Well, the gloves are off in the race for control of the Kern County Water Agency.

Three seats are contested. And boy howdy, are they.

Signs are popping up like mushrooms in some parts of the county and there have been half-page ads for a slate of three candidates in the paper the last few days.

The newspaper ads featuring Royce Fast, Bruce Hafenfeld and Dick Porter are paid for by a committee called "Kern Water, A Matter of Life," which was formed Eric Averett, general manager for Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, of which Fast is a board member.

The committee has raised more than $40,000, according to campaign statements. There is no single "major donor." Candidates raising money individually, Loron Hodge, Randall Parker and Martin Milobar, have only raised about $16,000 collectively. (Candidates Daures Stephens and Terry Rogers haven't raised anything.)

That's big money. Huge!

It's probably more than has been raised and spent in all previous director races over the agency's 50-year existence for a few seats on a water board most people know nothing about.

There's a reason for that, according to almost all the candidates.

Kern County's water future is at stake.

Well, not directly for us urban dwellers. But, for ag, yeah, this is a shaky time.

Water supplies from the delta have never been this uncertain. Plans for a fix are up in the air and potential costs are staggering.

The Kern County Water Agency is the only vehicle locals have to try and keep a hand in the outcome.

A growing number of water districts and farmers don't feel the agency has included them as much as they want, even as it has tapped them for funding to keep the delta work going. Meanwhile, whispers that those very water districts and farmers are trying to "stack the board" to take over the agency to benefit just a few large Kern County landowners have grown to grumbles.

The main landowner in question is Paramount Farming.

I looked into the allegations as far as I could. Even calling Stewart Resnick, head of Paramount. He said he wouldn't know the answers to my questions and directed me to his local lieutenant, Bill Phillimore who never returned my calls.

Even without their input, I didn't find evidence that Paramount had directly recruited any candidate. The three candidates in the newspaper ads are all independent farmers with no obvious ties to Paramount.

Nor could I discern that the company was controlling the races.

In fact, if that was its aim, I have to say it isn't very good at it. Otherwise, there wouldn't be three-way contested races.

In two races, incumbents face two challengers each and in another with no incumbent, there are two candidates. Not exactly how a well-oiled political machine sets things up.

Fast, one of the three candidates featured in the newspaper ads, said that yes, they are trying to change the make up of the board.

But not to benefit any single landowner.

"We wanted to get some people in there who are actually paying the bills they've been sending out," he said. "Everyone's been expressing frustration with the agency."

Fast said he was approached by several local people, not Paramount, about running and decided to throw his hat in the ring when his son came back to run his farming operations.

He acknowledged that Paramount's Phillimore has been at bull sessions where farmers and water district folks have discussed getting more representation on the agency board, but he was one among many voices.

Hodge, the former director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, is running against Fast for the open Division 6 seat. He hadn't heard the rumors of ag trying to control the board. He was surprised, however, that he didn't get as much support from ag interests as he thought he would.

Hafenfeld and Porter, the other candidates in the newspaper ad with Fast, didn't return my calls in time for publication.

Hafenfeld is a long time rancher from the Kern River Valley. He's running for the Division 2 seat against incumbent Rogers and former Sheriff's deputy Stephens.

Rogers said he's heard the rumors that "big ag" wants to take over the board.

"That may be true, but it's not as ominous as it sounds," he said. "Lets face it, as the board sits today, there's only one farmer on it. This may be a legitimate effort by ag to get more representation."

In his area ag, isn't a key factor as there isn't much farming in the Indian Wells Valley, which has a serious groundwater overdraft problem, he said.

Porter, the third candidate in the newspaper ad, is a family citrus farmer from the Arvin/Lamont area. He's running against Parker, a one-term incumbent and bankruptcy trustee, and Milobar, the retired general manager of Buena-Vista Water Storage District. They are seeking the Division 3 seat.

Parker is very concerned that the agency remain in the hands of board members whose only stake in water is to keep as much here as possible. He wants to preserve the benefits of state water for everyone in Kern, he said.

"I will not allow it to be sold out of county, with the benefit that our citizens have paid for, going into someone's pocket."

Milobar shrugged at the idea that large farmers might be backing certain candidates.

"They can do what they want to do," he said. "I believe I have the background and expertise the others can't come close to."

His support has come from a variety of farmers, mostly in the Buttonwillow area, where he worked for most of his career.

"Next Tuesday, we'll know the outcome."

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com