Bakersfield to take a deep dive on the Kern River – supplies, demands and rights

February 21, 2023
by Lois Henry
Rope swings hang over a dry Kern River west of Allen Road in Bakersfield. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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The Bakersfield City Council at its meeting Wednesday will likely approve a $288,350 contract to conduct a detailed study of the city’s water supplies and demands with a strong focus on Kern River operations.

Though the proposed study, on the consent agenda, isn’t in direct response to a lawsuit filed last year against the city by Water Audit of California over the river, the study could answer some questions posed in the lawsuit.

The Water Audit suit alleges the city has been derelict by not considering the public in how it operates the river.

The lawsuit doesn’t demand money. Rather it seeks to stop water diversions from the river temporarily while the court orders the city to study how river operations have affected fisheries, the environment and recreational uses.

Kelly Damian, spokesperson for Bring Back the Kern, one of several local public interest groups represented by Water Audit, said a study of the Kern River would be a positive.
“We are enthusiastically looking forward to this study,” she said. “Hopefully it will go into the benefits that would come with a more reasonable approach to the river.”

The Water Audit suit hinges on a concept known as the “public trust,” in which the state holds water resources, such as rivers, in trust for the most “beneficial use” for the public. That includes water covered by 100-old rights, which covers most of the rights on the Kern.Diversion of water under those rights must be weighed against what’s considered the most beneficial use on behalf of the public, according to the lawsuit. In past decades, agriculture, municipal and industrial uses topped the environment, fisheries and recreation. But that may not be the case nowadays.

The study being considered Wednesday night will look at all the city’s water supplies as well as its contractual obligations, specifically on the Kern River.

When the city bought its Kern River rights in 1976 from Tenneco West Inc., it also assumed the operational duties performed by Tenneco to deliver water to the other river rights holders.

The study will make recommendations for city priorities and outline capital improvements that may be necessary. If approved, the study is expected to take about a year to complete.

On the lawsuit, Water Audit has until March 6 to answer an objection filed by the city.

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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