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Californian columnist Lois Henry

Water does funny things in California. When there's a drought as bad as the one we're in now, it does things you wouldn't think were possible.

Like flow backwards. As in south to north.

I'm talking about water in the California Aqueduct, which was specifically built to bring water from the north to the south.

But if flows out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are reduced to a trickle, local agricultural water districts are preparing to move banked groundwater from Kern County back up the system to reach growers in the Lost Hills, Berrenda Mesa, Belridge and Dudley Ridge districts.

That's a 47-mile trek in the opposite direction.

While the physical aspects of this plan -- moving water backward in the aqueduct -- seem difficult, it's actually the logistics that are more daunting.

Pumping the water up a nearly flat canal (an elevation gain of less than 2.5 inches per mile) is no big thing on a system that hoists water more than 2,000 vertical feet over a mountain range in order to fill taps in Southern California.

What's really tricky is the timing and determining if the project will be needed at all, according to Kern County Water Agency General Manager Jim Beck.

"We're going full speed ahead to be ready to implement this program," he said. "But the hydrology and supplies are changing almost every day."

If the project is needed, he hopes to be able to deliver water by mid-June. Though the agency isn't sure how much water will be needed, Beck said, it has requested a permit to move up to 80,000 acre-feet.

Earlier this year, when the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) predicted a zero allocation, the so-called "pump-back" plan was almost certain. Now that DWR has upped the allocation to 5 percent, Beck said that could reduce how much water is needed, or negate the plan altogether. If they can, the districts will "retrieve" their banked water through exchanges, essentially water swaps.

Typically, districts to the north get their banked groundwater by swapping it with other contractors further down the line. For example, if Lost Hills needed, say, 500 acre-feet of its banked water, it might make a deal with Castaic Lake Water Agency in Santa Clarita to take that banked water. Then Lost Hills would divert a like amount of water off the California Aqueduct that had initially been designated for Castaic.

The water continues flowing north to south. If contractors to the south aren't getting any water, however, there's nothing to swap. Hence the pump-back plan.

Contractors will be getting at least some water this year, which means Beck and the water districts have to figure out who's putting how much water into the system and, especially, when to see if swaps can be facilitated. Given how many other contractors are part of the system, it's a constantly moving target.

Best estimates now are that the pump-back plan will need only three pumps instead of 12. Costs will also come down, though how much is still a guess. Original estimates ranged from $1.5 million to $9.5 million.

Despite all the flux and worry, Beck said, he's been pleased by how responsive the state has been to local districts' needs during such unusual circumstances. He was especially grateful to Gov. Jerry Brown, whose dought proclamation last week urged DWR to expedite pump-back water deliveries on the state project. That included a limited waiver of environmental laws, or CEQA.

Craig Trombly, head of DWR's water management group, said the agency is double-checking with its attorneys about the CEQA exemption. Meanwhile, it is in the advanced stages of working up a contract for the pump-back plan. He agreed with others who have said pumping the aqueduct backward is a sign of just how desperate the times are.

That said, it's not like this hasn't been done before. Water was pumped north from Kern at least one other time, in 1983. Like now, it was an epic year. Unlike now, it was epically wet. In 1983, the Kern River thundered through the valley, its waters banging up against the intertie, which opens into the California Aqueduct along Interstate 5 in the Tupman area.

"Water was piling up against the aqueduct and we were struggling with what to do with it," Trombly said.

Local districts and the state worked with Kings County ranching company JG Boswell to pump the water north.

Luckily, Beck said, people who work in water tend to stay in water. The folks who were involved in that 1983 pump-back mission are still around, he said, and were invaluable in devising this latest plan.

"We've had a lot of cooperation in moving this forward."

Depending on how successful the project is, it may become more common in the long term. Northern California entities, such as Santa Clara, which banks water in the Semitropic water bank, are quite interested, said Harry Starkey, general manager of the West Kern Water District.

"The system has never operated under these kinds of conditions," Starkey said. "It's times like these when you really find out if you deserve the title 'water manager.' You have to think creatively about all aspects -- timing, plumbing contracts. It calls on everything you've ever learned."

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.