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Tuesday, Aug 26 2014 09:00 AM

Cowan to step down from water board after 25 years

The name of Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District's longest serving board members won't show up on the Nov. 4 ballot following his decision to step aside.

Harry Cowan, 77, said after 25 years of serving on the board that it is time for another person to take his seat for the water district's Division 1. He encouraged his neighbor, David Worden, to run in his place.

"I don't not like doing it, but there comes a time when you're not mentally sharp as each year progresses," Cowan said on Aug. 12. "I've seen districts, not just our own, where guys stay too long and they are actually a detriment more than they are a help."

Cowan said he would likely attend meetings at the water district he helped to govern.

"I'm still interested in it, but it's that I've given them my best part," he said.

Voters first elected Cowan to the board in 1989.

He served as president of the board for 11 of the 25 years he served, chairing monthly meetings since 2003. Plain spoken, Cowan always appeared to have a handle on meetings.

"I learned as you get older, not everyone is going to like what you say," Cowan said. "You just have to accept that.

A Tehachapi native, Cowan spent most of his life living in Central California, having attended Bakersfield College and a year at Fresno State University.

Cowan has been married for 55 years to Jerrie and has three sons, Perrin, Loran and Manney.

"I got there (to Fresno State) and I bailed out," Cowan said. "It's worked out, been married 55 years to the same lady, had three grown boys and always have had a job."

Retired from his day job at Benz Sanitation for 10 years, Cowan has chaired the board as president for slightly longer; he was first selected in 2003 and continued in that role for 11 years.

The previous board president, one of the original board members, had died in June 2003 after 23 years of service as board president.

"I kind of got drafted into that role and wasn't something I was looking forward to," Cowan said.

Cowan noted the accomplishments of the district he helped guide, especially when it comes to the district importing water into the district.

"No one else does what we do when it comes to pumping water up the mountain," Cowan said, noting there is a reason water district staff are well paid for a reason.

"People compare salaries to other water districts when we want to give our mechanics a raise," Cowan said. "There's nothing to compare because the mechanics we have are so much more sophisticated over regular guys that change oil in a pickup."

Cowan noted one element that helped shape the district in recent years was the hiring of John Martin in 2008 as its general manager.

Hired away from Bear Valley Community Services District, Cowan said the district was lucky to get Martin.

"John has a master's degree in accounting and that has helped us a lot," Cowan said. "It didn't help Bear Valley any, but that's their problem."

He has also noted that the water district has been ahead of the game of other districts and water agencies, having squirreled away water in the three basins for the last 40 years. Only in the last year has the water agency tapped into it as a regular source due to ongoing drought.

"It's like putting your savings in the bank, you hate to take it out but that's why you put there in the first place," Cowan said. "It's surprising how few agencies in the state have done this."

Cowan noted that Rosamond Community Services District is one of those agencies. Rosamond CSD has tapped into 100 of the 2,600 acre feet of water it has banked in its Willow Spring Water Bank to meet the needs of its residential customers during the drought.

Even the small things count, Cowan said, such as the purchase of new engines for one of the water district's pumping stations. The purchase, Cowan said, came with an added benefit.

"It dropped our fuel costs by 40 percent and that paid for the motors of the seven years, and reduced our emissions," Cowan said. "There were a lot of plusses about that purchase."

Cowan noted there will be some challenges the district will face, and will benefit from actions taken by the board in the last several years.

Distribution of tertiary disinfected wastewater from California Correctional Institute remains a top benefit for the district. The treated effluent has been a boon for the water district and for some customers that use it.

The Horse Thief Country Club and golf course in Stallion Springs uses the water for irrigation, providing a cheap alternative to potable water, at $90 an acre foot. In addition, Tehachapi Turf has struck a deal by leasing land from Bear Valley CSD to grow turf using treated wastewater delivered by the water district by way of a temporary "purple pipe." A permanent one is slated to be built next year.

"It is a win-win for us and a win-win for them," Cowan said. "It's here, it's free to us, and it gets rid of this water, and saves us from pumping more water."

"At some point they will have to replace the pipe for imported water," said Cowan.

Another thing is the ongoing drought. While weather experts predict some relief (there's a 65 percent chance an El Nino that could bring rain in the coming season), it won't be enough to drench California and other Western states out of a severe drought that's worsened over three years.

In June, the water district's board of directors adopted an emergency standby ordinance in case the district needed to start cutting short some deliveries to its customers.

"I don't think the district will enact it next year, but after that probably," Cowan said. "We'll have to play that one by ear, so pray for rain next winter."

The emergency ordinance, if triggered, would allow the district to stop delivering water to its customers based on priority of least to greatest -- especially if the State Water Project does not send water to buyers.

The project, which provides Southern California municipalities, districts and farmers with water, only provided five percent of its obligated water to customers because of the drought. Despite that, Tehachapi-Cummings and others have to pay for their full allotment of water.

Another challenge Cowan foresees is one that has persisted for some time: interest in the water district as a whole. While it does not act like a retail agency like Bear Valley, Golden Springs, the City of Tehachapi or Stallion Springs, the water district acts as the watermaster for the main source of groundwater delivered by the other four entities.

"Most people don't even think about their water until they turn on their faucet and nothing comes out," Cowan said.

This has generally generated responses from residents about forking over money to the water district through property taxes.

"If you live in this valley, you receive a benefit from this district," Cowan said. "Without water, Tehachapi would be only 4,000 people and Bear Valley would be half the size, so everyone reaps a harvest from this thing."

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