Changes in land use in the Tehachapi Valley are reflected in water rights ownership as the city of Tehachapi increased its share of rights as agriculture diminished in importance to the local economy.
Over the course of nearly 50 years, the city increased its share of Base Water Rights ownership in the Tehachapi Basin from only 9 percent to about 36 percent.
That’s just one of the stories told by data from the 49th Annual Watermaster Report. The report — required by the court adjudication of the Tehachapi Basin in the early 1970s — was presented to members of the Board of Directors of Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District at their meeting on April 19. The board accepted the report with no discussion.
Like clockwork for 49 years, the district has prepared the watermaster’s report and filed it with Kern County Superior Court. The report is tied to a mammoth lawsuit the fledgling district filed in 1966, just a year after it was formed. There were three lawsuits, actually, one for each of the water basins in the district — Tehachapi, Brite and Cummings.
Each of the lawsuits — resulting in adjudication of the groundwater basins — has a story of its own, and the outcome of litigation of the Brite and Cummings basins must be left for another day.
In the Tehachapi Basin, most — but not all — of the parties to the lawsuit actually supported the district’s efforts because it was widely known that the basin was in trouble.
After 80 or more years of development of agriculture in the Tehachapi Valley, by the early 1960s, farmers knew the water level was precariously low. In those days, farming was a much larger part of the economy. There was wide support for the formation of the district and a decision to seek an eventual connection with the State Water Project that had been approved by California voters in 1960. Adjudication of the district — literally divvying up the water rights — was a necessary step.
The Tehachapi Basin adjudication was completed in 1971— and amended in 1973.
Roughly speaking, property owners who were engaged in agriculture ended up with about 60 percent of Base Water Rights. The next highest amount of water rights — about 18 percent or 1,487 acre-feet — went to Monolith Portland Cement Company, owner of the cement plant east of the city and other large tracts of land in the area. Another 11 percent or so was allocated to about 37 property owners who received individual allocations of less than 100 acre-feet and another 59 property owners with domestic wells who received allocations of three acre-feet per year each. Some of these property owners were also farmers.
Water rights — then and now
The city of Tehachapi received about 9 percent of the total water rights in the adjudication — 753 acre-feet per year. And Golden Hills Community Services District — which was largely undeveloped at the time — received about 2 percent (159 acre-feet per year).
The latest watermaster report is for calendar year 2022, but the water rights ownership is as of March 1, 2022 — more than a year before the report was released. That tally shows that the city owned the largest share of Tehachapi Basin water rights — 2,864 acre-feet or 36 percent. Lehigh Southwest Cement Company (a successor to Monolith Portland after other ownership changes) owned 1,744 acre-feet or 22 percent. And Golden Hills CSD owned 1,353.5 acre-feet or 17 percent.
About 12 percent — totaling 962.5 acre-feet — of water rights are owned by people with fewer than 100 acre-feet of rights, including property owners with domestic wells who received allocations of three acre-feet per year each.
Other water rights owners listed in the report with more than 100 acre-feet, as of March 1, 2022, were Al Lester Safier, 427 acre-feet or 5 percent; Kubicek Trust (successor to Tehachapples), 305 acre-feet or 4 percent; David KunSik Ha and Kyung Ran Ha, 135 acre-feet or 2 percent; H-Star Investments, 115 acre-feet or 1 percent; and Jeffrey Ciachurski, 114 acre-feet or 1 percent.
A few notes are appropriate:
• Lehigh Southwest sold its Tehachapi cement plant to Martin Marietta Materials, Inc. in 2021. The fact that Lehigh Southwest was still listed as owner of water rights in Tehachapi Basin as of March 1, 2022 — and Martin Marietta was not — may mean that Martin Marietta did not acquire the water rights. Or it may mean that the transaction was not reported to the water district by that time. Martin Marietta has not responded to a request for comment and efforts to reach someone at Lehigh Southwest familiar with the situation have been unsuccessful.
• Ciachurski is the chief executive officer of Greenbriar Capital Corp., developer of the proposed Sage Ranch residential project within the city of Tehachapi. He personally owns other land in Tehachapi Basin — both inside and outside the city. He has owned water rights in the basin since 2007 when he acquired them from Robert and Dorothy Scott who had owned them since 2000. Those water rights were originally owned by members of the Iriart family — owners of 335 acre-feet of water when the basin was adjudicated.
