Art Chianello, who has led Bakersfield’s Water Resources Department through two of the state’s worst droughts and one of its wettest years on record, is retiring at the end of September.
Most municipal water departments are fairly quiet operations. As long as water comes out of taps, not many people pay attention.
But the Bakersfield water department is in the unique position of also tracking and managing flows on the Kern River — a highly contentious piece of water — which it partly owns.
So, while Chianello oversaw the city’s growing domestic water systems, he was also smack in the middle of nearly every ongoing Kern River legal controversy. And because the city is the official record-keeper of river flows, Chianello has had a starring role in hearings by the State Water Resources Control Board about whether there’s any available water on the Kern.
After some water was deemed forfeited by the Kern Delta Water District, a number of entities, including the city, applied to the state water board for the water. Only the city has pledged to run it down the riverbed. The city’s contention has been that the forfeited water is a new “chunk” of water that the board should reassign to a new owner.
Other river interests, including the North Kern Water Storage District, have vehemently disagreed, saying that forfeited water should simply be given to the next right holder in line. Those hearings are set to resume next month.
Despite the disagreements, Chianello approached his job with a steadfastly cheerful attitude.
“There are many great things about my job,” he wrote in a text. “Working in cooperation with the Kern River Water Master, the Kern River interests, and working with a hard working, dedicated and talented staff at the Water Resources Department.”
Not so great aspects of the job: “Multiyear droughts which seem to never end soon enough and the hope for next year to be wet never fades,” he wrote.
Through it all, Chianello was known for fostering a collegial environment.
“I would personally like to say that I along with everyone at Cal Water have had a long, cooperative relationship with Art,” wrote Tamara Johnson, district manager for California Water Services, in an email. “Through this cooperative relationship, we have been successful in ensuring that even in the most severe circumstances, such as the drought, we have continued to work together to support Bakersfield residents and businesses.”
Cal Water buys Kern River supplies from the city, serves the majority of Bakersfield and handles billing and other issues for the city’s direct drinking water system, which serves a smaller portion of residents.
Likewise, staff at the Kern County Water Agency, which provides drinking water through its Improvement District No. 4 to east Bakersfield, credited Chianello’s easy demeanor.
“Art was always willing to work with Improvement District No. 4 on water management programs for the metropolitan Bakersfield area,” agency staff wrote in an email. “We didn’t always agree, but it never stopped us from working together for the benefit of the local community.”
Other water managers credited Chianello’s focus on collaboration with helping to end previously acrimonious relationships.
“Art was instrumental in renewing the City’s positive relationship with Kern Delta , which has led to collaborations such as the formation of the Kern River Groundwater Sustainability Agency,” wrote Kern Delta General Manager Steve Teglia. “Art will leave a big void behind at the City Water Resources Department given the knowledge and character he takes with him into retirement.”
Chianello started his career with the city in 2002 as an engineer in the Public Works Department mainly in the Wastewater Division, where he helped design one of the city’s treatment plants.
He took over the helm of the Water Resources Department in 2010 and “learned quickly about the Kern River, canals, daily operations, the law of the river, agreements, storage at Isabella, and record keeping,” Chianello wrote.
He hasn’t heard when his replacement will be announced.
Assistant City Manager Gary Hallen said the city is engaged in a “nationwide search” for the right person. In the meantime, Hallen will take over as interim water resources manager starting Saturday.
Chianello said he has no post-retirement plans yet and his wife expect to remain in Bakersfield. They have one college-age son who is attending Georgia Institute of Technology.