A conversation with journalist Lois Henry

Lois Henry talks about fracking, Nickel water, and more in a facilitated conversation with Tom Philp

On Sunday, Lois Henry published her final column (here it is) after 27 years at the Bakersfield Californian.  She will be beginning a new adventure working with Central Valley BizFed, a new organization she describes as a ‘federation of diverse business organizations, trade groups, businesses and business people from Bakersfield to Fresno and everywhere in between.’

While we all wish her success in her new venture, she will certainly be missed in our little corner of the media world.  Over the years, Lois Henry’s columns on water in Kern County and beyond have been popular here on Maven’s Notebook (y’all know who you are – I’ve seen those stats).  So as a tribute to all those years and all those columns, here is an entertaining  conversation between Lois Henry and Tom Philp that was the lunchtime presentation at the California Water Policy Conference, held this spring in San Diego.  And, just to keep it casual, I will dispense with the usual ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’; for this, it will simply be Lois and Tom.

Tom Philp is the Executive Strategist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California where he helps with public affairs and local and state outreach, as well as draft key communication pieces for Metropolitan; he is also is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from his time with the Sacramento Bee.  Tom introduced Lois Henry as the consummate Valley Girl and the consummate journalist of the Central Valley.  Lois moved to Fresno at age three; her father worked for the UPI.  Lois has been at the Bakersfield Californian since graduating from Fresno State in 1990.

Somewhere along Lois’s journey, she got a slight addiction to water,” said Tom.  “I used to read her columns from afar when I was up in the think tank at the Sacramento Bee.  I had never gotten to meet Lois until we convinced her to come and speak here. … It’s been a pleasure to get to know her. It might get a little profane up here. It might not. So I’m just warning you. Two journalists talk, things may be said. But with that, I wanted to introduce Lois Henry.”

Lois, walk us through … you graduated Fresno State, and you get to Bakersfield in 1990. Why Bakersfield?

They offered me a job,” said Lois.

What was the compensation for your first story?” asked Tom.

I started off as a county correspondent,” said Lois.  “We don’t have those anymore, because the IRS frowns on this. But I worked for $40 a story. And I covered East Kern County. So I covered China Lake Naval Weapons Center, and Edwards Air Force Base, and Mojave Flight Test Center, and a couple of different communities up there.  And when you’re working for $40 a story, you find a lot of stories. You learn how to write really fast.  So that’s how I started off, and then they brought me into the newsroom about a year and a half after I started doing that.

I’ve covered social services, I covered city government, I covered county government,” Lois continued.  “Back in the day, we had a bureau up in Sacramento. We don’t have that anymore, unfortunately, because of cutbacks. So I covered state government, and then I came back into the newsroom, and I covered the oil industry. So that was 10 years, and then I became an editor.  Then I was the Assistant Managing Editor for another 10 years. And I don’t know how many of you people manage people, but I wanted to stab myself in the eye with an ice-pick towards the end of that 10 years. And so I proposed doing this column, and they started letting me do the column. And this August, that will be 10 years.

Tell us a little bit about the Bakersfield Californian. How big was it? How big is it?” asked Tom.

Well, this is a tale of woe,” Lois said.  “The Bakersfield Californian … since I used to be in management, I got privy to all this stuff. It was at 89,000 daily circulation; and I think about 90,000 on Sundays, which was our big day. And we’re in the 30s now.  When I was the Assistant Managing Editor, I managed 90 people. 14 or 15 of those were metro reporters, and then we had a business section, and we had a features section, and obviously a sports section.  Now we don’t have a business section anymore. We have five reporters left.”

And you are one of them?” asked Tom.

Well, no actually,” said Lois.  “They don’t count me. Don’t count me, because I’m a columnist. And I’m also still the Assistant Managing Editor, so I guess I could still come out and yell at people.”

How many columns do you write a week?” asked Tom.

I do two columns a week, which is not really standard; most columnists do three columns a week,” said Lois.  “But my columns tend towards being investigative. I do a lot of water columns, but I also do stuff on police misconduct and brutality. I do stuff on CPS illegally taking children.  Sometimes if there’s a piece of legislation in Sacramento that I think will affect Kern County, I do stuff on that.  And a lot of times, people call me up to fix their problems, and so sometimes I run up blind-alleys. People aren’t always honest when they call you, playing the victim. I don’t know if you knew this, but … So you follow their information, and then maybe it doesn’t pan out. So two columns a week. I know it sounds like I’m slacking, but I swear I’m not.”

