Water and politics are complicated.
That might be why an attempt to pass a water priority ordinance at the Jan. 18 meeting of the Board of Directors of Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District resulted in a stalemate.
Board President Robert Schultz and Director Joseph Sasia voted to pass an ordinance that would keep priorities pretty much the same as they have been in prior years.
Vice President Jonathan Hall and Director Rick Zanutto voted against passing the ordinance. And because it currently has only four members, the 2-2 vote meant that the board is back to square one.
At a special meeting on Feb. 3 the board will interview applicants to fill the Division 3 seat left vacant with the resignation of Delbert Jones on Dec. 14 — at the end of the first meeting he attended following his election to the seat.
The board may also appoint someone to fill the seat on Feb. 3. What side a new board member might take in the contentious issue remains to be seen. But it appears the board will wait until at least its regular meeting next month — on Feb. 15 — to reconsider the ordinance.
General Manager Tom Neisler said that the board plans another round-table discussion on Feb. 3, similar to the Jan. 9 workshop. Representatives of the city of Tehachapi, Golden Hills Community Services District, Grimmway Farms and other stakeholders will again be invited to sit around tables with board members to hash out issues.
A point of contention on Jan. 18 was the purpose of the ordinance. Schultz contends that it only impacts the coming year and therefore is operational in nature. Representatives of the city and Golden Hills have pushed for more than two years to have more say in the ordinance, which they believe represents policy.
Before considering the water priority ordinance, the board passed an operations forecast for the year which reflected to some degree discussion at the Jan. 9 workshop and input from the various stakeholders.
The working forecast recommended by Neisler provides for varying withdrawals of the district’s banked reserves to supplement imported water in meeting customer needs. With the current 5 percent allocation, the district would make up to 2,500 acre feet of its banked water available to customers. That amount would diminish with increases in the allocation. The sales of banked reserved water would meet the minimum reserves that the board enacted late last year.
Golden Hills CSD General Manager Susan Wells and Jay Schlosser, development services director for the city of Tehachapi, were critical of the board passing an operations forecast which seemed to rely on the water priority ordinance that had not yet been considered by the board.
Last year’s priority ordinance was the same as the ordinance proposed for this year.
As required by law, it ensures that the district will maintain enough water in its system to provide for fire suppression all year.
Water rights holders in the Tehachapi Basin who require water to be wheeled (pumped by the district and delivered by pipeline) and direct-delivery M&I (municipal and industrial) customers have the next priority, in that order.
Next in line for the imported water, if available and in descending order, are ag users with livestock, permanent crops and food crops grown in greenhouses and cover crops planted in the fall primarily for erosion control, including grains and cereals.
The next priority is for annual food crops for human consumption, with precedence further determined by the status of the land and ownership in the previous year.
Turf sod farmers who are contracted to use recycled water when such water is not available have the next priority, followed by annual crops for livestock consumption. Non-food crops grown in greenhouses and on land cultivated in the previous year have the lowest agricultural priority (for irrigation within the year).
Sticking points for Golden Hills and the city the priorities for what is called conjunctive use recharge water for current year demand and recharge water for M&I customers with terms of service contracts with the district. Both of these have a lower priority than nearly all agriculture.
But even lower priority is given to the district’s replenishment of previously withdrawn amounts of water from its own bank, what it calls “beneficial recharge for the common good,” and to irrigation of landscaping and groundcover on public property.
The water priority ordinance only governs the use of water imported from the SWP. The city, Golden Hills, Bear Valley Springs and Stallion Springs all provide their customers with pumped groundwater. The availability of imported water matters to these agencies, but next year’s allocation — or its priority — won’t have an immediate impact on them or the customers they serve.
Still, in November all of those agencies put in requests for allocation of imported water — as did agricultural customers.
According to Neisler, it would take at least a 41 percent allocation of what is called the Table A allocation of imported water to meet those requests. The current allocation stands at 5 percent.
The district contracts for 19,300 acre-feet of water from the SWP, but there hasn’t been a 100 percent allocation of the water since 2006. The highest allocation since then was 85 percent in 2017. In the past 10 years the allocation has been above 40 percent only three times — and it’s been below 40 percent seven times.
For 2023, on Dec. 1 the Department of Water Resources announced an initial allocation of 5 percent. Because of recent rains and an impressive snowpack, there’s a chance the allocation may be increased as early as Jan. 24 — but unless the allocation is at least 41 percent, the district likely will have to set priorities as it divvies up whatever imported water may be available.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.