Delano water bottling plant prompts concerns over aquifer

Welcome to Delano sign on HWY99 south near Exit 58.(Kenny Goodman)

Niagara Bottling plant in Delano stands to pull hundreds of acre feet per year from an already inadequate aquifer

DELANO – News of the new Niagara Bottling plant going up in Delano hit the local groundwater agency with surprise and alarm.

The plant is permitted to use 1.6 million gallons of groundwater per day, according to a will-serve letter issued by the city in August 2022. That works out to 1,788 acre feet per year, assuming full operation for 365 days.

Even with downtime, the plant will create a substantial pull on the already overdrafted aquifer, said Roland Gross, General Manager of the Southern San Joaquin Municipal Utility District (SSJMUD), which also acts as the area’s groundwater sustainability agency (GSA).

“A year ago, we heard a rumor about it and met with the city,” Gross said of the plant. “We expressed our concerns to the City Engineer and the Niagara engineer. We told them we’d be opposed to any exports of groundwater from this basin, which is already in deficit.

“Next thing is, we’re reading an article about it in the paper.” He referred to a Bakersfield Californian article published this past Nov. 25.

Because the plant will be drawing water straight from the city’s system –  not a new well – approval from SSJMUD wasn’t needed, according to Delano Mayor Joe Alindajao.

“Niagara is not pumping new water or putting in a new well,” he said. There may have been confusion over a new well because Delano is repairing one of its existing wells, he added.

Niagara did not respond to emails or voice messages.

Regardless of whether the water comes from a new well, Gross said, the fact is that the region is in deficit, “And frankly, Delano makes up most of that debt.”

He said while agricultural water districts, such as SSJMUD, pay to bring in surface water, Delano is totally reliant on groundwater.

Under the groundwater plan that covers Delano, that means the city’s groundwater allotment is 1.2 acre feet of water per acre of land, based on yearly rainfall. The city’s will-serve letter says the Niagara plant is 35 acres, which works out to 51 acre feet of water per acre of land, assuming full operation 365 days a year, Gross said.

“The entire subbasin is looking at this,” Gross  said of other groundwater agencies in Kern County. “If a city can sign a paper and just give away the water, what are the issues under SGMA? We’re supposed to be working together.”

He noted this also comes at a time when the state has deemed Kern’s groundwater plan “inadequate.” That has put Kern in the cross hairs of the Water Resources Control Board, SGMA’s enforcement arm. The board has scheduled a hearing next January on whether it will take over groundwater planning for Kern.

In anticipation of that hearing, all of the subbasin’s GSAs are working to refine the existing plan in hopes it will be accepted.

“The state won’t consider a plan that includes new water uses without showing where the water will come from and all water in this region is already over subscribed,” Gross said.

He added that the GSA is exploring “all of our options” in regards to the Niagara plant, which is already under construction and hiring workers.

But legally, the GSA may not have much firepower.

While SGMA gave GSAs authority over groundwater pumping, it also expressly preserves the existing rights of cities and counties to manage groundwater for domestic use – setting up exactly this sort of conflict

“We don’t agree that bottling and exporting the region’s water is domestic use,” Gross said. “We don’t allow growers to export our groundwater.”

Others have pointed out that farmers who use groundwater to grow almonds and pistachios, which they market overseas by the ton, are, in fact, exporting water.

But water bottling plants seem to elicit a more negative response, especially during California’s frequent droughts.

In recent years, groups have successfully fought to shut down water bottling operations, including Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains and Crystal Geyser in Shasta.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This story was originally published by SJV Water on Jan. 3, 2024.

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