Valley irrigation district OKs plan to harvest mountain stream

January 13, 2021
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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A plan to bring water from the South Fork of the Kern River through Isabella Lake and down 60 miles to farm fields west of Bakersfield was unanimously approved by the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District board of directors on Tuesday.

If the environmental documents supporting that plan survive what is sure to be a barrage of lawsuits brought by other Kern River rights holders, Rosedale-Rio Bravo farmers could see South Fork water in their furrows as early as this spring, according to Rosedale-Rio Bravo General Manager Eric Averett. (Assuming there’s water available in this very dry year.)

Given the tenor of the opposition letters, however, that may be optimistic.

“Rosedale has failed to contact or communicate in any way with the City,” writes Colin Pearce, an attorney with Duane Morris, who represents Bakersfield on water issues, in a letter opposing certification of the environmental documents.

He writes that the final environmental document was vague on how the South Fork project would actually move water down to Rosedale-Rio Bravo. The document states that those specifics will be settled some time in the future after “coordination” or “agreements” are made with other river rights holders, Pearce writes.

“Failure to include such important Project details and information…constitutes improper ‘piecemealing,’ in violation of (the California Environmental Quality Act),” Pearce writes in his Jan. 11 letter.

Bakersfield’s opposition was echoed by letters from the Kern River Watermaster and Kern Delta Water District.

They argue that Rosedale inadequately explains how it will:
* Quantify the amount of South Fork water it has rights to.
* Move water through Isabella Lake and down the river without encroaching on other rights holders.

Averett has said Rosedale-Rio Bravo acquired rights to between 5,000 and 7,000 acre feet a year, on average, of South Fork water when it bought the Onyx and Smith ranches in 2013 for $25 million.

The project description says it will fallow the previously farmed ranches and move between 2,000 and 12,000 acre feet, depending on the type of water year, through the lake to district lands on the valley floor.

And while the irrigation district hasn’t had luck partnering with other river interests to get storage space in Isabella, it can still “bring the water down ‘run of the river’ without requiring use of Isabella or storage,” Averett wrote in an email to SJV Water last summer.

He said that even though the City of Bakersfield owns the river channel west of the Kern River Canyon, Rosedale-Rio Bravo could use it by way of the “public trust doctrine,” which says all natural waterways are owned by the public.

Colin Pearce, who represents Bakersfield on water issues, said last summer none of that was in the environmental documents.

“They’re also not telling us what they’ll do with the water,” Pearce said last summer. “There’s nothing to stop them from selling it to LA or Irvine Ranch, which they’re involved with on another water deal.”

True, but Rosedale-Rio Bravo has no plans to move the South Fork water out of the basin, Averett said.

Rights to water from the South Fork is the “most valuable asset Rosedale-Rio Bravo has for its landowners,” he said last summer.

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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