Lawsuit claims Kern County Water Agency shorted a key local canal’s volume

June 30, 2021
by Lois Henry
The Cross Valley Canal looking east from Stockdale Highway in Bakersfield appears full on June 30, 2021. A lawsuit claims cost cutting during a recent expansion shorted the anticipated capacity. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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The Cross Valley Canal is a key cog in the southern San Joaquin Valley’s water machinery.

It moves water east and west between the California Aqueduct along Kern County’s western edge to the Kern County Water Agency’s facilities near Manor Street in Bakersfield. Along the way, it also connects with the federally owned Friant-Kern Canal, making it important structure for farms and towns that get water from both the state and federal systems.

To get even more out of the canal, the agency embarked on a $79 million expansion of the canal in 2004. The project was completed in 2012.

The work was supposed to have increased the amount of water the canal could carry from 922 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 1,422 cfs.

Except that didn’t happen, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, Cawelo Water District and the Lower Tule River and Pixley irrigation districts.

Instead the agency expanded the canal to be able to move only 1,025 cfs, according to a hydraulic capacity report by Northwest Hydraulic Consultantscommissioned by the agency in 2020.

The report was requested by water districts after pumps along the Cross Valley Canal broke down and couldn’t move as much water through the canal as anticipated during 2017, California’s second wettest water year on record.

The lawsuit claims the agency cut corners in construction leaving the canal at a much lower carrying capacity than had been agreed to by the original canal participants, including the plaintiffs. Those original canal participants had to sign off on the expansion and in that 2006 operating agreement were assured the expansion wouldn’t infringe on their allotted space in the canal, according to the suit.

Because the canal expansion was shorted, though, the lawsuit claims those original canal participants are likewise being shorted their rightful share of space, which translates to less water for those entities.

They are suing the Kern County Water Agency not for money, but to force it to manage the canal according to the 2006 operating agreement, according to Dan Bartel, General Manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo.

The agency declined to comment on the lawsuit but acknowledged it will be holding a presentation sometime in July about Cross Valley Canal operations.

This is the second lawsuit that has sprung up between Rosedale-Rio Bravo and the agency this year.

In February, the agency sued Rosedale-Rio Bravo over what it said was an incomplete environmental review of a proposed 1,300-acre groundwater bank Rosedale-Rio Bravo is planning to construct with the Irvine Ranch Water District north of Stockdale Highway and west of Highway 43.

That suit put the agency in the odd position of suing one of its own member units, a move that may be unprecedented in the agency’s 60-year history. The agency administers the State Water Project contract on behalf of 13 agricultural water districts including Rosedale-Rio Bravo.

The agency also declined to comment on the suit over the groundwater bank, known as the Kern Fan project.

The agency’s concern was a lack of review for a portion of the Kern Fan project that involves the state Department of Water Resources banking excess water in flood years and then “withdrawing” that water for environmental needs in dry years. Logistically, the state would bank excess water in Kern Fan and then simply not deliver a like amount in years it was needed for ecosystem protection in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

That ecosystem portion of the Kern Fan project was a major factor in helping the $171-million project secure more than $67 million in public funding from Proposition 1, passed by voters in 2014. But the agency was worried it would create a new competitor for already sought after excess flood water, potentially taking a bite out of supplies for other local districts.

Bartel, though, said the agency’s Kern Fan lawsuit was more of a “procedural hiccup.”

“KCWA wants to see the DWR analysis which isn’t completed yet,” he wrote in an email. “KCWA has been super helpful in working through these issues with us under unique circumstances.”

He wrote that Rosedale-Rio Bravo and the agency are “collectively supportive” of the project, which he said will bring more water into the county.

A second lawsuit against the Kern Fan project by the City of Bakersfield is still fully in go mode. In that suit, the City claims the project could result in Kern River water being shipped outside the county. In comment responses in the final environmental documents, Kern Fan proponents wrote that the project “does not include any transfer of local water supplies to (Irvine) nor does it propose any out-of-county water sales or transfers at all.”

If any such transfer of were contemplated, it would require a separate environmental review and be subject to all legal constraints on river water, according to the environmental documents.

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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