Somehow you got interested in water,” said Tom.  “Sometimes you can find a story in your own newspaper, and a great place to find a story in your own newspaper is to look in your legal ads, and to see why people are having to post something that they have to make public, because it’s the law for one reason or another. So you were looking through the legal ads, and you found something. What did you find?

I was the Assistant Managing Editor, and I had been the Metro Editor, and it was still a little bit different,” said Lois.  “When you’re the Metro Editor, you got your hands in every story, you’re dealing with all this stuff. When you’re the Assistant Managing Editor, you’re supposed to take a broader look. And I was bored shitless.  So I was looking through the ads, and I looked through our legal ads.  And I started noticing in 2000, all of these water agencies locally selling excess water. And I was like, ‘What? What is this?’ And I just kept seeing this, and I was thinking, “There is no excess water. They keep telling us it’s a drought, and oh my gosh, and we’re all going belly up, and blahblahblah. Like what excess water?’”

So we had just hired this new environmental reporter, I’ll just call her Karen,” continued Lois. “I kept trying to convince my bosses to let me get another position to cover water, because I thought it was important. And everybody was like, ‘Nah, water’s boring! Nobody cares until a tap goes dry, blah blah blah.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but our job is to figure out why your tap goes dry before it goes dry.’ But whatever, nobody would listen to me.  So I grabbed the environmental reporter, and I said, ‘You need to go over to the Kern Country Water Agency, and ask about this. What excess water are they selling? This is not making any sense to me! And what is this EWA they keep talking about?’ Environmental Water Account. This was back in the days of CALFED.”

Curtis Creel is now in charge of the Kern County Water Agency, and he is honest as the day is long, and will tell you everything that you need to know.  He doesn’t hide anything. He’s a fabulous guy. Everyone loves him,” said Lois.  “Tom Clark, on the other hand, was in charge of the Kern County Water Agency at the time, and he’s just very well known, wheeler and dealer. I love Tom Clark … He’s just a great guy. But he would tell little Karen whatever it was that he would tell her and shoo her away. She’d come back, and she would tell me, and I’m like, ‘That doesn’t make any sense! Wait a minute. Go back and ask him this … ‘ Anyway, so it was back and forth, and back and forth.”

I kept sending her back, because I smell a fish here,” said Lois.  “Anyway, so she wrote the story, and it was the first story, don’t let Contra Costa Times bullshit you. We broke this. It was the Environmental Water Account, and how … I’m going to use the word scam … some people were scamming the system. It was all legal, but they were buying the water from the state at their allotted contract amount, whatever that was. I’m going to make up … I can’t remember the numbers. 100 bucks an acre foot, right? And they were selling it back to the state at $300, $400, $500 an acre foot.

Tom Clark tells little Karen, ‘Oh! That’s pumping costs.’ And I was like, ‘Are you telling me they’re pumping water from Kern County to Sacramento? That doesn’t make any sense at all. Wait a minute, this is complete bullshit!,’” said Lois.  “Anyway, we write the story, and we used the amount of information that poor little Karen could get. And we break the story, and then Contra Costa breaks it, and everything just goes haywire all over the place. And ultimately, the Environmental Water Account was disbanded as you might suspect. But as soon as that story was in the paper, Karen put in her two weeks notice, and never showed up again.”

Congratulations, for breaking the story- “ said Tom.

-And breaking the reporter,” said Lois.

It’s rarely done. So while we are on the subject of the Kern Water Bank, let’s talk about the Kern Water Bank,” said Tom.

I get asked about the Kern Water Bank a lot, and just to let you know, I’ve not really covered Stuart Resnick. I’ve not really covered the Kern Water Bank per se, because it’s been covered, and covered, and covered, and litigated, and litigated, and litigated, so I just haven’t found much new there to cover,” said Lois.  “If any of you have seen the National Geographic film, they again reiterated a lot of the comments, and concerns, and criticisms about the Kern Water Bank.

