Fremont Valley: what is at stake?

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

As critics come forward with concerns about a proposed development that will include a giant solar field and the exportation of native water (see also related story, above), county and elected officials are weighing potential gains against the risks.

The Fremont Valley Preserva-tion Project, which would occupy four separate sites near the California City-Cantil area, proposes a complex plan for the largest photovoltaic solar field in the state (with 3.6 million separate modules), and a system of water extraction, reinjection and transmission.

A future phase of the plan includes the pursuit of conditional-use permits that will authorize the sale and shipment of water to out-of-county buyers.

Advantages of success include the furthering of state goals to establish renewable energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of reliable jobs, the provision of additional electricity sources for the Indian Wells Valley and the development of infrastructure and preservation of resources to accommodate future growth.

But nearly all those benefits hinge upon one point: the identification of an adequate and constant water source.

If skeptics are correct that the two intermittent sources identified are inadequate to make up for the native water that will be piped out of the county, that loss will be devastating to the surrounding communities.

Some historians say that alfalfa farming in that region ultimately resulted in overdrafting the local water supply. On that assumption, the supply is inadequate for the 200,000-plus-acre-feet recharge facility and 100,000-acre-feet water bank. Worse, once that water is piped out of the county, it is all but impossible to recapture.

Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason said that there are many concerns and unknowns relating to the project, but the county leads are working diligently to understand the landscape and protect local interests. “The more I talk to people who are in a position to know better than I am, the more concerned I am about the numbers penciling out as they have been presented by the property owner.

“The first thing I want to make clear is that at this point, there has been no action taken to move water out of our county,” said Gleason. “We are not going to do anything that will knowingly put us in a sustained environmental crisis. What we are doing now is gathering reliable data to show us how to proceed in order to prevent that.”

Having said that, he noted that the county is also studying the potential gains of this project. “This is an investor who has spent $15 million to study the water. If he does find a source, that will help the IWV in particular and Kern County in general.”

Gleason said in Kern County, water availability is a key component to virtually every aspect of growth. If a significant water source is available in Fremont Valley, that could yield great gains for Kern. “I am also asking for them to put in a pipe to the IWV. If water is truly what is holding our community back from growth, as some people believe, this will answer that concern as well.”

But he emphasized that the county still needs more information before any steps can be taken. “There are still a lot of concerns, but I am confident that our staff is doing everything they can to understand every aspect of this project.”

He also noted that although the project has some small overlap in his district, the vast majority impacts District 2, which is represented by Zack Scrivner.

“I am looking out for the interests of my district, and all of us on the board will be looking out for Kern County,” said Gleason. “But since this issue is focused in Zack Scrivner’s district, I am going to be following his lead.”

State Sen. Jean Fuller, whose focus at the state level has been partly on resolving water issues, said that although the project does not directly relate to her level of governance, she is watching to see how it develops.

“I have always used the Kern County Water Agency as my sounding board,” she said. “I would be very interested in what they have to say about the proving up of the volume of water in the project. After I see a report on that, I would have some actual scientific data to evaluate. You have to start with that.”

Gleason met with agency officials on Monday this week. He said they do indeed have some concerns with the EIR — primarily those relating to making sure the native water table is not being reduced faster than natural recharge and determining who the end users will be.

Kern County Planner Lorelei Oviatt, who has been heading up the environmental impact report for the county, was also not available for comment. She will brief the Ridgecrest City Council on Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers.

Story First Published: 2013-11-27