The Kern Water Bank was developed in response to wide fluctuations in California water supply. It is a highly effective conjunctive use program designed to enhance groundwater resources, to supplement inconsistent surface water supplies and provide a more stable, reliable and sustainable source of water particularly in dry years.
For decades prior to the Kern Water Bank’s development by KWBA, most of the 20,000 acres was used for farming. In 1988, the property was acquired by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) on behalf of the State Water Project (SWP) contractors, which planned to develop a functioning water bank on the property known as the Kern Fan Element of the Kern Water Bank (KFE). The State Water Project contractors paid all the costs of DWR’s efforts to develop a water bank on the KFE property. Despite spending tens of millions of dollars and years of studies, testing and other efforts, DWR encountered many legal, institutional and environmental impediments to the implementation of a water bank on the property. DWR ultimately concluded that development of water bank on the KFE property by DWR as part of the SWP was not feasible and halted all work on the KFE project.
Prompted by several dry water years and SWP water supply shortages, mediated negotiations between the SWP Contractors and DWR in 1994 led to the Monterey Agreement – Statement of Principles. The Monterey Agreement resolved a number of longstanding issues between certain of the SWP Contractors and DWR, and included providing for the transfer of the KFE property to local water agencies who believed in the water bank concept and were willing to take the financial and environmental permitting risks to develop the property into a functioning water banking facility, which would become known as the Kern Water Bank project.
All of the agricultural contractors with the SWP, as well as the fifteen member units of the Kern County Water Agency, were offered the opportunity to participate in the Kern Water Bank, but only six of these decided to do so. Those agencies that decided to participate all became members of the KWBA – and are located in Kern and Kings Counties within the San Joaquin Valley.
The participating local agencies transferred and retired 45,000 acre feet of their SWP entitlement (now known as “Table A amount”) to DWR in exchange for the KFE property. This retired Table A amount presently would be worth approximately $5,800/acre-foot, or more than $260 million. In addition, as part of the KFE transfer, the State Water Project Contractors funded minor remediation work on the site to address contamination associated with past oil and agricultural activities, and DWR transferred all future liabilities to the KWBA in exchange for $3 million. Since the transfer, the Kern Water Bank Authority has conducted necessary environmental review, including CEQA, obtained the required permits, performed remediation, and invested approximately $35 million in infrastructure and improvements, including wells, canals, pump stations, and pipelines. In addition, KWBA members have stored tens of millions of dollars of water underground for use in future years when available surface supplies are insufficient.
The water in storage and the costs to recharge and extract it are borne exclusively by the members of the KWBA. Major infrastructure projects were funded through commercial financing ($27 million), a Prop 204 loan ($5 million), and a Proposition 13 grant ($3.375 million). KWBA’s members are solely responsible for the repayment of the bond and loans used to fund the improvements.
The Kern Water Bank project serves two primary purposes: water banking and wildlife preservation, and is operated under a Habitat Conservation Plan / Natural Community Conservation Plan that provides for specific uses for the property through the year 2072. These uses include Sensitive Habitat, which is set aside for endangered species, Compatible Habitat, which can be used for recharge, conveyance, and recovery of water, the Conservation Bank
, which provides mitigation for other properties, and a Farming Sector
. The Farming Sector has not been farmed, but rather used in the same manner as compatible habitat. The original HCP/NCCP does provide for the commercial development of 490 acres, but the KWBA has since committed to not develop this acreage.
Key Dates in the Kern Water Bank history
- December 1994 – Representatives of State Water Contractors and Department of Water Resources execute the Monterey Agreement – Statement of Principles, which include the transfer of the KFE property from the Department of Water Resources to the Kern County Water Agency in exchange for retirement of 45,000 acre feet of State Water Project entitlement or Table A amount.
- March 1995 – Statement of Principles executed by and between the Kern County Water Agency, Dudley Ridge Water District, Semitropic Water Storage District, Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District and Westside Mutual Water Company for the Development, Operation and Maintenance of the Kern Fan Element of the Kern Water Bank.
- October 1995 –Kern Water Bank Authority is formally established.
- December 1995 – Monterey Amendments to SWP contracts and Transfer Agreement provide for transfer of KFE property to the Kern Water Bank Authority in exchange for relinquishment and retirement of 45,000 acre-feet of SWP Table A amount.
- August 1996 – Title to KFE property is transferred to the Kern Water Bank Authority, and KWBA members relinquish rights to 45,000 acre-feet of SWP Table A amount.
- June, 1997 – Kern Water Bank Authority posts CEQA Notice of Determination for Kern Water Bank project.
- October, 1997 – Signing ceremony for completion of the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP)/ Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) for the Kern Water Bank project. The HCP/NCCP ensures that the property will fulfill the dual roles of both water and wildlife conservation.
- 1998 – Kern Water Bank project is recognized by the Association of California Water Agencies with the Clair A. Hill Award for excellence in water management in California.
- August, 1999 – Construction started on major facilities, including a 6-mile long canal, 72,000 feet of pipeline, and 40 new or rehabilitated wells.
- January 2000 – Then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visits the Kern Water Bank, hailing it as “the most effective groundwater storage program in the United States, probably the whole world.”
- February, 2004 - Construction started on the River Area Project, including eight new wells, pipelines for these wells plus seven other wells, a large diameter conveyance pipeline to route water for both recharge and recovery, and a lift station.
- Through May, 2011 the Kern Water Bank has recharged over 1.7 million acre-feet and recovered nearly 0.9 million acre-feet leaving a current balance of about 0.8 million acre-feet in storage.