Los Angeles eyeing Kern water source

By VIC POLLARD, Californian SacramentoBureau

Sunday March 24, 2002, 09:55:03 PM

Los Angeles needs water -- again.

Only this time, instead of a stealthy Owens Valley-style water grab like it carried out at the turn of the last century, the city is looking to buy.

Which is why the thirsty metropolis is eyeing water stored underground in the massive Kern Water Bank west of Bakersfield.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is being forced to replace water it drained from Owens Lake decades ago to control tremendous dust storms that blow off the now-dry lake bed.

That's where the Kern Water Bank comes in.

DWP officials have had early talks with representatives of Paramount Farming Co. and other participants in the Kern Water Bank about possible purchase of an as-yet-unspecified amount of water.

Years ago, such a transfer of water out of Kern County would have created an outcry from local farmers.

But now, such transfers are relatively commonplace and are on their way to becoming big business with big profits.

In fact, most farmers and water district officials are involved directly or indirectly in a growing water market that, so far, has brought more water into Kern County than has been transferred out, officials say.

"I don't think it would be a matter of much concern to anyone," said James Nickel, head of the Nickel LLC farming company, of a possible sale to DWP.

The chairman of the Kern Water Bank Authority board, Bill Phillimore, said sales from the water bank were contemplated from the time the bank was acquired by Kern County water agencies in 1995.

"Otherwise they could not afford the water and the facilities to operate the water bank," he said.

Phillimore is also a top executive of Paramount Farming Co., whose Westside Mutual Water Co. is the biggest participant in the water bank and is most interested in selling water to Los Angeles.

The Kern Water Bank consists of 20,000 acres of land west of Bakersfield where much of the Kern River historically disappeared into the ground.

Westside Mutual Water Co., Kern County Water Agency and four local irrigation districts import water and allow it to seep underground during wet years. They then have the right to pump it out when they need it for irrigation or any other purpose. The No. 1 rule is that no participant can pump out more than it put in, so the county's basic groundwater supply is not diminished.

The six participants get the water primarily from the State Water Project, the federal Central Valley Project and the Kern River.

The bank -- actually only a tiny portion of the vast natural aquifer that lies beneath most of the San Joaquin Valley -- currently holds about 790,000 acre-feet of water placed there by the agencies, said its general manager, Jonathan Parker. That's about 11/2 times the capacity of Lake Isabella. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

Phillimore said Los Angeles has not specified how much water it wants over what period of time or how much it's willing to pay.

The city needs more water because in recent years it has been forced to return water diverted from Owens Valley over the past century in the most controversial water grab in U. S. history.

After Los Angeles drained Owens Lake by diverting Owens River water, massive wintertime dust storms boiled up from the dry lake bed, regularly producing what was deemed the worst air pollution in the nation.

The storms sometimes even disrupted flight operations at the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.

Two years ago, however, the city and Owens Valley air pollution officials reached an agreement to control at least the worst of the dust storms.

Under the plan, the city has begun to cover areas of the lake that are the biggest sources of dust with a combination of vegetation, gravel and water.

The dust control program is working well, but there's a problem. Now Los Angeles groundwater supplies are being strapped.

So, water officials need to buy more water to make up the difference.

If Los Angeles does buy Kern Water Bank water, it would likely require construction of a drain from the California Aqueduct into a city canal, a costly project that has yet to even be discussed.

"It seems to me to be a long way off," said Phillimore of a sale to Los Angeles.

Tom Erb, director of water resources for the city department, stressed that no decision has been made.

But he said the city undoubtedly will have to find a new water source.

The Owens dust control program is "taking significant amounts of water," Erb said. "We don't know how much it's going to take, but it's obviously going to be significant."

On top of the dust program, the city is being required to give back increasing amounts of the water it took out of the Owens Valley beginning nearly 100 years ago.

That's when city officials quietly bought up most of the land in the Owens Valley, for the water rights.

The move gave Los Angeles the water it needed to fuel rapid growth for decades.

But it destroyed the agricultural economy of Owens Valley, something local residents didn't realize was happening until too late. The city's water operations were the target of violent protests and dynamiting for many years.

More than a decade ago, however, the city had to sharply reduce the water it was diverting from streams that fed Mono Lake. It lost a lawsuit by environmentalists who argued the water diversions were lowering the level of the lake, uncovering a land bridge to islands that are used as breeding grounds by seagulls that migrate there from the coast.

The land bridge allowed coyotes and other predators to reach the nesting seagulls, decimating their numbers.

"The department lost four-fifths of its water supply from the Mono Basin," Erb said.

Under environmental pressure, the city also agreed several years ago to restore water flows in about 60 miles of the Owens River, which once fed Owens Lake, to help replenish dwindling groundwater supplies.

Up until now, the city has been getting replacement water mostly from the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and it will continue to get water from that source.

But Erb said other sources may be necessary, and the Kern Water Bank is one of the places to look.