The Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to withdraw from the Kern Groundwater Authority at Tuesday’s meeting, altering water management in certain areas of the county.
Supervisors debated the issue for over two hours, at one point nearly tabling the vote until next week.
The withdrawal will take effect in 30 days, giving the county a short window of opportunity to negotiate with the KGA to potentially remain a part of the organization.
At issue is the level of legal liability the county would be responsible for if it remained a member of the KGA.
If the county remains, it will maintain control of water management in certain parts of Kern County not currently covered by another water agency. If it withdraws, the county maintains other agencies will fill the void.
The county has sought an indemnity clause with the KGA, which would shield it from lawsuits many fear will arise when state-mandated water restrictions become enforced over the next 20 years.
KGA’s chairman Dennis Mullins, said the indemnity clause proposed by the county was too broad, and could not be accepted by the group.
“The county’s demand is unreasonable to the point of being absurd,” he told supervisors at the meeting.
County officials disagree with the KGA’s objection to their demand. They see being a part of the KGA without an indemnity clause as an unnecessary legal risk that could end up costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.
“At the end of the day we should not be involved, and we are not obligated to be,” said Kern County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop. “We definitely don’t have the experience or the staffing.”
The county had been working with the KGA to manage water consumption for about 400,000 acres of land that did not have a water management authority. With Tuesday's vote, it is not completely clear who will take over as the water management agency in those areas.
Alsop said Kern County Water Agency will take control of managing the water in certain parts of the unmanaged areas.
He objected to the perception that the withdrawal by the county would cause any confusion over water management in all areas of the county.
"Our action today doesn't throw anything into disarray," he said in a phone message after the meeting. "It doesn't change anything. We're simply removing ourselves as a member of the KGA."
Members of a rancher family in one of the areas in question attended the meeting to protest the county’s withdrawal.
“All we’re asking for is a simple plan,” rancher Austin Snedden said at the meeting. “We don’t want to be left hanging in limbo to some agency.”
Supervisor David Couch was the only supervisor to vote against the withdrawal. He had requested supervisors table the vote for an additional week to provide both parties with more time to come to an agreement.
County staff said they did not have much optimism that an agreement could be reached.