage District and others during a pre-hearing conference Tuesday morning.
At issue is a quest by Semitropic to get Kings River floodwater that it says is going to the ocean.
It plans to bring that water 70 miles south and park it in the sprawling northwestern Kern County ag district in order to shore up a gaping groundwater deficit of roughly 120,000-220,000 acre feet a year, as SJV Water reported in Nov. 2019.
Semitropic and members of the Kings River Water Association, primarily the Alta, Consolidated and Fresno irrigation districts, have been tussling over this water since about 2015.
That’s when news broke that Semitropic had a plan to build a water holding cell near Kettleman City for Kings River floodwater, which it planned to move south through the California Aqueduct to bank beneath its lands.
The scope of the project has been slightly reduced, but the basic premise remains the same. In fact, Semitropic already paid $40 million for an easement on the land it needs near Kettleman City.
While Semitropic says that floodwater is going to waste, Kings River water interests say that only happens in extreme flood years. And even that water will soon have a home as they build more recharge basins to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
The sides had started negotiations to possibly sell some floodwater to Semitropic, when available.
Negotiations broke down and in 2017 the Alta group filed a joint water right application with the State Water Resources Control Board saying they didn’t believe there was any excess water on the Kings River.
But if the board decides there is, it should be given to the irrigation districts. They also asked to expand where that water could be used to include all of Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.
Hot on the heels of that filing, Semitropic filed its own application seeking 1.6 million acre feet of floodwater that it says isn’t now being used.
Semitropic followed up that filing later in 2017 with a complaint claiming the Kings River Water Association had forfeited two of its river licenses by not using the water.
Those filings simmered at the state board for three years until May 2020 when Erik Ekdahl, Deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights, concluded “there was reasonable cause to conduct a hearing on the question of whether the fully appropriated status of the Kings River System should be revoked or revised.”
That set the stage for Tuesday’s conference.
This is the latest in a string of Central Valley river rights clashes the Division of Water Rights has dealt with as the state’s new groundwater law has put pressure on agricultural water districts to either reduce pumping or find new water sources.
“Yes, there’s an uptick in rights questions, particularly in the Central Valley,” Ekdahl told SJV Water after the Water Board voted Oct. 20 to begin a formal adjudication on the Fresno River — the first adjudication by the board in 40 years.
“For a long time, much of the Central Valley streams appeared to be fully appropriated. But now there’s greater interest and we’re seeing more applications. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to see an immense increase in rights applications over the next five years,” Ekdahl said.
These aren’t simple issues to sort through.
Though Semitropic’s attorney, Kevin O’Brien argued his clients have already invested tremendous resources into their Kings River project and further delay wouldn’t be good, they could have a much longer wait.
The Water Board found in 2010 that the Kern River wasn’t fully appropriated, meaning there was available water.
Eleven years later, the board hasn’t held a single hearing on how much water is available on the Kern nor who should get it.