Army Corps approves cuts to Isabella Dam releases as groups look for ways to protect Kern River fish flows and legal maneuvers expand

December 19, 2023
by Lois Henry
The Kern River west of Allen Road is typically dry (top 2020) except in heavy water years (bottom 2019). A judge's order signed Nov. 14 mandates at least 40% of the river's flow must remain the river for fish populations. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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The Army Corps of Engineers approved a request by operators of the power plant at the base of the dam to drastically cut water releases  between Dec. 18 and Jan. 7 for a planned repair project to the plant.

Under the approval, releases would drop from between 500 and 700 cubic feet per second down to 25 cfs – an amount that would devastate downstream fish populations.

The owner of the power plant, Isabella Partners, has agreed to postpone the work to look for ways to protect fish flows and the Army Corps has agreed to wait for the green light from Isabella Partners before ramping down releases.

The repair project is: “Still on hold,” according to an email from plant manager Roger Kirk.

Isabella Partners needs to get into the power plant to repair damage from erosion caused by heavy releases from the dam earlier this year, according to the plant manager. The project could take several weeks.

But, as winter storms begin arriving in the region, the window for repairs is tight.

“If conditions at Isabella Lake should present a significant flood risk at any time, USACE maintains the authority to take appropriate steps to revoke approval and increase releases,” an Army Corps press release states.

Meanwhile, an attorney for one of the public interest groups that succeeded in getting a court order on Nov. 14 to keep water in the river through Bakersfield for fish, has filed an emergency temporary restraining order against the City of Bakersfield.

The proposed restraining order seeks to prohibit the city from diverting any water out of the river until after the first 200 cfs, plus 40% of anything above 500 cfs, is run down the river.

The City of Bakersfield opposes the proposed restraining order.

“The city supports keeping water in the river,” said Colin Pearce, who represents Bakersfield on Kern River matters. “But not at the expense of the city’s drinking water supply.”

It’s unclear if the proposed restraining order, filed by Water Audit of California, is directly related to efforts by Water Audit and several other public interest groups, along with Isabella Partners to find a way around dropping releases from Isabella Dam down to 25 cfs.

If Water Audit’s proposed restraining order against Bakersfield is granted and flows are cut to 25 cfs by the Army Corps, it’s also unclear how, or if, the restraining order would be put into effect. The City of Bakersfield has no authority over the Army Corps. It would be subject to the 25 cfs flow just the same as all the other river interests.

In fact, it’s unclear how Judge Pulskamp’s Nov. 14 order mandating 40% of the river’s flow will provide enough water for fish even beyond this power plant issue. Pulskamp based his order on California Fish and Game Code 5937, which mandates that any owner/operator of a dam must keep enough water flowing down stream to keep fish in “good condition.”

But Pulskamp’s order applies to the City of Bakersfield and covers a stretch of the river from about Hart Park to Enos Lane. It does not apply the the entire river. Nor does it apply to the other Kern River rights holders, nor the Army Corps, nor the handful of power plants upstream, which all use river water.

Conceivably, the Kern River rights holders with storage in Lake Isabella could hold their water in the lake, leaving very little for the river and decimating fish populations.

All of the rights holders, including Kern Delta Water District, Kern County Water Agency, and the Buena Vista, North Kern and Rosedale-Rio Bravo water storage districts, have other sources of water that could be delivered to farmers.

Water Audit is seeking to have its proposed restraining order considered Thursday, during an already scheduled hearing at which Pulskamp will consider motions by the other Kern River rights holder to overturn his injunction and Nov. 14 order.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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