Too little or too much, there’s always controversy brewing over Kern River water

April 28, 2023
by Lois Henry
The Kern River heading west from Allen Road in Bakersfield. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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It may seem like a no-brainer to enthusiastically allow the Kern Water Bank Authority to take up to 300,000 acre feet of flood water off the Kern River and store it underground as water managers scramble to find homes for this year’s epic runoff.

But, alas, nothing is simple with water.

The water bank’s April 13 application for a temporary permit from the state Water Resources Control Board raised eyebrows almost as soon as it was filed.

The 32-square mile water bank, which has 7,000 acres of recharge ponds, is currently taking 1,500 cubic feet per second of river water. But that water is being purchased by the bank’s participants, mostly from the Kern County Water Agency (see sidebar).

The temporary permit, if granted, would give the bank access to river water on its own, under very limited conditions, according to Water Bank General Manager Jonathan Parker.

The 180-day permit would not create a new right and it would kick in under what’s known as a “notice order” process.

In that scenario, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Lake Isabella, would tell Kern River rights holders that more water must be released from the lake.

If the rights holders simply couldn’t take more and there were a possibility it could go into the California Aqueduct, the Kern River Watermaster would announce a notice order, offering the water to any and all takers to keep it in Kern County.

“This permit would only apply under that process,” Parker said.

“A lot of things have to happen before we got to that point,” said Kern River Watermaster Mark Mulkay. “It would have to be a situation where we could no longer manage the flows locally.”

Parker said the water bank needed to apply for the permit because without it, any flood water stored underground (with the exception of the water purchased from the Kern County Water Agency) can’t be claimed by bank participants later.

Recharged flood water can be counted as a net benefit to the overall aquifer but districts can’t put their name on it, Parker said.

Gov. Newsom issued an emergency order in March that relaxed some of the state’s rules around how flood water can be taken off rivers and used. But to claim it after it’s been stored underground, districts, water banks and individuals still need a permit, confirmed Erik Ekdahl, Deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights with the Water Board.

He was unsure how long it would take to process the Kern Water Bank permit application. He was hoping to get it processed within the next month but said he anticipated the application would be controversial.

“It is the first time anyone has done this,” Mulkay said of the permit application.

Tim Ashlock, General Manager of Buena Vista Water Storage District, would only say his understanding of the permit application is that it would put the water bank “last in line” for flood water off the river.

So far, no one has filed opposition to the application. That includes Buena Vista, which has been sparring with the water bank over numerous issues, in particular, high flows on the Kern River.

In comments from the water bank  opposing a water recovery project by Buena Vista, the water bank wrote that Buena Vista doesn’t have a right to use high-flow water from the river, something the district disputes.

Both entities have filed applications with the Water Board for river water that was deemed forfeited in a 2007 court ruling.

Buena Vista has Kern River rights as part of an 1888 settlement between Ben Ali Haggin and Henry Miller. The Kern Water Bank doesn’t have any river rights.

The Water Board held hearings on whether there is water available on the Kern River, if so, how much, and who should get it  through 2022 but hasn’t issued a ruling so far.

In the course of those proceedings, the Kern Water Bank in 2019 filed a complaint against Buena Vista alleging the district was claiming more river water than it had a right to. The Water Board denied that complaint, saying that would be dealt with as it works through the larger river issues.

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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