The water district’s latest report does not reflect a permanent transfer of water rights that Ciachurski executed on Sept. 23, 2022. That transfer of 76 acre-feet of Base Water Right from Ciachurski to Greenbriar Capital (U.S.), LLC, was recorded with Kern County and receipt of the recorded document was acknowledged by the water district on Dec. 1, 2022. According to Tom Neisler, general manager, that transaction will be included in next year’s report.
• Safier died in November 2020. In documents related to lease of those water rights earlier this year the district referred to the rights owner as the Lester A. Safier Trust.
Increased water rights
The city’s additional 2,111 acre-feet of water rights (as of March 1, 2022) were acquired over many years through various means, including in connection with annexations and by negotiating purchases with owners.
The largest gain for the city came in 2000 from water rights — 1,561 acre-feet — formerly owned by John Nunes, who farmed in areas roughly stretching from Curry Street to Dennison Road, on both sides of Valley Boulevard.
Nunes’ water rights originated in part from the original allocation to J.G. Bisbee, who owned a large pear orchard bordered on the west by Curry Street, on the north by C Street and Central Park and stretching south and east from there. Nunes removed the pear orchard — originally planted by Burt Dennison in 1910 — in 1982, and adjacent apple orchards were removed later. This made room for more residential development and construction of a new Tehachapi High School in 2003. Part of the property remains vacant, including 138 acres west of the high school proposed for development as Sage Ranch.
The city also acquired 42 acre-feet of water rights from the Ashtown Mutual Water Company when it annexed the area north of the railroad tracks and east of Dennison Road known as Ash Village.
The latest water rights acquisitions by the city included in the 49th annual watermaster report were 1.5 acre-feet each from Mary Jane May and the King Family Trust, 21 acre-feet from Tehachapi Valley Healthcare District, and 70 acre-feet from Comprehend and Copy Nature, LLC.
In the Tehachapi Basin, water rights are not tied to the land. The proposed Sage Ranch development, for instance, is on land once owned by Nunes and the city both annexed the land and acquired the former Nunes water rights more than 20 years ago. But the water rights became city property and subdividers may not rely upon water rights that they do not own.
Water rights value
Water rights are property rights and, as such, discussions regarding related transactions are allowed in closed sessions of the City Council. The watermaster report provides evidence of the transaction but does not share information as to valuation.
The city’s budgets for several years have shown a commitment to purchase water rights with $1.8 budgeted in the current fiscal year.
The city’s financial report for the year ending June 30, 2022, reflected the purchase of 96 acre-feet of water rights in the amount of $699,000. The previous year the financial report reflected the purchase of 75.67 acre-feet of water rights for $483,690.
And the city notes in its current budget that securing available water rights is very important because the city “relies upon both groundwater and imported surface water supplies to meet the demands of customers and future development. The pumping of groundwater is subject to limitations under the terms of the 1971 Tehachapi Basin adjudication, and surface supplies are managed by the watermaster, Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District. As the severe drought continues in California, surface water supplies are being controlled and limited by the state.”
Water rights are also important to the city to allow continued development. According to the city Municipal Code, a water rights and water entitlement fee were established “to protect the water supply available to existing customers from being impacted by future customers.” The ordinance requires property owners (developers) to transfer water rights to the city sufficient to accommodate developments. But if the property owner does not have sufficient water rights, they “may purchase unallocated water rights owned by the city at the current cost.” Or they may pay a “water entitlement fee” for the needed water — “sufficient to accommodate the development for 20 years (or other period as identified by City. Council).”
The supply is to be no less than one-half acre-foot of water for each equivalent dwelling unit.
In November 2021, the city increased the fees it will charge — in part because of the increased cost of purchasing water rights.
Change of land use
The transition of water rights ownership in the Tehachapi Basin reflects major changes in land use over the last 50 years.
When farmers were allocated more than 60 percent of water rights — with the city allocated less than 10 percent — the city had a population of just over 3,000 people. Orchards surrounded the city. Ranches that became Mountain Meadows and Golden Hills had been sold and Kern County allowed subdivisions with little consideration to water supply — but there was little building on all of those new lots until the mid-1970s.
Still, property owners were well aware of development pressure and there is plenty of evidence from the list of property owners involved in the litigation with the water district that they worked to establish their rights.
The city expanded its borders through annexations and acquired additional water rights. There is still some farming in the Tehachapi Valley, but some farmers must rely on leased rights or imported water, when it is available.
And a cement company — whether it is Lehigh Southwest or Martin Marietta — continues to own a remarkable share of water rights, some of which are leased to others.
Watermaster reports and copies of adjudications are available online at tccwd.com.
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