(KPIX 5) — Amid the worst California drought on record, a Central Valley water bank that could bail out struggling farmers and water districts is instead off limits to most everyone.

There’s plenty of water in the Kern Water Bank near Bakersfield. It’s four times bigger than the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and originally designed to be used by farmers during the dry years.

Except that years ago, the state traded the bank away- giving control to a handful of big agribusinesses, including Paramount Farms, the company that produces the world’s supply of pomegranates, almonds and pistachios.

Environmentalists sued, accusing the state of doing a sloppy environmental impact report when it gave the bank away.

“They didn’t analyze any of the impacts of the Kern Water Bank in the future,” said Adam Keats with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups who sued.

In a new ruling, a judge had agreed the state violated the Environmental Quality Act.

“What it’s going to do to neighboring water banks?” asked Keats. “What’s it going to do to neighboring groundwater, what it’s going to do to Delta fish, to Delta farmers, our clients? They didn’t analyze any operation of the water bank beyond the year 2004 and they selectively picked a small period of time – a wet period.”

Department of Water Resources managers say the state attorney general advised them not to comment on the ruling.

But last month they told KPIX 5 they stand by their decision to turn the the bank over to private interests and select water districts.

“Water managers feel that this is the kind of thing that makes good sense,” said Department of Water Resources attorney Katy Spanos.

Spanos admitted $70 million in taxpayer money paid for the land over the aquifer, but the cost of building and maintaining a water bank would have been more.

Environmentalists say they will continue their efforts to wrestle control of the bank back to the state.

“I think the fact that we’re in the middle of a drought, demonstrates the importance of analyzing the impacts long term, because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Keats.

Both sides will go before a judge later this summer to discuss the next steps to fix the faulty environmental impact report.



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