The Kern Water Bank was started by DWR back when I was still I college,” said Lois.  “They bought the land, and the idea was to build this groundwater bank. And they could never get it off the ground for whatever reason – blame bureaucracy or what have you.  Then we had the drought of the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands of acres were fallowed in Kern County. We had way more row crops, not as many permanent crops then. And of course, a lot of environmentalists complained that we had water-thirsty, low-value alfalfa and cotton, how terrible that was, etc., etc. Right? So, just setting the stage here of all the different plays that were going on.”

So Tom Clark is head of the Kern County Water Agency, he’s the wheeler and dealer of the century, this guy,” said Lois.  “The ACWA Conference happens, and during the ACWA Conference, which was in Monterey, they have this discussion about water rights and municipal versus ag, because the reason that Kern County had to fallow so much land is that municipal took precedence in our drought, so ag got cut. And so they had this sort of, “Let’s do this roundtable.” Because we did fallow hundreds of thousands of acres. It was a major economic hit for Kern County.”

So they have this big roundtable about all of these different issues – who should get cut? who shouldn’t get cut?  The Kern Water Bank was in there,” said Lois.  “Ultimately what ends up happening is municipal and ag end up sharing the cuts, so there is no precedence one to the other now. And … state water contractors, including Kern County, which was the second biggest state water contractor, still is, gave up some of its water to municipal. And the Kern Water Bank was given to the Kern County Water Agency.”

So all those pieces happened, and then, shortly after that, the Kern County Water Agency deeds the Water Bank over to the Kern Water Bank Authority,” continued Lois.  “And the Kern Water Bank Authority has five members: The Water Agency, Maricopa Wheeler Ridge Water Storage District, Dudley Ridge Water Storage District, Tejon Ranch, and the Westside Mutual Water Company, which is a private water company, which is owned by Paramount, which is owned by Resnick.  So one guy has 51% control of the Water Bank. So that’s the issue. That’s where people feel like that was a gift of public funds. But again, it’s been litigated, it’s been litigated, it’s been litigated. And it’s never been found that that’s the case. In fact, it just was litigated in 2010-11, and again, it’s not going back to public hands.”

How did you get freed from the desk? … How did that happen?” asked Tom.

Well, I had proposed this column starting in 2004, and then in 2007 … I don’t remember what it was, I think I just really wore down my boss, Mike Jenner, who said, ‘Okay. Get out of my hair. Do a column a week, but you still have to do all your other duties.’  Which was, I was in charge of the interns. I was in charge of the weekend. I was in charge of doing reviews for everybody. I was in charge of all of this housekeeping stuff. So it’s like a Cinderella thing, where once you clean up and do all your chores, then you can go to the ball.

I started the column,” said Lois.  “We had a district attorney, a very long time district attorney named Ed Jagels. Very well known. Doesn’t like me very much. Doesn’t like the press very much. Doesn’t like anybody very much. Anyway, so my very first column that I wrote was about this guy who was trying out to get on one of those stupid reality shows. Anyway, what he did was like a Survivor reality show or something. He brought a live rattlesnake into the audition, which was in Kern County, and he took a bite out of the rattlesnake, that was alive, right? And killed it.  He didn’t go on the show, but some people felt that he should be prosecuted for animal cruelty. And so it was this big huge outcry, and I talked to the judges, and looked up the law, and found out that because it’s a rattlesnake, and it’s considered a nuisance, you can pretty much do anything you want. There is no such thing as animal cruelty to a potentially deadly snake.   And so, it was up to Ed Jagels, who was getting all this pressure to file these charges.”

Okay, let’s touch on some other subjects,” said Tom.  “Let’s talk about fracking, and water with fracking. You know, the water with fracking. You’ve done a few columns on this, and … What’s the correct term again?

It’s oilfield produced water,” said Lois.

Let’s talk about oilfield produced water, and your columns, and what you thought about it,” said Tom.

