Dead end river: Fish carcasses starting to pile up in stagnant pools at the Kern River’s western end

February 16, 2024
by Lois Henry
Left: The Kern River near Enos Lane at the end of January as shot by Attorney Adam Keats. Right: The same spot on the river shot Feb. 15 by Jonathan Vegas. COURTESY: Keats and Vegas
Lois Henry

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Avid cyclist and angler Jonathan Vegas was thrilled last fall when he read that a local judge had issued an injunction requiring the City of Bakersfield to keep enough water in the Kern River to support fish populations.

“It’s a dream of mine to be able to leave my backyard, take a two mile trip and be fishing right in town,” the construction worker told SJV Water. “How amazing would that be?”

So, he was dismayed when he saw water dwindling in the riverbed west of town. At this point, he said, by the time the Kern River reaches Enos lane, the braided flows have mostly petered out leaving just a smattering of shrinking pools and dead and dying fish as he shows in a video he shot Feb. 11.

Vegas said he was unclear until then that the injunction issued Oct. 30 by Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp only affects six weirs operated by the city from about Hart Park to the McClung weir, three miles west of Allen Road.

But the river stretches beyond that point, all the way to Interstate 5 and, historically, north to the old Tulare Lake in big water years.

“I would like to see enough water hit the end of the river, not necessarily deep, but just enough for fish and wildlife,” Vegas said.


Jonathan Vegas shot this photo of dead fish in a dwindling pool – noted by the red dot on the map – Feb. 3 at the western end of the Kern River. COURTESY: Jonathan Vegas

The injunction stems from a lawsuit filed by Bring Back the Kern, Water Audit California and several other public interest groups, against Bakersfield for how it operates the river. The lawsuit seeks to have the city study its river operations including the impacts of those operations on the environment and public access to recreation.

As that lawsuit was moving along, the massive runoff from last year’s storms brought the river back to life, including fish populations. The plaintiffs sought an injunction to keep the fish alive, which was granted Oct. 30.

The injunction doesn’t say how much water should be kept in the river, leaving that issue to be negotiated by the city, the plaintiffs and other parties in the suit, including agricultural water districts with rights and contracts to river water.

Until those negotiations are complete, the city announced it would keep enough water in the river so that 5 cubic feet per second reaches McClung weir.

The Kern River as it passes through McClung weir, about 3 miles west of Allen Road. The City of Bakersfield is leaving enough water in the river so that 5 cubic feet per second reaches the weir. Lois Henry / SJV Water

But residents like Vegas, and the plaintiffs, feel that’s just not enough water.

“It goes to show how inadequate 5 cfs ‘flowing’ past McClung is,” wrote Attorney Adam Keats after viewing Vegas’ video. Keats represents Bring Back the Kern.
Even though the plaintiffs only named six specific weirs in their lawsuit, Keats said the obligation as outlined in Pulskamp’s injunction, is to keep enough water in the river to keep fish in “good condition” as required under California Fish and Game Code. 5937.
That means past McClung weir. And if there are any other weirs past McClung that are dewatering the river, 5937 would also apply to those structures as well, Keats wrote.
“We definitely need to look at including this part of the river in our discussions with the city going forward and possibly the litigation as well,” he wrote.

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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