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Study: Absent major changes, new groundwater rules will cost Kern 24,000 jobs

KBAK/KBFX photo, file

Absent major changes to farming practices and an increase in water supply, Kern County's farming juggernaut will have to shrink considerably to meet aggressive new targets for conservation.

A study commissioned by the Kern Groundwater Authority suggests tremendous job losses are a possibility as water district managers and farmers work toward compliance with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Passed during the most recent California drought, SGMA requires local governing bodies to regulate groundwater usage.

"It's making sure you have enough water, so when you use an acre foot or a gallon of water you replace it with a gallon of water," said Eric Averett, who heads the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water District in west Bakersfield. "Wells were going dry because there was too much pumping and I think that prompted the legislature to look at, you know, were we being responsible with our water?"

In short, Averett said, the Central Valley wasn't.

The farming industry has pumped so much water out of the ground, it's changed the elevation of the Central Valley.

Scientists call it subsidence. In many areas of the state, the ground is dozens of feet lower than it was before the water was sucked out.

"On the long term, we were taking more out than was being naturally replaced," Averett said.

SGMA gave local water authorities until January 2020 to come up with a plan for righting the imbalance. They'll have until 2040 to become water neutral – taking out only what can be recharged every year. It's a deadline many regions will struggle to meet.

"It's not reasonable, it's required," Averett said.

So now, water district managers and farmers across the county are working at a furious pace to re-imagine the industry. Nothing is off the table.

Without a substantial increase in the supply of water and/or a substantial decrease in the demand for it, officials predict 185,000 acres will need to be fallowed. Taking that much land out of production will result in the loss of 24,300 jobs, they say.

"Many of us in the water community have been talking about it for a while," Averett said. "But, I don't know if it's been elevated to the point that it needs to be in local government."

Michael Turnipseed isn't in local government. But his organization, Kern County Taxpayers Association, is an advocate for economic diversification.

"We have to figure out how we're going to create enough new jobs with enough payroll to support the community, to pay the taxes," he said. "Our economy has to change."

Investments from Amazon and L'Oreal in the local distribution industry is a step in the right direction, Turnipseed said.

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