The community we know today as Golden Hills — and more specifically, the area served by the Golden Hills Community Services District — includes one of the first large-scale subdivisions of ranchland in the greater Tehachapi area.
The initial subdivision was called Oak Knolls, and as early as April 1961, 2-1/2 acre parcels were advertised by the developer, Pacific-Atlantic Properties, Inc., of Pasadena.
An article in the Los Angeles Times the next year said the “12-acre lake has been completely filled, using water available from one of the many wells on the huge tract”, “the first saddle horses have arrived for the riding stables which will function as an integral part of the projected Oak Knolls Golf and Country Club.”
By 1966, Golden Oaks Ltd., part of the Ponty/Fenmore Organization of Westwood, had taken charge. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times published in August 1966, the golf course was complete and other amenities including a private lake were being developed.
The land utilization plan for the 4,300-acre complex included 90 acres zoned for a shopping center, a 75-acre light industrial park, 440 acres for parks and recreation, 60 miles of roads, 29 acres for mobile home sites, 264 acres for multiple-unit dwellings and 70 acres for five school sites — with the remainder of the land designated for single-family homes.
The article made no mention of a water source for the project.
However, by December 1965, the formation of the Golden Hills CSD was underway, and by 1968, a new company was selling land in the unincorporated area west of the city of Tehachapi. Boise Cascade — through its subsidiary Pacific Cascade Land Company — was the new owner of what was already being called Golden Hills.
Known water shortage
The articles and advertisements did not mention that during those same years, people in the greater Tehachapi area were coming to terms with a known water shortage. Groundwater levels in Tehachapi Basin declined from 1950 to the late 1970s, with levels dropping 25 feet in the 1950s, according to the state Water Resources Control Board.
By the early 1960s, according to a history published on the website of the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District, a watershed planning project was well underway. A water conservation district was formed in 1960 and by 1965 it became the water district. Adjudication of the Tehachapi Basin — essentially court action to divide up what was believed to be the “safe yield” of the water basin — came in the form of lawsuits filed in 1966.
The Golden Hills CSD, along with the city of Tehachapi, Monolith Portland Cement Company and a long list of other property owners, including ranchers and farmers, were sued by the water district in an action intended to both settle the matter of rights to water in the Tehachapi Basin and to help begin the process of bringing water from what was then a brand-new State Water Project to the region. A federal loan was needed to construct transmission facilities, and adjudication was necessary to assure loan repayment.
The Tehachapi Basin adjudication was completed in 1971 — with an amendment in 1973.
The court’s judgments established Base Water Rights and allowable pumping. Most of the water rights — at least 60 percent — went to agriculture. The next highest amount of water rights — about 18 percent — 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 — some of them also farmers — who received individual water rights allocations of less than 100 acre-feet. Property owners with domestic wells also received allocations.
The city of Tehachapi received about 9 percent of the total water rights in the adjudication — 753 acre-feet per year. And the fledgling Golden Hills CSD received about 2 percent (159 acre-feet per year).
Golden Hills water rights
Golden Hills CSD was barely formed when it became part of the water rights adjudication. The rights were established in large part on prior usage, and although there were multiple wells on the ranchland that was subdivided to become Golden Hills, very few people lived there in the 1960s.
When adjudication was made, about 60 property owners who had domestic wells in the Tehachapi Basin were each allocated 3 acre-feet per year of water rights. Golden Hills CSD — which now serves more than 2,900 water customers — received Base Water Rights totaling less than the total of 59 other property owners with domestic wells.
According to the DWR, the Tehachapi Basin water rights were awarded based on the “doctrine of mutual prescription.” As such, they were not based on priority but rather on each party’s base water right, defined as the “highest continuous extractions of water by a party from the basin for beneficial use in any period of five consecutive years after the commencement of overdraft in Tehachapi Basin.”
Although most water rights established in the adjudication are transferable, according to the DWR, the rights associated with domestic use are not.
Every year the water district makes a report to Superior Court, providing information about the state of water. The latest watermaster report is for the calendar year 2022. It reports on water rights ownership as of March 1, 2022 — more than a year before the report was released. That tally shows that Golden Hills CSD owned 1,353.5 acre-feet or 17 percent of Base Water Rights in Tehachapi Basin.
