Dead fish piling up in pockets along the western reach of the Kern River concern Bakersfield residents; may prompt return to court

March 22, 2024
by Lois Henry
A highly reduced Kern River heads west for about a mile past the McClung Weir, 3 miles west of Allen Road. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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After taking a bike ride along the Kern River recently, Bakersfield resident Jonathan Vegas was dismayed by what he found the farther west he pedaled.

“More of the river has dried up, and the smell of death goes on for miles from the dead fish carcasses throughout the riverbed,” he wrote in an email. “It’s almost unbearable out there.”

Flows reaching the McClung Weir, about 3 miles west of Allen Road, have, indeed dropped. They had been about 14 cubic feet per second in January. But through most of March, they’ve gone down to about 5 cfs.

Dead, rotting fish are bunched up near a turnout into a recharge basin adjacent to the Kern River. Lois Henry / SJV Water

The shrinking river hasn’t gone unnoticed by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit who won an injunction last fall ordering the city to keep enough water in the river to “keep fish in good condition.”

“The City is letting the community down while brazenly violating the law,” Attorney Adam Keats wrote in an email. Keats represents several public interest groups, including Bring Back the Kern, in an ongoing lawsuit against the city for its river operations.

“We were hoping to work out a solution with all parties, and are still hoping that might be possible. But it appears that there is no desire, and definitely no urgency, for the City to change its behavior, so we’ve reached the conclusion that we have to go back to court to enforce the injunction.”

The City of Bakersfield, which owns most of the riverbed from Manor Street to Enos Lane, was ordered last fall by Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp to keep water in the river below its six weirs, ending with the McClung.

The original lawsuit, which is still ongoing, seeks to force the city to study how river diversions to fill longstanding irrigation contracts impact the environment and recreation. The river is typically left dry through Bakersfield as irrigation takes most of the water.

When the river filled after last year’s epic winter and fish returned, Bring Back the Kern, sought and won the injunction to make sure flows continued.

However, Judge Pulskamp did not specify how much water should be left in the riverbed. Instead, he left that up to the city, plaintiffs and irrigators, named as “real parties in interest” in the lawsuit.

As those discussions have dragged on, the river has shrunk, especially west of the McClung weir.

Vegas said the river was only receiving “seepage” out of the McClung when he visited March 19. As of Friday, water was observed moving at a somewhat greater rate through the weir, creating a small flow in the riverbed for about a mile downstream. That water was, apparently, coming from the Cross Valley Canal, which was being emptied into the river by the Kern County Water Agency in preparation of construction.

“We are so disappointed by the lackadaisical response to Judge Pulskamp’s order,” wrote Kelly Damian, a spokesperson for Bring Back the Kern, in a text. “The puny steam of water running now is not a river. It will benefit neither wildlife nor the community. We think our community deserves better.”

When asked about the flows and dead fish, Bakersfield Water Resources Director Kristina Budak wrote in an email that Judge Pulskamp’s order only mandates the city keep water in the river below its weirs – no further.

“City is currently following a ‘Revised-Interim Flow Regime’ proposed by the Real Parties in Interest wherein, at this time, the City is providing an adequate supply of water for fish flow,” Budak wrote. “Our observations indicate that this is sufficient to maintain a pool downstream of that (McClung) weir.”

Photos of dead fish, she noted, were taken of recharge basins along the river, not the riverbed itself.

“Currently, there is not a supply of water available for recharge,” Budak wrote. “The Preliminary Injunction does not require that the City keep or maintain fish that are found in basins or areas off the Kern River in good condition.”

The city, plaintiffs and irrigators are continuing to negotiate on how much water to keep in the river for an “interim flow” until environmental studies can be done to determine adequate flows during different seasons and water year types. Budak declined to comment on how those discussions are progressing.

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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