The usually unflappable Mark Mulkay found himself at a rare loss for words as he accepted both the Water Leader and Water Legacy awards from his peers at the annual Water Association of Kern County dinner held Nov. 8.
The recently retired Kern River Watermaster had to take a moment before addressing the audience, made up of Kern County water district managers, board members, staff and a few politicians.
“I’m usually not this emotional,” he said. Then he joked: “Unless I’m really, really angry.”
Mulkay noted that he began his water career in the San Joaquin Valley after moving to Kings County from Idaho to work for the J.G. Boswell Farming Company in 1983. He came to Kern County in 1993 where he became the General Manager of Kern Delta Water District.
In a state more well-known for its epic droughts, “Who would have thought that I’d start my career in a flood year and end in a flood year,” Mulkay said.
The Water Leader Award honors members of the water community for their integrity and leadership skills while the Water Legacy Award honors lifetime achievements.
Mulkay’s 30-year career has personified both, said presenters Steve Teglia and Rodney Palla, the General Manager and Board Chair, respectively, of Kern Delta.
Mulkay’s work over the past year as Kern River Watermaster was singled out for the Water Leader Award, Teglia said.
“Mark’s responsibilities with Kern Delta were winding down and serving as Watermaster for a short term would be a nice way to ease into retirement,” Teglia said of Mulkay’s two-year stint in that position. “Unfortunately for Mark that was not the case.”
The Kern River went from just 15% of normal in 2022 to 400% of normal, the second highest runoff in its recorded history, in 2023.
“What is normally an obscure role with little public interest, suddenly became the center of attention,” Teglia said of Mulkay’s time serving as Watermaster.
The epic precipitation and flooding elsewhere in the state catapulted Mulkay into the national limelight.
He became the fulcrum for information between the Kern River interests, Kern and Tulare county emergency responders, the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Water Resources, “…and of course…Lois Henry,” Teglia said.
Kern Delta Chair Rodney Palla expounded on Mulkay’s accomplishments noting he was instrumental in developing groundwater banking at Kern Delta and partnering with outside entities, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
And, more importantly, Palla said, Mulkay was a leader in fostering intra-county water relationships.
Through Mulkay’s efforts, Palla said, Kern Delta ended decades-long legal battles with both the City of Bakersfield and North Kern Water Storage District, which helped increase cooperation among water districts throughout the county.
“I’m proud to present the Water Legacy Award to my friend,” Palla said.
Mulkay retired as the Kern River Watermaster at the end of September. The new Watermaster is Art Chianello, who retired in 2022 as head of the Bakersfield Water Resources Department.
Mulkay has been working on several specific projects for Kern Delta for the past five years, which are expected to be completed in December.
Though, as he told the audience, “Old water managers never really retire, they just become consultants.”