California City fears being left high and dry


California City dwellers are worried their town may become a desert. No, this is not a joke.

It's called the Fremont Valley Preservation Project. When fully operational, it would combine a 1,008-megawatt photovoltaic solar power plant - the largest in Kern County - with water banking and well water extraction systems that would pull vital H2O from the Fremont Valley groundwater basin, located north of the Antelope Valley's own main groundwater basin.

Residents and city officials from California City are nervous that the groundwater pumped out of Antelope Valley wells could end up being piped elsewhere.

The community is asking the Kern County Planning Department to hold off on approving the Fremont Valley Preservation Project until their own outside expert hydrologist has time to analyze the proposal and its potential impact on the city's water supply.

The Fremont Valley project has the potential to lower the underground water level. That could lead to drilling deeper wells and installing larger pumps. That would, in turn, increase costs to the city and run the risk of endangering the future supply of water to residents.

According to reports, the underground basin's capacity and the amount replenished through rain and melting snow is estimated at 10,000 acre-feet per year. An acre-foot roughly translates to about 325,851 gallons of water. That's enough to equal the yearly usage for 10,000 typical Antelope Valley households when you do the math.

But did the report also take into consideration the fact that California has suffered under drought conditions for years? If there's not enough rainfall and snowmelt to replenish the basin, where are they supposed to make up the shortfall? And what happens when you take what water is left out of the ground and ship it somewhere else?

The planning committee was scheduled to review the plans on Jan. 23. Not wasting a moment, the California City council, in a special meeting on Monday, ratified a contract with a hydrologist to get their independent analysis. City Manager Tom Weil engaged Wildermuth Environmental, Inc. for the task.

"We need to have this in place for the commission to consider," Weil told Valley Press staff writer Allison Gatlin.

California City has brought the Mojave Air and Space Port and the Indian Wells Valley Water District in to share the costs of hiring the hydrologist, a $20,000 maximum contract, according to Weil.

The city is also hoping to enlist support from the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency and the Mojave Public Utility District.

"As far as I'm concerned, this project will only last a couple years, because the water will be gone, Bee Coy, general manager of the Mojave Public Utility District and an opponent of the project, said.

The proposal actually covers four separate sites, with a total of 4,806 acres around Cantil, near where Highway 14 and Redrock-Randsburg Road meet.

A total of up to 114,000 acre-feet of native groundwater would be pumped out of the underwater basin annually - with a cap of one million acre-feet for the full extraction.

The kicker that's got so many residents and city officials feeling all wet: This extracted water would then be sold to users elsewhere in Kern County.

California City has around 23,000 home lots that are currently vacant but which have already been promised water service by city government. If measures aren't taken to ensure the underground basin isn't depleted by this project, those commitments could be threatened.

In other words, people won't move in to California City if they don't have water services. If they don't move in, the city can't thrive. You are left not with a desert oasis but a mirage.

A fourth generation Cantil resident summed up the general mood of the assembled citizens at a recent City Council meeting, calling the project "a good old-fashioned water grab," where a few get rich selling local groundwater while the rest of the community eats dirt.

And you thought this kind of intrigue was left to the pages of detective noir or big-screen Hollywood. Forget it, Jake, it's not Chinatown. It's California City.


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