Growing water rights from 159 acre-feet to more than 1,353 acre-feet has taken years of effort by the Golden Hills CSD. The rights that the district owns were acquired in part from annexations and in part through purchase. Many of the water rights were once owned by agricultural interests and passed on to family members who did not continue farming.
Still, Golden Hills’ water rights don’t quite meet the district’s needs. In 2022, for instance, the watermaster report shows that the district leased 300 acre-feet of water rights from Lehigh Cement West, LLC (a successor to the Monolith Portland Cement Company rights).
According to Susan Wells, general manager of the district, acquisition of more water rights is important to help the district “secure the allowable pumping allocation sufficient to meet our needs (and growth) without relying on ‘surface water.’”
By surface water, she means water from the SWP imported by the water district. The district has an M&I (municipal industrial) contract with the water district and has purchased imported water for banking.
By acquiring more Tehachapi Basin water rights, the district would be less reliant on the water district.
The cost of leasing or buying water rights — and buying imported water — is among the costs of water built into water rates for Golden Hills CSD customers. The district recently increased its water rates in part to help cover those costs.
According to Wells, Golden Hills is at about 75 percent build-out today — 62 years after the first Oak Knolls lots were marketed.
Nearly all of the water used by Golden Hills CSD comes from the adjudicated Tehachapi Basin. But one well owned by the district — known as the Poor Well — is in an area designated as a “salvage area” in the adjudication judgment. The district is allowed to “pump such quantities of water as it is able to obtain” from that area, in addition to its pumping rights in the Tehachapi Basin.
The district has used the Poor Well to help address issues with Tom Sawyer Lake, one of the last vestiges of the much-touted recreational amenities of the Oak Knolls/Golden Hills subdivision. Under consideration by the district’s Board of Directors is piping water from the Poor Well directly to the lake in an attempt to deal with odors and other occasional problems.
With the prospect of needing to replace a well within the next few years, board members indicated at a recent meeting that they would love to find a new well location in the salvage area to avoid the pumping limits.
The big why?
Major subdivision of lands in the greater Tehachapi area took off in the 1960s and continued into the early 1970s as part of a national trend that included the development of California City in eastern Kern County, which also began in 1961 and Tenneco’s Pine Mountain Club development in the mountains south of Bakersfield beginning in 1971.
Oak Knolls morphed into Golden Hills by 1968 when Boise Cascade’s subsidiary Pacific Cascade Land Company announced that it had acquired the Mendiburu Ranch south of the city and would develop it into Mountain Meadows. News of other large subdivisions — including Alpine Forest Park, Bear Valley Springs and Stallion Springs — hit the real estate sections of Southern California newspapers within the next few years.
Why were developers allowed to create subdivisions and sell lots without ensuring the availability of water? The simple answer is that they weren’t required to do so.
Not long after much of that subdivision, Kern County’s planning department began to grapple with a new law — the California Environmental Quality Act, requiring environmental review of projects. Although the law was passed in 1970, it was initially believed to only apply to governmental projects. But after a 1972 state Supreme Court decision made it clear that CEQA requires environmental review of all projects, Kern County officials began to implement the law.
A memo to county planning staff from Planning Director Jack Dalton was quoted in an October 1972 article in The Bakersfield Californian: “We must be extremely careful to require environmental impact reports when appropriate and to comply fully with the intent and purpose of the law,” he said. “Yet, we must be mature enough in our professional judgment so as not to cause undue harm to the economy and well-being and not require that such reports be prepared when the proposed use could be classified as ‘having no significant impact potential’ on our environment and, accordingly, classify the use as ‘trivial.’”
Dalton was the county planning director from 1956 until his retirement in 1977.
In January 1973, Tehachapi News reported that Boise Cascade had reached an agreement to settle a lawsuit brought against three of its subsidiaries by the state of California. The settlement provided a fund through which some purchasers of lots could receive refunds. The previous July, according to the article, Boise Cascade had discontinued its sales program after selling $360 million worth of lots in California and Nevada between 1967 and July 1972.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: email@example.com.
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