Longtime Kern water leader leaving for private sector

January 21, 2021
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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Kern County’s water community had a shake-up Tuesday when longtime Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District General Manager Eric Averett announced he is leaving to take a private sector job.

This comes on top of the pending retirement of another key local water manager.

Richard Diamond, General Manager of North Kern Water Storage District, announced he will retire later this year.

Though Diamond’s departure has had a long lead time, Averett will move on within the next 90 days, he said.

He will be leading Homer LLC, the land and water division of Los Angeles-based Renewable Resources Group (RRG), co owned by Ari Swiller and Cole Frates.

RRG started as a renewable energy investment firm but has become a major private investor in various water projects throughout California.

It has a long history in southern California under a variety of names including ReNu Resources, ReNuable, Alphabet Farms and Imperial Farming, according to a 2019 Voice of San Diego article.

Corporation Wiki shows 57 different companies associated with RRG’s main address of 113 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, including Homer.

It has been a player in the San Joaquin Valley since at least the early 2000s when another of its companies, Western Development Storage LLC partnered with the Madera Irrigation District to develop a water bank.

That relationship was handed off to Madera Valley LLC, another company run by Frates and Swiller, and ultimately ended in acrimony.

A settlement was reached in 2014 in which Madera Irrigation agreed to pay Madera Valley $500,000 and give it the option buy certain amounts of water from the district in moderate to wet years for 25 years.

RRG became more broadly known in the southern San Joaquin Valley in 2013 with its purchase of Sun World International. It sold Sun World’s farming operations to Famous Vineyards in 2019 but retained other assets including its intellectual and licensing properties.

More recently, RRG indicated it would be willing to pay all or a portion of $130 million to secure 650 cubic feet per second of capacity in the Friant-Kern Canal, per a survey sent to contractors by the Friant Water Authority last July.

That sparked controversy among Friant Contractors, some of whom worried about the consequences of using private money to fix a public water conveyance.

RRG is also the same company Rosedale-Rio Bravo bought the Onyx Ranch from in 2013.

Swiller, through RRG, acquired Onyx in 2008 for $48 million, beating out the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the land in what became a contentious purchase,  according to a 2009 Los Angeles Times article.

RRG then sold half the 68,000-acre ranch to the City of Vernon for $42 million.

Rosedale-Rio Bravo got the rest in 2013 for $25 million.

The irrigation district hopes to harvest water from the South Fork of the Kern River, which runs through the ranch, and bring it to valley fields.

Though Averett has worked with RRG on various projects since 2013, he said the idea of signing on with them only cropped up in the last month or so.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I’ve enjoyed my time at Rosedale. The opportunity with RRG is unique and gives me a chance to work with a group that’s leading the way in public-private partnerships in water,” Averett said of his decision to leave Rosedale-Rio Bravo after 13 years.

Though some water managers have concerns about private investment in public water infrastructure, Averett is convinced that’s the only viable path to sustainability in the Central Valley.

“I’ve heard those same fears,” he said. “Part of that is that this is a new concept. But with SGMA (the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), landowners and commercial enterprises can’t sit back. They need to take ownership of the problem and bring new solutions that are unique to their private industry perspective.”

Averett leaves Rosedale-Rio Bravo as several of the programs he spearheaded are coming to fruition.

Those include Onyx Ranch, the McAllister Ranch water banking project and a new water market in which Averett partnered with Environmental Defense Fund.

“Those are board policies and programs. My job was to implement them,” Averett said. “Whether it’s me or the next person in line, those will all continue.”

District board members and other water managers were surprised but not shocked by Averett’s move.

“When someone’s that valuable, you know someone else will try and take him,” said Jason Selvidge, Vice-President of Rosedale-Rio Bravo’s Board of Directors.

He said the district is still “picking up the pieces” of Averett’s announcement and hasn’t decided how it will fill his position.

“It’s a tense job,” he said of being a water manager. “These guys are paid good money, but they do endure a lot of stress.”

In Averett’s case, the money was quite good — a base annual salary of $378,560 with a $60,000 benefits package.

When asked if he was getting a raise going to RRG, Averett said he wasn’t “at liberty to say.”

RRG spokesman Tom Eisenhaur emailed a statement about Averett that reads: “His creative, level-headed approach to water management reflects the values RRG carries into all of our efforts – an approach grounded in respect for all stakeholder needs and concerns.”

Innovation is a hallmark of Averett’s leadership, according to others in the field.

“He is a creative and forward-looking water leader,” said Ann Hayden, who leads EDF’s California water program and partnered with Rosedale-Rio Bravo to create its water marketing platform.

“He definitely saw SGMA coming and jumped out in front of it to get the whole Kern subbasin organized,” said Mark Mulkay, former General Manager and now Water Resources Manager for Kern Delta Water District.

For all the praise, though, this is the water world, known for its internal strife.

“I didn’t always agree with him,” said John Vidovich, Board President of Buena Vista Water Storage District, which started the massive McAllister Ranch water banking deal arm-in-arm with Rosedale-Rio Bravo, then broke off with them and has since come back to the partnership. “But Eric worked very, very hard for Rosedale and he will be difficult to replace.”

Other relationships have been downright fraught.

That includes Rosedale-Rio Bravo and the City of Bakersfield, which are embroiled in a lawsuit over Kern River water.

Still, Art Chianello, head of Bakersfield’s Water Resources Department, wished Averett “the best of luck in his new opportunity.”

Averett began his career in water with the Kern County Water Agency, starting as a maintenance mechanic in 1991 and rising to manager of the agency’s municipal water arm known as Improvement District 4.

He graduated from California State University, Bakersfield with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Resource Management.

He will remain in Bakersfield and work out of an office in town.

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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