Okay. And by the way, I consider myself an environmentalist, even if you’re not going to like my take on this,” said Lois.  “By the way, there is no fracked water that is used on produce. No fracked water is used on produce anywhere in this state or any other, that I know of.  Fracking is a very particular enhanced oil production technique. I’ve been writing about it for 25 years. This is nothing new. There’s also steam flooding and water flooding; they’re all considered enhanced oil production techniques. And then in Kern County, you have oil production on the East side and on the West side of the valley.”

Now, once you get going and producing oil, you get one barrel of oil for ten barrels of water,” continued Lois.  “The water that comes up on the West side is brackish, and it’s filled with arsenic, and other crap. And it’s extremely hard, almost impossible … Many companies right now are trying to figure out how to clean it up for any kind of secondary use. And what they also do is they re-steam it and put it back down in the west.  On the East side, the water is very good. It is high in salts, but it doesn’t have the arsenic, barium, cobalt, magnesium and other bad crap that comes up on the West side. So for many years, many, many years, they have cleaned up that water … There are three oil companies. They’ve cleaned up that water. They give it to the Cawelo Agricultural Water District. They blend it with fresh water, and they use it on crops. Yes. Your Cuties, your grapes, for about 20 years have been grown with this water in that one area.”

So the drought happened, and everybody’s gotta do a drought story every five seconds, right?,” said Lois.  “So somebody comes to me and says, ‘Oh, you should probably do a story about this.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve done eight million stories about this. All right, fine. I’ll do another story about this. Oh, oil and water do mix … ‘ The same kind of bullshit. Anyway.  So then, Newsweek gets wind of it, and the New York Times gets wind of it, and then the LA Times gets wind of it. And they come, and they do stories about how it’s all fracked water being used on these products.”

By the way, another thing, no fracking is done on the East side,” said Lois.  “You don’t have to. That is a very specific technique. It’s extremely expensive. You only frack oil wells if you need to. So there’s no need to do it on the East side, so there’s no fracking; hence, no fracked water.  In fact, they don’t even do steam flooding or water flooding over there. … It’s easy to get oil out of the East side. That’s where we discovered oil in Kern County. It basically comes up if you throw a dime too hard on the ground. So no fracked water.”

But according to Newsweek, and the New York Times, and especially the LA Times, we’re all glowing in the dark because fracked water is feeding our Cuties,” said Lois.  “Anyway … Bullshit. I did stories … After they started coming out … In fact, I hated to do it, because I love the LA Times, obviously, it’s a great newspaper. But I went through the LA Times story, and I was like … I mean, and Mother Jones … It was so many of them that did stories that’s just flat wrong. Just absolute errors.

And by the way, since all that happened, there’s been massive amounts of testing,” said Lois.  “It’s always been tested for TDS, total dissolved solids, but now there’s just massive amounts of testing that have been done on the water. On the water that comes from the oilfields, on the blended water, and now on the fruit, on the rutabagas, on the potatoes, on anything that even is touched with that water. And guess what the testing has shown? Nothing.   Do you think all of Mother Jones and etc. have come back and said, “Oh, by the way, this is all bullshit. It’s fine.” No. I’m the only one that writes stories about it, and I’m getting a little annoyed, sorry, because I’m the only one that goes and actually looks at the tests, and writes about it, and explains it, and … Anyway, so there’s just nothing to it. Big, long story for nothing.”

“Lois, I sense some anger in you,” said Tom.  “As your therapist, let’s do something. I’m going to say two words, and I want you to tell us exactly what comes to your mind. Donald Trump.”

Great hair,” said Lois.

Anything else? Is that it?” said Tom.

Donald Trump won Kern County by 56% of the vote, I think?” said Lois.  “I find it just fascinating, because during the campaign, he said what? He was going to get rid of TPP on the first day. Right? What did he do? He got rid of TPP. What do all the farmers say about that? ‘Wait a minute! We wanted to sell our produce under TPP.’  What else did he say? ‘I’m going to redo NAFTA.’ What do the farmers say? ‘Wait a minute! We like NAFTA! We make a lot of money from NAFTA!’ The other thing is, ‘I’m going to build a wall. No more immigration.’ Guess who picks all the fruits and vegetables in Kern County? So I just don’t understand why the farmers voted for him in droves, which they did. But, I don’t know … It’s interesting.  He does say he’s going to spend a lot on infrastructure, which everyone in Kern County is … Immediately, as soon as he says “infrastructure,” they don’t think roads. They don’t think airports. They think dams. … I just don’t know how Donald Trump gets into California water and gets out clean. Because no one does.”

