New Kern County groundwater bank gets underway with another shot of public funding

April 3, 2024
by Lois Henry
Partners in the Kern Fan Groundwater Storage Project west of Bakersfield pose next to a recharge pond under construction. Left to right: Kellie Welch, Water Resources Irvine Ranch Water District; Michael Brain, Dep. Secty. Water and Science Dept. of Interior; Roy Pierucci, Board President Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District; Jason Selvidge, Vice President Rosedale-Rio Bravo; Trent Taylor, Water Resources Rosedale-Rio Bravo; Paul Weghorst, Water Policy Irvine Ranch; Dan Bartel General Manager Rosedale-Rio Bravo; and Stacy Wade, Dep. Reg. Dir. Lower Colorado Region and Acting Dep. Reg. Dir. California-Great Basin Bureau of Reclamation. SJV Water / Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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The $171 million Kern Fan Groundwater Storage project – with a unique “eco-twist” – received another chunk of public funding just as the first section of the 1,300-acre project had a formal christening on Wednesday.

Officials with Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, Irvine Ranch Water District and the Bureau of Reclamation gathered at the project site near Enos Lane west of Bakersfield to look over construction of the first part of Phase 1, which began in February.

The Bureau announced earlier in the week that it had approved a $3.9 million grant for the project, which is in addition to $4.7 million awarded by the Bureau in 2023. That funding requires a 75% match from Rosedale-Rio Bravo and Irvine Ranch.

We are extremely excited to get another large influx of infrastructure funding from the Department of Interior,” Rosedale-Rio Bravo General Manager Dan Bartel wrote in an email. “The team did a fantastic job of preparing extensive feasibility and environmental impact studies and of course the grant application package which makes this all possible.”

The federal funding is on top of $89 million of Proposition 1 water storage bond money that the California Water Commission approved for the Kern Fan Project back in 2018. Kern Fan was the only San Joaquin Valley project to win approval of Prop. 1 funding, which does not require a match.

Bartel said the project still has a number of permitting hurdles to cross before the state releases the Prop. 1 money.

The basic concept of the Kern Fan project is standard groundwater banking: Put excess water underground in wet years and retrieve it in dry years, with some left behind to sustain the aquifer.

Kern Fan, however, also promises to hold 25% of the banked water in an “ecosystem account” to be called on by the Department of Water Resources when needed for environmental reasons in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 

The ecosystem account is one of the main reasons Kern Fan won Prop. 1 funding. 

There are several wrinkles to iron out before the project reaches its full recharge capacity of 100,000 acre feet, however.

Including the specter of 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP), a contaminant left over from a nematode fumigant applied throughout the San Joaquin Valley from the 1950s through the 1980s.

TCP is considered highly carcinogenic and restricted to five parts per trillion (about five grains of sand in an Olympic pool). It has been found in groundwater generally in the Kern Fan area, Bartel acknowledged.

“We have not drilled new wells yet on Phase 1, so that is still an unknown,” he wrote in an email.

TCP contamination has already caused problems for ag/municipal banking operations in Kern County, including with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has several long standing banking partnerships in the region.

Bartel was confident the Kern Fan water could be “blended down” to reduce TCP to levels allowable in the California Aqueduct, which the project will eventually connect to directly through a new 10-mile canal. 

The placement of that canal is still under consideration and was the subject of one of two lawsuits over the project.

The Kern County Water Agency and City of Bakersfield both sued Kern Fan for different reasons. Bakersfield was concerned Rosedale-Rio Bravo and Irvine Ranch would use the project to move Kern River water out of the county. The agency was concerned that the project’s connection into the Aqueduct would cut into other water district’s ability to move water into and out of the Aqueduct.

Both actions were settled after the Kern Fan officials agreed no Kern River water would leave the county and that they would do a full environmental study before deciding where to connect to the Aqueduct, Bartel said.

For now, Kern Fan is starting on 300 acres along the west side of Enos Land just south of Rosedale Highway. Those ponds will take water, when available, from connections to the river, the Friant-Kern Canal and Cross Valley Canal. Construction on Phase 1 is expected to be finished by the end of 2026 and cost $39 million.

Even without a drop, though, Bartel noted that the project is already saving water.

The land where the recharge ponds are being constructed had been farmed for years in “intensive irrigated agriculture” that required 1,000 acre feet per year.

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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