Historically, water is often valued more than gold, runs short of supply, and is even more needed now than in Tehachapi’s past.
Let’s take a look at the water situation in the greater Tehachapi area from the days of old to the present.
In the past
Cattle ranchers and farmers began settling the greater Tehachapi area and drilled wells at three groundwater basins — Cummings, Brite and Tehachapi Valley — which are still available for public consumption.
They had to rely on this groundwater as there was no completely natural source of inflow or outflow of water in the Tehachapi area, and each year the basins were replenished with natural precipitation.
One Tehachapi farmer, J. H. Brooks, recounts his firsthand experience of what the area’s water supply looked like in 1862, as recorded in the book “The Long Road to Tehachapi,” 3rd edition, by Judy Barras.
“There are many persons, with families, hunting homes, and yet I know of no place more inviting than this valley. It is perfectly healthy — there are many thousands of acres of the best kind of land, plenty of water of the best quality and an inexhaustible supply of timber,” Brooks recollected.
The greater Tehachapi area, mainly in Brite Valley, Cummings Valley and Bear Valley and some outlying regions, produced grains, potatoes, sod, apples, pears, tomatoes and other agricultural products from the early 1900s until now. Food products have expanded or developed in different directions to meet consumption needs.
Groundwater levels were being depleted and more was needed, despite the thriving agricultural scene.
“There were artesian springs, but the over extraction (in the basins) dried those springs up and people started having trouble with their wells,” Tom Neisler, general manager for the Tehachapi Cummings-County Water District, said in an interview.
Formation of the Tehachapi Cummings-County Water District
Residents and farmers realized a solution was needed, so two small districts were formed from 1947 to 1960, each with different roles in managing, studying and educating the community about water shortages.
These districts were the Tehachapi Soil Conservation District (now called the Tehachapi Resource Conservation District) and Tehachapi Cummings Valley Water Conservation District (now the Tehachapi Cummings-County Water District), according to a timeline at tccwd.com.
Alex Steele, former pipeline superintendent and employee of the TCCWD for 41 and a half years, remembers the need for more water.
“The county was talking about stopping the growth up here because the supply of water couldn’t support the growth. That’s what pushed everyone to look for an alternative source of water so the growth would continue. That’s why the Tehachapi Cummings-County Water District was formed,” Steele said.
The TCCWD district was “formed by a 91 percent majority vote of the community. The first members of the board of directors were Ben Sasia, Jake Jacobsen, Don T. Carroll, Karl Backes and Fred Patterson,” said local historian Del Troy.
The Tehachapi Resource Conservation District commissioned “Bob Jasper, a recent graduate of the California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo with a Bachelor of Science degree in Soil Science ... to study the soil and water resources within the main water basins and watershed of the entire Tehachapi area,” according to tehachapircd.org.
Jasper helped with the Watershed Planning Project and recommended that a Citizens Advisory Group be formed, which resulted in the official formation of the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District in 1965, added tehachapircd.org.
From 1966 to 1971, the district signed a contract with the Kern County Water Agency for 15,000 acre feet per year for municipal and industrial use. Studies were also submitted to the United States Bureau of Reclamation to show the need for more water and apply for a $6.5 million loan to construct a project for importing water.
The loan was approved and negotiated to be repayable over a 40-year period in 1970. Shortly after, in 1971, Tehachapi voters approved a $2.5 million bond to help fund the project at a total cost of $9 million, added Troy.
This funded “our entire importation system,” said Neisler. He added this included all the pipeline starting at the California Aqueduct, each of the four pumping plants, the natural gas engines, and the formation of Brite Lake.
The groundbreaking ceremony was held “June 17, 1972 at the site of the storage reservoir in Brite Valley. The Board of Supervisors approved the Tehachapi Valley Recreation and Park Department to maintain the facilities at Brite Lake,” said Troy.
Steele remembers how much work went into infrastructure.
“In 1973, I was in high school and in all the ag classes and we came out and did the landscaping around the office and the district was draining the lake back down to make repairs on the bottom of the lake, as there were sinkholes,” said Steel.
The Tehachapi Water Shed Project
Even though the region’s yearly groundwater supply was running low, there were years when the city of Tehachapi, Blackburn and Antelope Canyons would be flooded when high-intensity rainfall, which damaged homes, businesses, roads and the railroad.
The Tehachapi Water Shed Project sought to protect resources and as a way to stop that flood water and retain it into the basin, said the Watershed Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for Tehachapi, dated 1980.
Downtown Tehachapi used to flood, and to mitigate the problem, the Tehachapi Resource Conservation District and other sponsors completed the Antelope Dam in 1986 and the Blackburn Dam in 1990. This has allowed for development without threats to repeat flooding, seen in 1945 and 1983, according to tehachapircd.org.
“All of Tehachapi was subject to flooding prior to the installation of those facilities,” said Neisler.
Funding for these projects came from the PL566 governmental funding and through sponsorship of Tehachapi Resource Conservation District, TCCWD, USDA Soil Conservation Service, city of Tehachapi and the Kern County Water Agency, according to tehachapircd.org.
Water in Tehachapi now
Today, residents who turn on their kitchen faucet each day in the greater Tehachapi area may not realize that most of the water is imported.
“About half of the water we use in Tehachapi, is imported water,” Neisler said. “It comes through that water importation system. Obviously our quality of life would be significantly different without that imported water source.”
The Tehachapi Cummings-County Water District is water master over three basins and was court appointed to allocate water to everyone — residential, industrial and agricultural users.
“Think of us as a regional agency and everybody else as a local agency,” said Neisler.
More than 450 square miles of land including Tehachapi, Golden Hills, Bear Valley Springs, Stallion Springs and California Correctional Institution Tehachapi are in the district’s boundaries.
More than 10,000 gallons, or equivalent to a full swimming pool, is pumped per minute from the California Aqueduct more than 3,425 feet up the mountains, or 31 miles away, to the Brite Basin reservoir, the only surface water storage in Tehachapi.
Each basin is granted an allocation.
Under the adjudication, the city of Tehachapi owns 2,770 acre feet of base water rights, or 1,847 acre feet of yearly groundwater pumping rights. Brite Valley is allotted 500 acre feet per year. And Cummings Valley is allotted 3,444 acre feet per year, although it is in the process of being amended to 2,990 acre feet per year, due to depleting groundwater levels.
Only a set amount of water is provided to the district.
The allocation that is given to the district stemming from State Water Project amounts to 19,300 acre feet per year.
The allocations given to the district each year mainly have to do with three factors — environmental regulations from the state, the amount of water they are holding in Oroville Dam, and the amount of rain we get each year.
Even though the district pays for 100 percent of allocation from the state, the entire allocation is likely never to be given to the district.
For example, 2017 saw the most precipitation ever recorded for the district. The allocation that year amounted to 85 percent, said Neisler.
Costs to import water and maintain infrastructure keep increasing each year.
The district is seeing insurance premiums increase for liability costs of dam safety and it also has a share in paying for repairs to the Oroville Dam.
“It costs over a billion dollars to repair that facility and as I stated we are state water project contractors. We are going to pay our pro-rata share of that billion dollars for something that the state caused... and their inability to maintain the facility. So every taxpayer in Tehachapi is going to pay for a portion of that repair,” said Neisler.