A Kern County water agency is facing a wall of opposition against its plan to harvest up to 12,000 acre feet of water from the South Fork of the Kern River above Lake Isabella and bring it to valley farms.

Mountain residents fear the proposal by Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District will dry up their groundwater and turn the area into another Owens Valley.

Meanwhile, Kern River interests in the San Joaquin Valley want to keep interlopers out of the already delicate balance of river rights.

That may be, but “Rosedale is a Kern River rights holder,” said Eric Averett, general manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo.

It bought the 3,000-acre Onyx Ranch, including its rights to the South Fork of the Kern River, in 2013.

That makes Rosedale-Rio Bravo a river rights owner, he said.

The rest is just logistics.

And the logistics are simple enough, as laid out in the recently released draft environmental impact report on the project.

Rosedale-Rio Bravo proposes to stop using its South Fork water to farm Onyx Ranch and, instead, let it run into Lake Isabella.

Theoretically, that water would then be available to run on down the main river to Rosedale-Rio Bravo where it would be used primarily to recharge depleted groundwater, according to Averett.

“This project, like many others in Rosedale, is all about developing a more reliable water supply,” Averett said. “It’s a backstop to make up for shortages in other surface supplies, including the State Water Project.”

Water managers throughout the San Joaquin Valley are searching for all manner of ways to bring more water into their districts to shore up depleted aquifers per the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Despite the opposition, Averett was hopeful his board would certify a final EIR within a few months and South Fork water could be flowing to Rosedale-Rio Bravo this fall, or springtime at the latest.

Not so fast, said City of Bakersfield water attorney Colin Pearce, with Duane Morris law firm. 

The city has questioned almost every aspect of the proposed project, from whether Rosedale-Rio Bravo actually has rights to the South Fork water claimed in its EIR to whether it can legally move water through a reservoir where all the storage space is already claimed by other water users.

Negative letters also came in from Buena Vista and North Kern water storage districts, Kern Delta, Olcese and Henry-Miller water districts, Kern County Water Agency and the Kern River Watermaster.

“The problem is, Rosedale’s EIR says it would take up to 12,000 acre feet of water from an environmentally sensitive area in the Sierras and move it 60 miles away, but the EIR doesn’t tell us how they plan to do that,” Pearce said. “They explain the first part of the project, that they would reduce the amount of water to the ranch and run it into the lake. The rest is all just wishful thinking.”

Getting it through Lake Isabella is tricky.

All the storage space in the lake is either owned or leased by a handful of entities that Rosedale-Rio Bravo would have to partner with if it wanted to store its South Fork water in the lake.

True, Averett said. Rosedale-Rio Bravo hasn’t had any luck getting a partner.

But if it can’t find a partner “then we can bring the water down ‘run of the river’ without requiring use of Isabella or storage,” Averett wrote in an email.

He said 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.

“I don’t know what he means by that. That isn’t in the EIR,” Pearce said, reiterating the lack of details available to the public about this project. “They’re also not telling us what they’ll do with the water. There’s nothing to stop them from selling it to LA or Irvine Ranch, which they’re involved with on another water deal.”

Averett wrote in an email that, while there's nothing preventing Rosedale-Rio Bravo from selling South Fork water, the district has no plans to move it out of the basin.

Complaints from other water districts about potential environmental impacts from Rosedale-Rio Bravo’s project rang hollow to Averett.

“If we fallowed Onyx Ranch and let that water run into the lake, it would just be allocated to those same downstream users based on their rights and they wouldn’t be claiming environmental impacts if that happened.”

Rosedale-Rio Bravo paid $25 million for Onyx Ranch, which has rights to an average 5,000 to 7,000 acre feet a year of South Fork water, according to Averett.

Spread out over the life of the mortgage, the per-acre-foot cost is about $300, he said. 

Once the debt is paid, though, the cost is nearly zero.

“It’s a right,” he said. “Not a contracted supply. In the big picture, Onyx Ranch is the most valuable asset Rosedale-Rio Bravo has for its landowners.”

Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at lois.henry@sjvwater.org. The website is sjvwater.org.

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