Lower Kern River named among America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2022

Excessive water withdrawals threaten community access, fish and wildlife

Contact: Amy Merrill, American Rivers, 510-809-8010
Kelly Damian, Bring Back the Kern, 661-333-6695

Washington, D.C. – American Rivers today named the Lower Kern River one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022, highlighting the threat that excessive water withdrawals pose to the life of the river, including community access and recreation, as well as fish and wildlife.

Decades of excessive water diversions for agriculture have dried up the last 25 miles of the Lower Kern River. Instead of allowing the water to run through the natural river channel, water is transported to water rights holders through an elaborate system of concrete-lined canals, several of which run parallel to the dry riverbed. This denies the community of Bakersfield, California, access to a flowing river and harms the entire web of life, from riverside trees and vegetation to fish, birds and wildlife. Only in years with extraordinary rainfall – when there is more water than irrigation districts need – does water flow in the river. In the more common dry periods, which will become even more frequent with climate change, the river that should be the gem of Bakersfield and a natural asset for roughly 500,000 residents is a lifeless eyesore.

“America’s Most Endangered Rivers is an urgent call to action,” said Amy Merrill with American Rivers. “It’s time to restore some balance to the Lower Kern River. Putting water back in the river will transform what is now a dry, dusty channel into a thriving natural asset for all of the people of Bakersfield.”

American Rivers and its partners called on the California State Water Resources Control Board to bring the river back to life by compelling water districts to establish and adhere to minimum flow requirements, thereby returning water to the river to support local communities, groundwater recharge, fish and wildlife.

“The Kern River being dry is totally unnecessary. Other communities across California have found ways to restore and protect environmental flows on waterways much smaller than the Kern,” said Tim McNeely, a board member of the Kern River Flyfishers Club. “The State Water Board needs to force diverters to restore the river— without this pressure, substantive change won’t happen.”

“Allowing our precious Kern River water to flow in the natural riverbed through Bakersfield will enhance the beneficial use of the river,” said Matthew Mayry, a hydrogeologist and contributor to Bring Back the Kern. “The water will remain in the basin and be available for downstream irrigation diversion, it will be available to recharge the aquifer and it will greatly benefit our community and wildlife.”

“At least some of the Kern’s water needs to flow in the river channel where it will improve quality of life for all residents, provide recreational opportunities for disadvantaged communities and nurture sensitive and threatened ecosystems,” said Bill Cooper, co-founder of the Kern River Parkway Foundation.

Allowing the Lower Kern River to dry out is illegal. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, California is obligated to protect flowing waterways for the benefit of current and future generations. A dry river also does not comply with California Fish and Game Code requiring dam operators to provide steady flows below dams to sustain fisheries. These laws have been used in California to prevent waterways such as Mono Lake, Putah Creek and the San Joaquin River from being sucked dry. Despite success stories elsewhere, the state has never acted to enforce these laws in the allocation and use of Kern River water.

About Most Endangered Rivers

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

The Kern River previously appeared on this list in 1986, 1990 and 1998, due to proposed dams. Also included on the list this year is the Los Angeles River and Colorado River. Other rivers in California listed as most endangered in recent years include the McCloud River (2021), Bear River (2017) and San Joaquin River (2016).

American Rivers reviews nominations for America’s Most Endangered Rivers from local groups and individuals across the country, and selects rivers based on three criteria: 1) the river’s significance to people and wildlife, 2) the magnitude of the threat to the river and communities, especially in light of climate change and environmental justice, 3) a decision in the next 12 months that the public can influence.

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022 

#1 Colorado River
State: CO, UT, AZ, NV, CA, WY, NM, Mexico
Threat: Climate change, outdated water management 

#2 Snake River
State: ID, WA, OR
Threat: Four federal dams 

#3 Mobile River
State: AL
Threat: Coal ash contamination 

#4 Maine’s Atlantic Salmon Rivers
State: ME
Threat: Dams 

#5 Coosa River
State: TN, GA, AL
Threat: Agricultural pollution 

#6 Mississippi River
State: MN, WI, IL, IA, MO, KY, TN, AR, MS, LA
Threat: Pollution, habitat loss 

#7 Lower Kern River
State: CA
Threat: Excessive water withdrawals 

#8 San Pedro River
State: AZ
Threat: Excessive water pumping; loss of Clean Water Act protections 

#9 Los Angeles River
State: CA
Threat: Development, pollution 

#10 Tar Creek
State: OK
Threat: Pollution 

ABOUT AMERICAN RIVERS 

American Rivers believes a future of clean water and healthy rivers for everyone, everywhere is essential. Since 1973, we have protected wild rivers, restored damaged rivers and conserved clean water for people and nature. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and 300,000 supporters, members and volunteers across the country, we are the most trusted and influential river conservation organization in the United States, delivering solutions for a better future. Because life needs rivers. www.AmericanRivers.org