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Wednesday, Feb 26 2014 06:00 AM

Water district may up ag rates by 18 percent

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The cost of irrigating crops in the Tehachapi area will go up if the Board of Directors of the Tehachapi Cummings County Water District approves a proposed rate hike in response to drought conditions. Photo by Nick Smirnoff

The cost of using imported water for irrigation may go up nearly 18 percent as the Tehachapi Cummings County Water District continues efforts to cope with a record drought.

John Martin, general manager of TCCWD, proposed the rate hike water rates for agriculture customers at a meeting of the district's board of directors on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

No action was taken regarding the increase, but the board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing at 4 p.m. on April 16 to consider the action. The meeting will be held at district headquarters, 22901 Banducci Rd.

The rate increase would match agricultural rates for those of municipal and industrial customers.

Specifically, prices would go up $54 per acre-foot for customers located in Cummings Valley, $68 in the Tehachapi and Brite Basins, and $101 in Oak Creek. The district doesn't have any agriculture customers in Oak Creek.

Historically, ag water rates have been less than those charged for municipal and industrial customers.

In a report submitted to the board, Martin wrote, "Because the additional costs that will be incurred by the district are almost entirely attributed to its effort to supply agricultural customers in a critically dry year, management and the [ad-hoc Water Rate] Committee believe it is appropriate that those customers should bear the burden of covering those additional costs."

Those additional costs are a result of the 13 supply measures the district plans to enact this year in order to meet all of its orders, which include running all five of its wells through the end of October.

TCCWD currently has a total of 7,276 acre feet of return flow and banked water stored in the Tehachapi Basin, the report states.

If the Department of Water Resources ultimately stands by its recent decision to deliver zero of its allocations through the State Water Project, Martin said, the district would be required to extract nearly 60 percent of its emergency supply.

Because the district must replace what it takes from the basin in the future, Martin said the rate increase for farmers could last for the next two or three years to help offset those extra costs.

The increase would go into effect May 1 if approved by the board.

Other supply measures that the district plans to implement include importing carryover water from 2013 that is currently stored in the San Luis Reservoir, along with importing 2,095 acre-feet of water banked with the West Kern Water District.

The possibility remains, however, that water could be taken over by the state and diverted to other areas who are in danger of completing running out of the resource, Martin said.

TCCWD staff met with local farmers at the district headquarters on Thursday, Feb. 20, to briefly discuss the rate hike, as well as pumping schedules which will be required of farmers. The schedule is also part of the district's plan to ensure that farmers are receiving their deliveries and maximizing pressure for irrigation.

Representatives from Crystal Organics and Kundert Brothers Farms, along with General Manager of Stallion Springs CSD, Mary Beth Garrison, and Bill Fisher, General Manager of Golden Hills CSD, were among those present at the meeting.

Steve Rodrigues, farm manager for Crystal Organics, said the potential increase water rates didn't come as much of a surprise.

"In the big picture of these things, we have to take the increase," he said. "We understand the steps they're [TCCWD] going through to fill up our water orders."

But Rodrigues conceded it will have an effect nonetheless.

"I mean, yeah, it hurts," he said. "Nobody likes to see their costs go up. We just have to go along with it."

Crystal Organics, which is owned by Grimmway Farms, harvests around 1600 acres of produce in the Cummings Valley, including lettuce, broccoli, kale, spinach, green onions, and more.

The company purchases around 2400 acre feet of water from the district each year.

Their farms have begun using drip irrigation technologies to conserve water, which could save around 25 to 30 percent of their supply, Rodrigues said.

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