Dana Munn, longtime water engineer and former Kern River Watermaster, dies at 66

May 23, 2024
by Lois Henry
Dana Munn, left, along with Mark Mulkay, center, and Art Chianello, right, attend the Isabella Dam dedication ceremony April 3, 2023. Munn and Mulkay are former Kern River Watermasters. Chianello is the current Watermaster. COURTESY of Mark Mulkay
Lois Henry

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The Kern County water world was deeply saddened to learn that Dana Munn, a fixture in local water for decades, died May 8 after a three-year battle with brain cancer. He was 66.

Munn was extremely well regarded among water managers and engineers both at the local and national levels as his Watermaster position gave him the opportunity to work closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the Isabella Dam.

“He was just a really calm and sensible voice,” recalled longtime North Kern Water Storage District Scott Kuney. “He was someone who loved to solve a problem. And he was an honorable person down to his roots. People recognized that about him.”

Munn’s unflappable demeanor and encyclopedic knowledge of water infrastructure, rights and contracts made him one of the top players in Kern County water for decades.

“The first time I got to know Dana was 30 years ago after I started at Kern Delta (Water District) and he was with North Kern,” said Mark Mulkay, retired Kern River Watermaster. “I started getting letters from him, and then his attorney, saying we couldn’t do this or that with our river water.”

That somewhat rocky start led to years of court battles but also friendship.

Dana Munn gestures while explaining the Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District groundwater plan during a 2019 meeting with area farmers. Lois Henry / SJV Water

After court, the two would often go to dinner and talk long into the night about religion and politics – just not the Kern River.

“I genuinely liked the guy, though I never agreed with him professionally,” Mulkay said.

When the late Kern River Watermaster Chuck Williams retired in 2014 and Munn’s name was floated as his replacement, Mulkay objected, fearing Munn would be biased in favor of North Kern. But he agreed to give him a year and when that time was up, Mulkay acknowledged Munn had been fair. Even more impressive, he had done a good job wrangling the river interests, a ceaselessly warring group in the best of times.

The Watermaster is selected by entities with rights to the Kern River. The part-time job’s main function is to communicate with the Army Corps of Engineers about releases from Lake Isabella, keep water records and provide reminders of contracts, decrees and agreements that govern the river’s flow.

Being Watermaster was one of Munn’s career highlights, particularly working with the Army Corps during reconstruction of Isabella Dam.

Munn’s efforts as Watermaster during that time were remembered as “…instrumental in bringing the project to fruition in 2018 and ensuring its safe construction over several years, which ultimately reduced the flood risk for hundreds of thousands of Kern County residents. An honorable legacy, indeed,” wrote an Army Corps spokesman in an email about Munn.

Munn retired as Watermaster in 2021 after his diagnosis and moved to Washington state to be near family. Mulkay took over until his retirement in 2023. The current Kern River Watermaster is Art Chianello.

“I always liked Dana,” said Florn Corp, retired manager of the Bakersfield Water Resources Department, which is almost always at odds with North Kern Water Storage District over the river. “He was a good engineer and really innovative in handling water.”

Munn designed  a “floating gate” on a former Tenneco West canal that was maintenance free and self adjusting, Core recalled. While that facility is gone due to development, another of his innovations is still in use in the Calloway Canal – a flexible measuring device that can give accurate numbers at low water elevations.

“He was very sharp,” Core said. “And he had a sense of humor.”

One of Munn’s three sons, Dan Munn, said growing up, he never thought of his dad as funny. Munn had a dry wit, specific to the people and tasks he was working with.

“Now that I’m an adult in the same line of work, I get it,” Dan Munn, also an engineer, said of his dad’s quips and side comments.

Mostly, though, he and his brothers recall their dad as always being there for family.

“He wasn’t an athletic guy, but he was there for us every single practice and every game,” Dan Munn said. “He researched how the games were played and taught us the fundamentals we needed. He taught us how to be athletes.”

Putting family first was how he lived, his son remembered. Every two weeks, Munn went to stay with his father, a farmer in Orange Cove, for the weekend, cooking favored seafood dishes for him until he died at 98. Munn had been an avid hiker in his younger years but when his boys got into sports, he set aside his own hobbies and took on theirs. The same with his home. He spent years getting the backyard just how his wife, Cynthia, a teacher, wanted it so she could host events for family and colleagues.

And he approached it all through his meticulous engineer lens, mapping out each project, gathering supplies on a Friday and timing the work to be done by Sunday.

“I went with him to Home Depot once and asked if we should get help. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the whole store memorized,'” Dan Munn recalled of his dad.

After his death, a close friend sent the family a partial list of Munn’s engineering accomplishments that floored his son.

“It was a laundry list of some really big things, especially from his early years. I thought, ‘Dang! How come I didn’t know all this before?’ But he just didn’t feel the need to puff his chest out. He was less about talking about it and more about getting it done.”

Munn graduated from the University of California, Davis with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. He obtained a Master of Business Administration from California State University, Bakersfield and was a lifetime member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Munn began his career in Bakersfield at Tenneco West, which owned most of the rights to the Kern River until it sold them in 1976. Munn then joined Boyle Engineering Corporation. In 1990 he went work for North Kern Water Storage District. He ended his career as General Manager of Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District and Kern River Watermaster.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Cynthia, three sons, Reed, Daniel and Thomas, and 4 grandchildren. Shortly before his death, he learned he had a fifth grandchild on the way, which “Lit up his eyes,” Dan Munn said.

A memorial service in Bakersfield this August is pending.

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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