“Chinatown II”? Water Bank Sued as Wells Go Dry

Kern Co. Districts, Others Say Key Deals were Illegal.

Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee September 05, 2010

A story worthy of Hollywood will soon unfold in California courtrooms — allegations of government corruption and corporate greed to rival the infamous Los Angeles water grab that inspired the film “Chinatown.” Call it “Chinatown II,” a tale beginning 15 years ago — when, according to lawsuits filed in the last three months, the state illegally turned over the publicly owned Kern Water Bank to an agency controlled by giant corporations in a backroom deal.

Defendants say the charges, like the movie, are mostly fiction. But environmentalists and others who are suing say innocent people have been hurt while big landowners reaped big profits.

Kern Water Bank owners stored water from Northern California rivers in a vast underground aquifer and made millions of dollars selling it back to the state and farmers during the recent drought, environmentalists say.

And by pumping water out of the aquifer, they dried up wells at neighboring homes, say plaintiffs, who include neighboring Kern County water districts. Residents are scrambling for loans to drill deeper wells. Some are losing homes.

“People are suffering, just like they did during the ‘Chinatown’ debacle,” said Carolee Krieger, a Santa Barbara activist and plaintiff. “Private businesses are hoarding it and selling it for huge amounts of money.”

Filed by the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, Northern California water districts and a fishing group, two lawsuits seek a court order putting the bank back in state hands. They allege the water bank is controlled by two corporations — Roll International, owned by billionaire Beverly Hills businessman Stewart Resnick, and Tejon Ranch Co., one of the largest private landowners in California.

A third lawsuit, which includes the Kern water districts, asks the court to stop pumping from the water bank and require further analysis to determine how much water can be pumped without drying up neighboring wells.

Environmentalists and Kern County water districts around the water bank say a state environmental impact report did nothing to protect the neighbors.

State officials won’t discuss pending litigation. But representatives for Resnick and Tejon say the transfer of the bank and its operation are completely legal.

And William Phillimore, executive officer of Resnick’s Paramount Farms in Bakersfield, said the owners have since invested at least $30 million.

In return, California now has the largest underground water storage in the country — perfectly located in the southern San Joaquin Valley — to ease south-state shortages during droughts.

“We got a great deal of praise for taking the chance 15 years ago and making it work,” Phillimore said. “I don’t understand why we are such a target now.”

Wells running dry

Gaylord Beeson won’t forget the Kern Water Bank or July 29, the day his productive water well went dry. Nor will the 32 northwest Bakersfield customers in his small water association.

He blames heavy pumping by his neighbor, the water bank. The water table has dropped 115 feet in the last three years — something that in the past would have taken two decades.

Officials at Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District agree, saying water bank withdrawals changed the regional underground flow and created a huge dip in the water table.

Water levels in Rosedale are the lowest since the district was formed in 1959, even though the district has pumped surplus water into the ground, said General Manager Eric Averett, whose district has filed suit to stop the pumping.

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