Bring the Kern back to Bakersfield

The residents of Bakersfield would like their living river back.

Kern River | Photo by Lia Mendez/Bring Back the Kern

The first time I saw the Kern, it was the upper reaches of the river’s north fork, cutting through wildly steep and craggy mountains of the southern Sierra. My mission then was to help survey meadows at the river’s headwaters. After my fieldwork, I drove down the exhilarating slopes, with the wild river running in a deep canyon to my right. The canyon deposited me and the river into the wide, open plains of the southern Central Valley, just east of Bakersfield. The highway pulled away from the river as I drove into the valley, and when I arrived in Bakersfield, I saw that the riverbed through the city was empty and dry.

The temperamental, wild Kern River once flowed along the northern edge of Bakersfield, even flooding city streets every 20 years or so, when wagons were the main mode of transit. Since the 1800s, the lower Kern has been diverted to grow cattle and crops on some of the richest soil in the region. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century river flows through Bakersfield decreased due to irrigation withdrawal, but water still reached the Kern’s terminal Buena Vista Lake west of Bakersfield, supporting millions of migrating birds. When the Kern was dammed upstream of the canyon in the 1950s, high spring snowmelt flows were held back in the reservoir. Irrigation canals withdrew water from the river downstream of the reservoir and, as the crop amounts grew, water demand and market value increased, and flows past Bakersfield diminished. Since the 1970’s, the river simply doesn’t flow by Bakersfield at all, except briefly during extremely wet years.

There is both a classic and unique backstory, but the long and short of it is that the residents of Bakersfield would like their living river back.

A dry Kern River | photo by
A dry Kern River | Photo by Lia Mendez/Bring Back the Kern

Instead of dusty shopping carts and drifting plastic fragments of modern life, the people of California’s ninth largest and often forgotten city would like flowing water in its riverbed, complete with native fish, shady green plants, birds and other wildlife. A living river would give the Kern River Parkway reason to exist and bring joy to its hundreds of bikers, hikers and ever-hopeful bird watchers, who seek connection to nature. A river running through Bakersfield could replenish groundwater that helps supply the city’s residents with drinking water. It would fill Kern and Buena Vista lakes and quench thousands of birds as they migrate south along the Pacific Flyway, restoring some of the symmetry between the meadows in the headwaters and the valley wetlands below. Not all of this can easily happen, given how much water it would take to restore water flows from where the water is diverted in East Bakersfield all the way to its historical terminus at Buena Vista Lake, but Bakersfield residents are mobilizing around the cause of having at least an “ankle to knee deep” river year-round within city limits.

Water to irrigate agricultural fields can come from other sources, but Kern River water can only come from the Kern itself.

Jonathan Yates, founder of Bring Back the Kern presses on some key points:

“The fact that there’s not a river perpetuates a feeling that our city isn’t a good place to live. I hope Bring Back the Kern helps our community come to a wide-reaching consensus that the best use of some of our water is to put it in the river channel.”

Agriculture plays an important role for people living in Bakersfield and the surrounding communities, accounting for approximately 24% of the private sector jobs in Kern County in 2011. While most of the river flow is used for agriculture, there is an opportunity to have some water stay in the channel through Bakersfield, as irrigation infrastructure exists on the west side of the city that could still deliver the water to the same end users.

In the process of flowing through the river channel, more water will percolate into the groundwater, the source of drinking water to the City of Bakersfield, and another key agricultural irrigation source. More water needs to be put in the groundwater across the Kern subbasin to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act anyway. All of this water would stay in the Kern river subbasin for use, either as surface water or as groundwater, so it’s a clear win for quality of life, environmental justice, and local ecosystems / migratory waterfowl, without causing undue harm to agriculture jobs.

Getting more water in the river in the near term is relatively simple: The State Water Resources Control Board could approve the city of Bakersfield’s water rights application.

These water rights were forfeited by the Kern Delta Water District in 2007, according to a subsequent board ruling. By agreeing to the city’s application for those now-unappropriated rights, the board could let 11,000 to over 100,000 acre feet of water stay in the river through Bakersfield, depending on the water year. This could help keep a low amount of water in the channel all year — anywhere from 15 to 138 cubic feet per second (1 CFS is approximately one basketball of water) — or provide higher seasonal flows, depending on the water year and how that water is managed.

While appreciating many of the competing needs for water, letting water stay in the river also supports the rights of the people of Bakersfield and the rights of the river and wildlife it supports.

The State Water Resources Control Board is the decider. They have delayed this decision for over a decade and recently announced they will be holding a hearing on Kern water rights, but no date is set, so we have no clear timeline for when a decision will be made. Every year they delay is a year lost for the plants, animals, and people that should have access to a flowing river.

You can support the living river and people that want it back by doing one of the following:

  • Sign this petition to re-water the Kern (30 seconds of your time)
  • Call the State Water Board to give a comment in favor of the river (3 minutes of your time)
    • Call (916) 341-5600. Click here for some ideas of what to say.
  • Write an email to the State Water Board. Use our template and send an email or letter directly to the water board (5 minutes of your time)
  • Give a virtual public comment to the State Water Board in support of the Kern River in one of their bimonthly board meetings (30 mins of your time)

Thanks for helping influence this outcome for the better!

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