What’s new in water?

Oh, I thought you’d never ask.

I've got some important tidbits for you.

Oh don't whine, this is the last water column by me you’ll have to slog through so COWGRRRL UP!

The biggest, immediate water question right now is: Will they? Or won’t they?

I’m talking about the California WaterFix and whether local farmers will help pay for it.

WaterFix is the new generation “peripheral canal” project being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown to route water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via two tunnels, to avoid further damage to endangered fish species. 

The WaterFix will reportedly cost $16 billion or more, depending on whom you talk to.

That will be paid by the beneficiaries, farmers and cities that receive the water.

Kern County’s share would be around $4 billion, give or take. And it would be shouldered mainly by agricultural water districts.

Southern California’s water gorilla, the Metropolitan Water District, has already signed on, which means the project will likely happen one way or another. With recent wildlife agency permit approvals, the likelihood is getting ever more likely.

Some ag district folks I’ve talked to say those factors make it impossible for locals to bow out.

The feeling is it’s better to be on board the train no matter how pricey the ticket rather than let it run you over.

For others, the state’s inability to guarantee even a minimum amount of water from the tunnels make that ticket almost too high to consider.

“Who’s to say it’s not going to be like the rest of the state system?” said Maurice Etchechury, general manager of Buena Vista Water Storage District. “We pay to build the supply and then the enviros take it away from us.”

Either way, a decision point is coming for local ag districts, which have until Sept. 28 to tell the Kern County Water Agency whether they will pay up or hold on to their wallets.

So the question remains, will they or won’t they?

The clock is ticking.

Then there's the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act — SGMA.

And the news is not good.

SGMA mandates that over-drafted basins (and Kern is way, way over-drafted), get our groundwater houses in order, meaning we can’t pump more water out than goes back into the aquifer.

We have until 2020 to come up with a plan and 2040 to make sure it’s working.

In the meantime, SGMA is already causing pain.

A roomful of farmers, real estate professionals and water district folks got the lowdown on just how much pain Tuesday when ag land appraiser Mike Ming of Alliance Appraisal delivered a detailed look at Kern land values during the Water Association of Kern County’s monthly luncheon.

By the end, his “Any questions?” was met with a moment of stone silence.

If you own farmland outside of a water district, values are expected to drop between 25 percent and 35 percent by the end of this year.

If your land is in a water district, but uses well water only, expect a drop of 10 percent to 20 percent.

If your land is in a district and has a contract for state or federal water, the anticipated value decline will be 5 percent to 10 percent.

Those lucky enough to be in a district with Kern River rights are the only ones whose land won’t devalue and may actually see an increase of up to 15 percent.

“This is happening throughout the southern San Joaquin Valley,” Ming said, reciting similar land value declines in Fresno County.

Water availability is the No. 1 question every buyer is asking.

Things are expected to get worse before they get better.

As SGMA progresses, there will be hard decisions about how many of Kern’s 900,000 irrigated acres will continue in production.

In the best-case scenario, Kern could lose 185,000 irrigated acres.

And even that, Ming pointed out, will mean a loss of 12,400 direct and indirect jobs and $631 million in lost farm income.

The brightest note of Ming’s talk was that by around 2030, after some lands have been taken out of production and we have a better idea of SGMA’s full effect, values should come back up given the basics of supply and demand.

Some in the audience asked whether creation of a water market similar to that created in Australia would help land values.

Ming didn’t have an answer.

To that end, Mike Young, architect of the Australian water market, created after that country’s devastating 10-year drought, has been making the rounds advocating Kern water managers create a “share” system to track who owns how much groundwater and make it possible to trade, sell or even mortgage those shares.

That’s an interesting concept and not entirely foreign to local water agencies, said Harry Starkey, general manager of West Kern Water District.

State Water Project allotments are, essentially, shares that districts manage, move, trade and sometimes sell.

So it could be done with groundwater as well.

But that’s a ways down the road.

Water districts just recently finished the process of creating Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, the organizations that will determine how much groundwater farmers, cities and businesses can pump.

That’s the heart of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP), and make no mistake it will be a major fight.

“That’s the difficult part,” said Starkey. “Creating a structure to allocate the groundwater, that’s interesting but it doesn’t answer the big question.

“That’s the cherry on the sundae, but we haven’t even milked the cow to make the ice cream yet.”

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