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By Tina Fisher Cunningham
Fisher Forde Media 

Jacobsen Reservoir (Brite Lake): Water district lawyer reports 'no swimming'

The Forde Files No. 166


Tina Fisher Cunningham

The Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District board of directors wanted to say yes, but state regulations say no to swimming in Brite Lake.

At its Mar. 21 meeting at the 22901 Banducci Road district headquarters, the board agreed to share district counsel Bernard Barmann's "Privileged and Confidential Memorandum" of research on the issue of swimming in the lake with the Tehachapi Valley Recreation and Park District (TVRPD) and let the Rec & Park District decide how to pursue it.

The Rec & Park district, which manages camping, fishing and public access to Brite Lake, had advanced plans to create swimming beaches at the venue.

The matter rests on the description in state regulations of "domestic uses" of water and the lake's unique position.

Brite Lake is the water district's Jacobsen Reservoir. Reservoirs that direrctly supply water for human consumption do not allow human contact – not even a toe in the water – due to the danger of human-specific contamination. Reservoirs that do allow direct surface contact provide treatment for the water downstream.

Brite Lake water goes directly to agricultural uses throughout the Tehachapi valleys and is not treated or used for human consumption.

While the wholesale Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District delivers to the big ag operations, about 100 smaller customers use the water for landscape or livestock, which is categorized as "domestic use" in state code.

"Our reservoir falls into a black hole in the law," water district Manager Tom Neisler told the board.

Neisler wrote in his staff report: "[Barmann's] conclusion was that swimming cannot be permitted under current regulations due to 'domestic uses' of water from the reservoir. Domestic uses are different than potable [safe to drink] water uses. These domestic uses include 'the incidental watering of domestic stock for family sustenance or enjoyment and the irrigation of not to exceed one-half acre in lawn, ornamental shrubbery, or gardens at any single establishment.' While all our customers sign agreements that declare our water supply to be non-potable, we not only allow but encourage such domestic uses as outlined above. Thus, counsel and staff conclude that swimming cannot be allowed as a permitted use of Brite Lake.

"I am not opposed to allowing swimming on any practical or technical bases. The issue is that other reservoirs in the state that allow swimming provide treatment and disinfection downstream. As we deliver non-potable water, neither we (nor our customers) perform these functions. I believe that we are caught in a 'Catch 22' situation that I regret. However, I don't feel that the district should be responsible for providing a solution. I would support any efforts that the TVRPD may do to seek a remedy. We are enthusiastic partners with them and would support expansion of the recreational opportunities available to our customers."

Rec & Park's remedy would likely include appealing to contacts in Sacramento to amend the state code.

"It's a tough hill to climb," Neisler said to Forde Files. "She [Rec& Park District Manager Michelle Vance] has good resources."

In other business, the district board committed to supporting the California WaterFix although the project is not yet clearly defined and the cost is unknown.

"We want to be part of the WaterFix," Neisler said. Most important, he said, "We need to ensure adequate water supplies for our successors. The project is 20 years down the road."

He said the big water agencies – like Westlands Water Agency in Fresno, the largest water district in the world – are battling over the project's configuration and spending millions. For the ag interests, he said. "It's a totally different metric."

"We're a fly on the elephant's back on top of our mountain. The big elephants are going tusk to tusk."


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