The 2024 Kern County Water Summit took place at the Mechanics Bank Convention Center on March 7 from 6:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. (Photo: Valley Ag Voice)

Summit panelists examine the complex relationship between water rights, SGMA compliance, and economic sectors in Kern County.

By Natalie Willis, Reporter, Valley Ag Voice

Anticipation and concern converged at the 2024 Kern County Water Summit, where stakeholders gathered to address infrastructure, legislation and regulation, and compliance with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The conference on March 7 was hosted by the Water Association of Kern County and included an in-depth discussion on water management on both an agricultural and urban scale.

While water in Kern County was abundant in 2023 — creating new opportunities for water storage projects and other innovative solutions — a probationary hearing with the State Water Board looms as an ever-present reminder of SGMA.

According to Ernest Conant, former regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Central Valley Project delivers roughly 5 million acre-feet in a year — last year was closer to 7 million acre-feet — to 250 contractors in 29 counties.

He explained that 3.4 million acre-feet is allocated to senior water rights holders, exchange contractors, and wildlife refuges before any water is supplied to farms and cities. This year, allocations for farmers amounted to 15%, but Conant expects an increase for both the CVP and State Water Project in the upcoming weeks.

“How to achieve a more reliable water supply, that’s our overall objective here, and I see two components to it,” Conant said. “One, we have to fix what we have, and then second, we have to build new storage.”

Current projects include improvements to the B.F. Sisk Dam Safety Project, Friant-Kern Canal, Delta-Mendota Canal, San Luis Canal.

“Obviously if the Friant-Kern Canal was fully operational last year, a lot more water could have been moved down to this area,” Conant said.

Along with infrastructure improvements, the Water Summit zeroed in on new legislation and regulations and their broader implications on the economy. The panel comprised Chelsea Haines from the Association of California Water Agencies, Kern County Chief Economic Development Officer Jim Damien, and Edward Ring from the California Policy Center.

Damien explained that Kern County sees an intersection of water and business as every sector of Kern’s economy — agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, technology, traditional oil and gas operations, and carbon capture sequestration — relies on a sustainable supply of water. This is hindered by a complex web of regulations, he noted.

“In Kern County, water rights are not just a legal construct, this is the currency of survival for many of our businesses,” Damien said. “The intricate system of water allocation established decades ago now faces unprecedented challenges from population growth, environmental concerns, and it could be argued from bureaucratic overreach.”

SGMA compliance was discussed in length throughout the summit as an impending probationary hearing on the Kern County Subbasin approaches next year in Jan. 2025. Damien explained that this compliance requires an investment in infrastructure as well as fundamental changes in land-use practices — changes that may financially cripple businesses in the county.

By the time of that hearing, if Kern’s subbasin groundwater sustainability plan is still inadequate, the State Water Board will intervene, enforcing the subbasin to report groundwater usage and face new pumping fees.

Previous articleGeneral Election Looms: Top Two Primary Winners Gear Up for November Battle
Next articleCentral Valley Subbasins Face Potential State Intervention