That was a good release, Lois. Thank you very much,” said Tom.  “Let’s keep going. Two more words: Jerry Brown.”

Moonbeam.  I love Jerry Brown. I’ve had drinks with Jerry Brown … He’s a fun guy to talk to.  I tried to pin him down on fracking, and he just was the most wily guy. His question, his thing … When I said, ‘Well, what do you think of fracking?’ Are you gonna … ” Because I think there was an effort at the time to try and ban fracking statewide. And he said, ‘Well, I just wonder. All the people who are anti-fracking. How do they get to those protests and those rallies? Do they drive there?’  And I was like, ‘So you’re pro-fracking?’ ‘Well, I just have to think. If this water is so … ‘ I’m like, ‘Oh, Okay.’ The guy can speak out of both sides of his mouth and other orifices all at the same time.

I think the California Water Fix is going to be … I think he’s pushing it as his legacy,” said Lois.  “And I don’t know what to say about California Water Fix. The guys I talk to … I’m sorry Curtis. The guys I talk to, when they just honestly talk to me about what their farmers think, and how much this is going to cost, their main thing is, ‘We don’t have a minimum. We cannot get a minimum.’  Because anybody in business knows, you need to know what the rock bottom is going to be on this resource, so you can start setting your expectations and your prices based on that. And they can’t get a minimum out of the state, and they’ve spent so much money already on studies and various things that they don’t know if they can go back to their guys, their farmers, and say, “Yeah, give us a crapload more money, and we can guarantee you anything.” That’s what their concern is, there’s just no minimum.”

We haven’t talked about groundwater management, but I’m going to fast forward to an issue that’s unique to Kern County,” Tom said. “Obviously, it’s going to have an impact for agriculture in Kern County, but the city of Bakersfield is very heavily reliant, and Kern County is as well, for growth in the unincorporated areas. So forget about all us water people and agriculture with groundwater management. As you do groundwater management in Kern County, what is that going to do to growth, in your mind?

Well, I did a story on this last January, and it’s interesting, because a lot of the agricultural water district people called me up after this, and they said, ‘Ah, you should keep up on this. There’s more to it,’” said Lois.  “The thesis question was, ‘How much further can we grow, based on our water?’ And just like everybody else in every other municipality in California, pre-recession there was a lot of permits that were approved for housing developments.  And then that all went belly-up.  Because of a state action, those permits are still active.   So I calculated how many active but not yet built lots we have in Bakersfield alone, plus there’s all these … Tejon wants to build a new town, and there’s a bunch of new stuff that’s starting up since the economy’s gotten a little bit better. It’s 40,000 homes.

So I calculated the water use for those homes, … Bakersfield and Cal Water share basically the majority of water purveying in Bakersfield, and I looked at their urban water reports, and I was said, ‘We don’t have the water. According to what you have on paper. We don’t have the water for that much growth. So how much further can we grow, and how do we calculate this, and where do we get this water, etc.’  And every planning department and water agency, and everything that I went to, when I did that story, their response was, ‘Huh. That’s a good question.’ And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m just the dumb reporter. Why aren’t you asking that question? And being able to answer it.’”

With SGMA now, it’s a very, very ticklish question, because what the water agency guys, the ag water agency guys have been saying in my ear is, ‘The city doesn’t have the water it claims,’” added Lois.

Well, you’re a buzzkill for growth. Thank you very much,” said Tom.  “You were a movie star, I hear, on this National Geographic thing. Or you just made the trailer. How did that go? What did you make of the movie?

I’m in that movie,” said Lois.  “If anybody has seen the trailer for the Nat Geo movie, that’s how much I’m in the movie. And I’m talking about the Environmental Water Quality Account, and I’m telling her that … Because she asked me, ‘Well how do people respond to these stories? These water stories, they’re complex. They’re difficult.’  And I’m like, ‘Funnily enough, just regular people, deputies that I meet, etc. They all love these water stories. Because their sense is … ” – and this is what they put in the movie – ‘that someone’s getting rich off our water, and it ain’t us. And their sense is also that all of our water is going to big, bad, evil Metropolitan Water District.’”

