HANFORD — What happens when an agricultural water district in Kern County proposes to capture Kings River floodwater and use it on farmland near Bakersfield?
It gets Kings County officials and farmers worked up.
That’s what has taken place since Semitropic Water Storage District, with an office in Wasco, announced last month that it will prepare an environmental impact report on a proposal to build a huge ponding basin near Kettleman City to capture flood releases from Pine Flat Dam and pump them into a water bank in Kern County.
Flood releases from Pine Flat Dam on the Kings happen as a precaution in wet years to make sure that there’s plenty of room in the reservoir to prepare for the possibility of a faster-than-normal snowmelt that can send a huge amount of runoff into Pine Flat Reservoir in a short amount of time.
On Tuesday this week, the Kings County Board of Supervisors approved a letter to Semitropic criticizing the proposed project.
The board questioned the legality of Semitropic grabbing flood releases from the Kings when the river is already “fully appropriated” by 28 agricultural member agencies in the Kings River Water Association.
Those member agencies deliver the water to farmers in Kings, Fresno and Tulare counties.
“The proposed project appears to be in conflict with the licenses and plans of right-holders for floodwater on the Kings, Tule and Kaweah rivers, if any, when available,” the letter states.
KRWA official Steve Haugen said there “are a lot of different opinions” about whether flood releases on the Kings could be legally captured by Semitropic.
“The State Water Resources Control Board will ultimately make that decision,” he said.
Semitropic General Manager Jason Gianquinto didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Kings County officials are concerned that the plan may undercut future local efforts to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will require Kings County to develop more groundwater recharge projects to offset heavy groundwater pumping that has depleted aquifers.
The law gives Kings County until 2040 to balance what is pumped out of the ground with what is put back in via recharge.
“We don’t want to lose that possible source of water,” said Kings County Counsel Colleen Carlson. “We don’t know all the curves [the groundwater law] is going to throw at us in the planning process.”
Haugen said that more groundwater capacity is needed inside KRWA boundaries.
“Semitropic has the money and is ready and invested to do something,” he said. “Kings County, Fresno County can capture that water also, but they need to be willing to invest to make it happen.”
Meanwhile, according to public documents, Semitropic has developed an underground water bank that started in the 1990s and has the ability to store 1.65 million acre-feet of water.
Compare that to Pine Flat Reservoir, the lake in Fresno County that at maximum capacity can hold about 1 million acre-feet of Kings River water.
John Vidovich, a landowner in Semitropic who could benefit from Semitropic’s proposal, defended it.
Vidovich said that if Kings River floodwater reaches all the way to the old Tulare Lake bottom in southern Kings County, it essentially means that it’s destructive.
Only in very wet years on the Kings does the old lake bottom flood, submerging farm ground and sometimes drowning crops.
“Once that lake floods, it’s a waste,” Vidovich said. “It evaporates, or it has to be pulled out of there.”
“I think if it’s determined that it can’t be utilized beneficially by anybody else, and that it’s going to be wasted, the rule is, if it can be put to beneficial use, then that’s a positive thing,” he said.
Kings County officials and other local observers are worried that if Semitropic project gets going and starts taking floodwater before Kings County water rights holders upstream have developed their own groundwater recharge capability, Semitropic might then try to assert some kind of right to that floodwater.
“The risk is that if you let somebody outside the area put a facility in … that eventually they’re going to claim some right to water over time,” said Dennis Mills, general manager of the Kings County Water District, which has boundaries that substantially overlap with KRWA’s. “That’s my concern. This is kind of like the elephant sneaking his trunk underneath the circus tent wall. Eventually, he’s going to wander in.”
“If we can make use of that water within the confines of the Kings River service area, I think we should,” said Kings County grower Jim Verboon. “Nobody really has a claim on that water, but historically we don’t want to see it leave the Kings River service area.”
Haugen said there could be flood releases on the Kings this year thanks to the large amounts of rain and snow that have fallen in recent weeks.
It’s not clear from the Semitropic documents that have been released whether the project could be completed in time to be ready to receive flood releases later this year, if there are any.