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No-nonsense Kern water leader dies at 67

 •  by Lois Henry
Dennis and Melanie Mullins on a tour of Tejon Ranch. Dennis Mullins died Nov. 6, 2019.

Dennis Mullins led the first attempt to measure Kern groundwater under new state law. 

For long-time local attorney Dennis Mullins, life was a banquet of knowledge and one of his greatest joys was filling himself up so he could help others.

He was well-known for his ability to pare down and communicate complex issues, often in memorable ways.

Most recently, Mullins, who served as chair of the Kern Groundwater Authority, didn’t mince words when water districts submitted data showing an unbelievably small local groundwater overdraft of only 84,000 acre feet a year.

“These kinds of phony numbers won’t work,” Mullins told members of the Authority at its September meeting.

That could not have been easy to say to a group representing some of the most powerful agricultural interests in Kern County.

But Mullins didn’t flinch.

“There were moments when he could be intense,” said his wife, Melanie Mullins. “But it was always with a purpose.”

And it worked.

Water districts tucked their tails and submitted far more realistic, if dismal, numbers showing Kern’s groundwater is being overdrafted by about 300,000 acre feet a year.

“Holding that group of farmers and water districts together on this groundwater issue was huge for him,” Melanie said. “He really cared about this community. And he wanted what was right for everyone.”

Mullins died suddenly on Wednesday. He was 67.

“Oh, he leaves a giant hole,” said long time friend Dennis Atkinson, who worked with Mullins for many years at Tejon Ranch where Mullins served as General Counsel. “He did a phenomenal job on the groundwater authority. He provided a lot of adult supervision. He was a pretty quiet guy but when he said something, you better listen, because he hit the nail on the head.”

Others agreed remarking on Mullins’ keen intellect and wide knowledge base.

“He could be very intimidating as a director. You really had to know your stuff when you talked to him,” said Sheridan Nicholas, Engieneer-Manager for Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District where Mullins served as a director representing Tejon since 1997.

“He had the innate ability to get to the bottom of issues and talk clearly and to the point.”

“CEO function” was how Harry Starkey described Mullins’ style. Starkey worked closely with Mullins when Starkey was General Manager of West Kern Water District. Starkey is now Director of Water Resources Development for Hallmark Group Capital Program Management.

“He was a very important voice for Kern County water,” Starkey said. “On groundwater, yes, but he was also involved in the California WaterFix and affordability of water for ag.”

And, he said, Mullins was fearless.

“He called out the water districts and went on record about the overdraft. That took courage to speak the truth and, at the same time, move people toward the answer.”

That was always his goal, Melanie Mullins said, to move toward truth.

“He was very thoughtful and respectful. He knew his words and chose them well. He could talk to anybody about anything and pull them together.”

Mullins had retired from Klein Denatale Goldner just a few months ago and was looking forward to getting a master’s degree in religion so he could begin his next career – teaching.

“He was calling this his sabbatical year so he could travel and wind down and then gear up for his next career,” Melanie said Thursday. “He was a good teacher. In our Bible study, people listened and took heart to what he had to share. And they would always ask for more.”

Jay Rosenlieb, a partner at Klein Denatale Goldner, recalled Mullins as a man of “deep, deep faith who was very much committed to his church.”

The two had met when Rosenlieb served on the Kern County Planning Commission in the early 2000s and enthusiastically hired him when Mullins decided to leave Tejon Ranch.

“I remember it was October 2006 and I got a call from Tom Falgatter saying he’d been contacted by Dennis about a job and what did I think. I said, ‘Can he start tomorrow?’”

Though Mullins worked for the firm on real estate transactions, Rosenlieb said Mullins took to the groundwater issue with a passion.

“His work with the groundwater authority was a massive, massive negotiation with an incredible number of moving parts,” Rosenlieb said. “But Dennis relished it.”

Mullins grew up in Alameda, California. He went on to earn his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School at Ann Arbor and was admitted to the California State Bar in 1978.

Melanie said he also passed the District of Columbia Bar and kept both licenses active.

He first went to work for the Reagan administration helping to choose judges for appointments “at just 30 years old,” Melanie said.

He later worked in the George H.W. Bush administration for the General Services Administration.

After Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton in 1992, Mullins came back to California where he took the job with Tejon in the early 1990s.

In March 1996, Mullins and his first wife Joanne adopted their daughter, Anna, from Russia.

“He was so excited about that,” recalled friend Dennis Atkinson.

Then in 2001 Joanne was in a car accident that triggered an aggressive form of Parkinsons, Anna Mullins said. She died in 2005.

Mullins moved to Bakersfield to raise Anna and began work as a land transaction attorney for Klein Denatale Goldner.

Years later, Atkinson introduced him to Melanie. “They went to coffee, hit it off, got married (in 2016) and I’ve never seen two happier people,” he said.

Mullins is survived by his wife, Melanie, daughter Anna, two stepdaughters and two grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 16 at Trinity Anglican Church.

Lois Henry Lois Henry

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