“We’re not that evil,” said Tom.  “Lois, we have a question from the field …

Audience member asks, “You’ve been an observer of these issues for awhile now. Could you just speak to how you’ve seen attitudes towards water change or not, both within the Bakersfield area, and then if you want to talk about the state as a whole, how you see things, and maybe where you think it’s going in the future?

Amongst water experts, water managers, water districts, and agricultural water users, you’re almost never going to hear them now say, ‘my water,’” said Lois.  “And a lot of them don’t like the Endangered Species Act and how it restricts the Delta, but almost all of them will talk about the need for habitat restoration. Nobody’s in the water business is going to say mean things about the smelt. They might think mean things about the smelt, but they’re not going to say it.  Years ago, I remember talking to a farmer who was on a water agency, and he talked about like, ‘If I want to sell my water, I’m going to sell my water.’ Nobody says that anymore. Nobody talks about that anymore. Maybe John Vidovich. So I think there’s a real realization of the need to share, and the need to enhance local, regional water supplies, and not to think of the Delta, or at least say it out loud, as ‘my water.’

An audience member asks, “Can you talk a little bit about the price of water in Bakersfield, and the incredible disparity depending upon where you live?”

Do you mean as just a householder?  Oh, yeah. I’ve done a lot of stories on that,” Lois answered.  “It’s funny, because as many stories as I do on it, people continue to ask, ‘Why am I paying more than my neighbor across the street? … We have every kind of water purveyor that you can have in California.  Because you can have some that are regulated by the PUC, and those are usually shareholder companies like Cal Water. We have mutual water companies, which is … Vaughn Water is a mutual water company, so that’s just owned by the people that own the shares in the water company. And then you have municipal, which is the City of Bakersfield.”

So if you want to buy a house in Bakersfield, and one of your key concerns is, ‘I don’t want to pay hardly anything for water,’ you’re going to want to go in the City of Bakersfield’s territory,” said Lois.  “They charge a very minimal amount, because as a municipality, you’re not allowed to make a profit. And if you want to raise your rates, you have to show how the incremental increase in that rate actually is needed for the production, treatment, and distribution.”

A PUC regulated water purveyor, like Cal Water, they’re allowed to build in a 12% profit … on capital expenditures,” Lois said.  “So while your water doesn’t cost any more to treat and deliver … The water itself, the actual unit of water doesn’t cost any more today as opposed to what it did 25 years ago. They’re building in to their rates what it costs to maintain the tanks, and the pumps, and the connections, and the meters, and all that kind of stuff, and adding 12% on top of that for their profit. Because they’re allowed to do that.”

And then, the mutual water companies, and I am the president of a mutual water company, to my great despair … you are beholden to your neighbors. And you can’t sell outside of your districts, etc. Your whole rate system is set on what it costs to maintain that particular area, and you just need enough money in your reserves so that when your wells go dry because Kern Water Bank is sucking all your water out, you can continue to provide that.   So the difference in rates are wild from one side of the street to the other in Bakersfield.”

Is the ag world efficient in Kern County?” asked Tom.

The ag world is efficient in Kern County,” said Lois.  “A lot of people got all upset, ‘It’s a gallon of water for an almond!’  Well, remember what I told you, in the 1990s we plowed under and let fallow a lot of acreage, and all the environmentalists were screaming at us because we grew a lot of cotton. And cotton now, because, ‘That’s a huge, thirsty crop, we can’t grow that. It’s low value.’  They said, ‘Okay, well we’ll switch to almond trees, and it’s on drip irrigation.’  And everyone went, ‘Yay! That’s so great!’ Well, it takes three acre-feet of water per acre of almonds, all year round. So while you can plow under cotton, and you’re only going to flood irrigate it, or even sprinkle irrigate it sometimes, you’ve got to keep that almond tree going.”

So, people who yell at other people about how they use their land – ehh. I’m not into that,” said Lois.  “Besides, here’s my thing on the almond. One gallon of water per almond, then you have to figure in, what’s the protein content of that almond? And what’s that in comparison to, say, cattle? Now you’ve got this whole thing that’s just going to go on, and on, and on, and on, and it gets pointless.”

