Not all Kern River water is being counted the same by water districts

July 26, 2023
by Lois Henry
The south fork of the Kern River near Weldon in March 2022. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Farmers in an agricultural water district northwest of Bakersfield may have South Fork Kern River water stored in a local water bank. Or they may not.

It depends on who’s counting the water.

The Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage district says that since July 5, up to 37 cubic feet per second of South Fork Kern water from its Onyx Ranch has been flowing through Lake Isabella and down the canyon to the valley floor where it’s been tucked into storage west of Allen Road.

The Kern River Watermaster says otherwise.

“We are not accounting for their water,” Mark Mulkay said Tuesday. “The daily flows are assigned at First Point (just west of Hart Park) to each rights holders. We are not delivering Onyx water.”

Rosedale-Rio Bravo bought the Onyx Ranch above Lake Isabella back in 2013 with hopes of bringing South Fork water to its growers.

But the other Kern River rights holders balked saying Rosedale-Rio Bravo didn’t have a storage account in Lake Isabella so couldn’t hold or move water through the lake as that could interfere with existing rights.

Last April, the groups reached a brief detente and allowed some South Fork water to be moved under a pilot project. The deal collapsed in August when Buena Vista Water Storage District filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Impact Report covering the Onyx project.

That started a cascade of lawsuits by all the other Kern River rights holders. Rights holders include Buena Vista, the City of Bakersfield, Kern Delta Water District, North Kern Water Storage District and the Kern County Water Agency.

“It’s a joke,” John Vidovich, a Buena Vista board member, said at the time. “They bought an abandoned farm and took river water to irrigate it and now they think they have a riparian right and can take that water all the way to Rosedale? That’s a very long reach.”

He argued that if taking water off rivers were that simple, anyone could buy land along, say, the Sacramento River and ship its water anywhere they wanted.

“In our research, which was exhaustive, we determined most of the Onyx water rights are appropriative, so that water can legally be moved,” Rosedale-Rio Bravo General Manager Dan Bartel said last year.

Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District proposes to take water from the South Fork of the Kern to farms on the valley floor.

Despite the lawsuits, the Onyx program has continued, Bartel said.

This past spring, “There was a lot of nervousness about the flow capacity in the Kern River,” Bartel said during a recent Rosedale-Rio meeting. The district coordinated with Mulkay to “pause the Onyx project,” and irrigate the ranch to keep as much water out of Lake Isabella as possible.

As of July 5, the Army Corps of Engineers lifted its mandatory release order  so, “we put the project back on,” Bartel said.

“Between 37 and 43 cfs went through Isabella and is being directed toward the Pioneer Project (a water storage facility),” he said during the meeting. “I can’t say the Watermaster and Kern River interests are cooperating with that. But that’s what’s happening with the physical flow of water.”

From Watermaster Mulkay’s point of view, that’s not South Fork water.

“They may be buying water from the city through one of their contracts, but it’s not Onyx water,” he said.

Yes, Bartel insisted, it is.

“If not us, someone’s taking it because we are sending it down,” he wrote in an email.

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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