Harry Starkey

What a great water year we are having! Reservoirs are full, the Kern River is bursting at its banks and the snowpack is healthy. This is very encouraging and the drought-weary are smiling.

As I look around Kern County, it’s incredibly refreshing to see water flowing in the Kern River. That hasn’t happened in any appreciable amount since 2011. As I type, Lake Isabella has 270,000 acre-feet of water in storage (last year it topped out at 150,000 but that was in June). The Kern River has 4,000 cubic feet per second flowing within its banks and all of the various water banking facilities are running at maximum. (By the way, a great vantage point to see some of this water banking activity is where Allen Road crosses the Kern River.)

Over a quarter of a million acre-feet of water will be recharged into our underground aquifers during the month of March. This scale of recharge activity will likely last through the end of the year. That’s good news for our groundwater levels, which reached historic lows during the drought but thankfully are beginning to show recovery. I estimate that recovery of groundwater levels will range between 50 and 100 feet by year’s end.

It’s these troubling groundwater levels that are the real story of the drought. Across the state we have never seen groundwater levels this deep. When I’m asked, “Are we still in a drought locally?” I say, “Yes,” and point to our groundwater levels.

When I’m asked, “What’s the safe groundwater level?” I say, “It’s the level necessary to weather the past four years of drought and not have to drill a new well.”

It will take several wet years to get our groundwater levels back to a safe depth. With some good fortune, Mother Nature will continue to smile upon us.

On the subject of groundwater, I would encourage everyone to pay very close attention to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It goes by the acronym SGMA (think “sigma”). We kick a lot of acronyms around in the water business and most people tune them out. Please pay close attention to SGMA because it’s a game-changer, particularly for agriculture. In short, it changes the way we interact with groundwater and requires that we pump groundwater sustainably.

For many years, groundwater has been pumped in certain parts of Kern County without being replenished. This practice is called “overdraft.” It’s similar to writing a check with no money in your bank account. SGMA aims to correct the local condition of overdraft over a 20-year horizon (by 2040).

New governmental organizations are forming to aid in the implantation of SGMA. They are called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. In most cases, these GSAs (sorry, another acronym) are water districts or combinations of water districts.

A local entity called the Kern Groundwater Authority is working to facilitate this monumental effort. For more information on KGA (again!) or SGMA, visit: kerngwa.com/about-us.

— Harry “Mr. Water” Starkey was born and raised in Bakersfield. He has worked in the water business for 30 years and is the current general manager for the West Kern Water District.

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