Audience member asks, “I had a question in regards to Tejon Ranch Development. You had mentioned them, and I just wanted your … Well that answers that. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on water supply for their development.

Now we’re going to talk about the Nickel water,” said Lois.  “You were trying to avoid this, weren’t you, Tom?

Yes, I was. There was too many F-bombs last night, as you were describing it,” said Tom.  “But I want to hear it now.”

This was a deal that was made by Tom Clark, not my dear, dear friend Curtis Creel,” Lois began.  “The Tejon Ranch is proposing a 12,000 home new town at the base of the Grapevine. For what reason, I don’t know, who wants to live in Mettler? And they have recently purchased from Nickel Family LLC 6,789 acre-feet of water. That is more secure than any water in California. So they’re probably going to get this thing approved.”

And the Nickel water – you’re all asking, ‘What’s the Nickel water?’ So back in 2000, Tom Clark, head of the Kern County Water Agency, negotiated a deal, and the Kern County Water Agency agreed to this, to buy this right from the Nickel family. It’s the ‘Hacienda Right.’  The Kern River used to, when it has a high flow, it goes up into Kings County, and it hit the Hacienda Ranch.  The Hacienda Ranch was owned by the Nickel family, and by the way, Jim Nickel now is the great-great-grandson of Henry Miller. But anyway. So the high flow river water, then, is a right assigned to the Nickel family. So in 2000, Tom Clark makes this deal to buy the Hacienda Right from the Nickel family. Which he always used to argue with me, ‘That’s 40,000 acre-feet of water that comes out on average; that now escapes our county. How terrible. We want to have this water, right?’”

But I would argue back, ‘Yeah. Let’s see. But what you did was you took $10 million of Prop 13 money, so you all own a portion of this. Because this is Prop 13 money, which we all pay for, not just we in Kern County. So they got $10 million out of Prop 13, and they bought this Nickel water,” said Lois.  “And in the negative declaration that was included in the purchase, and its explanation of use for this water, they also said that they were going to build these various pumps along the north side of the Kern River, and create a river … Basically recirculating water, and it was going to be great … This 40,000 acre-feet of water they could bank, and then they could use this, and we’d have an actual river in the Kern River, which is its own problematic thing.  So, kumbaya, yay! This is all going to be so great and happy, right?

What ended up happening is the Kern County Water Agency built those wells and pumps, using this public money, and then turned around and told the City of Bakersfield, ‘Well, we’re not going to run them. That costs money. You’ve got to do it.’ The City of Bakersfield said, ‘We don’t have the money for that.’   So those wells have never been used to provide a river, which ticks me off,” said Lois.  “And as part of that deal, when they bought the 40,000 acre-feet, when they gave the $10 million to Nickel, they said, “Oh, and we will agree to give you 10,000 acre-feet of water, come rain, come shine, come drought, no drought, to be shipped through the Kern County Water Agency’s facilities, up and down the state, wherever you may want to peddle it.” Which the Nickel family has done quite vociferously.

And so that’s why I get a little ticked off about the Nickel family water, because it’s public money that was used to give a private family, very directly, a right to this water that they sell up and down the state for … some people might not consider very great uses,” said Lois.  “Like the Newhall Ranch Development, which a lot of people oppose. And this Grapevine Development, which is going to create more pollution, etc., etc.  Is that answer too much? And I did it without cussing!

I’m impressed, actually. In some ways it was better last night, with all those F-bombs,” said Tom.  “Lois actually does have a crusade, and she kind of touched on it. Her crusade at the Bakersfield Californian is to restore a section of the Kern River. If you go through town now, it is a flowing river … Could you walk through the idea of how to restore flow through a section of that river? The portion that goes through town. Sounds like it might be some of the same water right that you’re talking about.

Okay, so the Kern River, up until this year, because we have such a huge year, it is mostly dry,” said Lois.  “Because canals take the water off the river before it goes through town. So the section through town is dirt dry, most years. And the reason I got into this is because I found out that the Kern Delta Water District actually had forfeited, through a court action, some 50,000 acre-feet of water. I won’t bore you with all the details of who sued who.”

