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LOIS HENRY: Proposed groundwater bank sparks legal challenge

A battle of groundwater banks is underway in Kern County with accusations that one is poised to mine the local aquifer and sell water outside the area.

The two main combatants are the massive Kern Water Bank, which covers 32 square miles straddling Interstate 5 west of Bakersfield, and the Buena Vista Water Storage District, which covers 50,000 acres between I-5 and the California Aqueduct stretching from Tupman north to Lerdo Highway.

The two entities are locked in a larger legal fight over Kern River water, which also features in this latest scuffle.

The Kern Water Bank sued the Kern Local Agency Formation Commission in June for approving Buena Vista’s request to annex lands and increase its sphere of influence to cover a proposed well field northeast of its existing 1,150-acre water recharge ponds known as the Palms Project.

That proposed wellfield was outside of Buena Vista’s district before the LAFCo action.

The Kern Water Bank lawsuit alleges, among other things, that Buena Vista plans to drain the aquifer using that proposed well field while recharging crummy water on the Palms Project from as-yet-unknown future banking partners, leaving less water for local use.

“It will result in a significant and unreasonable reduction in groundwater storage and groundwater quality,” the lawsuit states.

The suit seeks to nullify the annexation and increased sphere of influence. A call and email to attorneys for the Kern Water Bank weren’t returned.

“None of that is true,” said Tim Ashlock, general manager for Buena Vista.

The district sought to have the proposed well field brought into its boundaries to avoid paying taxes on it, not for anything to do with the new phase of its Palms Project.

The Palms Project was approved in 2015 for water recharge only. It has been operational since 2019 and has recharged 27,000 acre feet of surplus water so far, according to Buena Vista’s environmental documents.

Now, Buena Vista wants to drill 14 new wells, seven on the land that was recently annexed, to start using the Palms as an actual groundwater bank. Meaning various entities store water there in flush years and withdraw it in dry years, much as the Kern Water Bank operates.

Buena Vista’s draft environmental impact report on this new Palms phase does state water from the project would be “exchanged with other districts or sold to other industrial or municipal users.”

Before that happens, though, Ashlock said Buena Vista would have to do another environmental impact report.

As for the quality of water banked in the Palms, he said, so far it’s been almost exclusively Kern River water, which is less salty than water from the California Aqueduct and he anticipated the majority of banked water would continue to come from the river.

That’s another problem with this project, according to earlier comments from the Kern Water Bank opposing the Palms recovery project. It wrote that Buena Vista doesn’t have a right to use high-flow water from the river, something the district disputes.

High flow water on the river has been a contentious bone between the Kern Water Bank and Buena Vista for several years. Both have filed applications with the State Water Resources Control Board for river water that was deemed forfeited in a 2007 court ruling.

Buena Vista has Kern River rights as part of an 1888 settlement between Ben Ali Haggin and Henry Miller. The Kern Water Bank doesn’t have any river rights but has been able to capture and store water when the river runs so high other rights holders can’t use it all.

The Water Board is now beginning to sort through applications for that 2007 forfeited water to see how much, if any, is truly available.

In the course of those proceedings, the Kern Water Bank in 2019 filed a complaint against Buena Vista with the Water Board alleging the district was claiming more river water than it had a right to. The Water Board denied that complaint, saying those and other issues would be dealt with as it works through the larger river issues.

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.