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In The News

Getting water from Kern County to Redwood City won't be easy

By Julia Scott

San Mateo County Times, 3/1/10

Residents of a future Saltworks community could someday be sipping water that, on paper at least, has traveled 300 miles from Kern County to Redwood City.

If Saltworks developer DMB Associates is to succeed in its bid to import 591 million gallons of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta every year to supply as many as 12,000 new homes on the Redwood City salt flats, it will need to enlist a lot of outside help. And environmental groups will be there to try to stop them every step of the way.

"This project relies on a complicated, controversial, unprecedented and illegal water transfer from Southern California water interests. It doesn't belong in the Bay," said Stephen Knight, political director of Save the Bay.

Only a few details have emerged about the mechanics behind the company's proposal, but it's clear that the water would need to be "wheeled" through a third-party Bay Area water agency such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which buys Delta water from both the State Water Project and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The water agency would take a greater share of Delta water and forgo an equivalent amount of SFPUC water, which would be forwarded to Redwood City.

But the water's history indirectly originates in the Kern River. According to a summary report prepared by a Redwood City consultant, DMB purchased 70 years' worth of water in December 2008 from Nickel Family LLC, a land and water holding company that formerly held major water rights in the lower Kern River. In 2000, Nickel sold those water rights to the Kern County Water Agency for $6.4 million and a guaranteed annual supply of 3.3 billion gallons per year from the Delta, which was seen as a more reliable source than the intermittent flows along the Kern River.

The Kern County Water Agency, one of the world's largest water banking projects, has rights to more than 325 trillion gallons of Delta water per year.

The report concludes that the Nickel water rights are "secure," meaning the water would still be delivered to Redwood City even if continuing drought and legal wrangling over Delta pumping result in drastic water cutbacks.

DMB representatives are keen to head off environmental concerns, emphasizing that the Saltworks water would not add to the overall impact on the Delta since, absent DMB, Nickel would be getting the water regardless.

"This is not a new delivery of the Delta," said David Smith, vice president of regulatory affairs for DMB.

The Kern River is another issue. It's been a long time since water flowed down the Kern River year-round. Most of the river has been diverted for irrigation, an issue that is currently subject to legal dispute by the city of Bakersfield.

Although the link to the Saltworks project is indirect at best, the summary report does recommend that Redwood City study the environmental impacts of transferring Nickel water out of the Kern River basin for the purposes of "a specific development proposal."

"There's huge controversy right now in that part of the state about the availability of agricultural water," said Save the Bay's Knight. "That agricultural water has been sold out of the Kern River and is being transferred to help develop a Bay salt pond in Redwood City."

Smith wouldn't comment on the notion that the DMB deal could impact the Kern River. "Talk about speculation," he said.


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