Anyway, so this water was loose, and it went up to the Water Resources Control Board, for people to apply for permits for it,” Lois continued.  “And the City of Bakersfield was amongst those that applied for this permit. And I read it, and these applications have the force of law, you can’t go back and change them later. The City of Bakersfield said, “We want to get that water, and we want to run it down the river in perpetuity.” Not just to have a river, but also because the Kern River is our main recharge for groundwater, which we’re absolutely reliant upon. And flora, fauna, happiness, blahblahblah, right?  And I’m like, “Yeah, we should have a river. This is great.” So I started championing the city’s application, which made several ag districts and other places, like Kern County Water Agency, not so happy, because they’re applying for it also, to be used for their own banking, and agriculture, and municipal uses. Which I think, they have enough of, and we should have that bit of water.

What do you think your chances are of succeeding before you retire?” asked Tom.

I am confident that this will happen,” answered Lois.  “But I don’t know when it’s going to happen, because the Water Resources Control Board moves at a glacial pace anyway, and then with the drought, and the fact that now they’re getting into DOGGR business, who knows when they’re ever going to get back to these permits?

So what percentage of your columns are about water?” asked Tom.

I don’t know. Probably 51% of my columns are water,” said Lois.

Do you have to convince your editor to do it, or just, ‘Screw it, I’m going to write it,’” asked Tom.

I’ve had a couple of editors who told me that water is boring,” said Lois.  “It was even in one of my reviews.”

Did you break that editor?” asked Tom.

I did. He’s no longer the editor,” said Lois.

An audience member asked, “Lois, as a journalist, you have a pretty good sense of what is important to Californians, or at least what’s interesting to them. But you’ve also expressed an interest that you have for yourself in water. So I’m curious, what do you see as the biggest challenge that California is facing in regard to water, especially in the face of an uncertain climate future? And what potential opportunities do you see for overcoming those challenges?

Okay, I’m going to piss a lot of water folks off,” said Lois.  “Water rights. Water rights in California are a mess, and they … I don’t know, especially with SGMA, because SGMA says “Oh, we’re not trying to change anybody’s water rights?” Well, yeah, it does … Come on, that’s bullshit. But water rights, and pre-1914 rights, and contract rights, and all that kind of stuff …            That’s going to change. I just don’t see that not changing as you’ve got more and more pull on a … not necessarily smaller and smaller, but if you don’t have the freezer in the Sierra Nevada … It’s all based on that, right?

The Kern River, Buena Vista’s water rights are based on March through July run-off,” Lois continued.  “Well, what if we’re not getting that, because we’re not getting the snow pack. So all these rights, I think, are potentially going to change, and I think people are looking more and more at the Australian Marketing Model. And I think that’s going to be one of the biggest things that changes. And I think we should be talking to economists a lot more about those methods of using, changing, owning water.”

An audience member asks Lois, “If you had a magic wand, how would you change the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act?

If they were going to do this, first all, they should have taken a lot more time to do this, because they ended up overlapping county land use authority, and they also, I think, definitely overlapped people’s rights and property rights,” said Lois.  “So I think they probably should have just said, straight up, ‘We’re going to an Australian model, and groundwater is part of that now. And we’re doing away with the property right to groundwater.’  Because that’s what the huge mess is going to be … We’re all going to be Antelope Valley. It’s all going to go to court. …

This is years ago, Kern County formed a Kern Groundwater Authority, three years before SGMA, so I started writing about this, and one of the things they knew that they needed to do was to talk about sustainable yield,” said Lois.  “What is sustainable yield in this basin? How much can each of us take out without basically drying the sponge up?   And at that first meeting, very first meeting I went to, one of the main participants stood up and said, ‘Why don’t we all just hurry up and get to court?’  The guys that were running the meeting were like, “Please don’t report that. Please don’t report that. We really are trying here.” But I mean, that’s the way it’s going to be.  So  … I would erase SGMA and go back and just start over again with the rights thing. I mean, it’s going to happen.”

Thank you very much for coming, because I know you’re a busy person,” said Tom.  “Good luck with the next column, and please everyone give her a nice round of applause … “

For a little bit more …

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