Giant tubes helping manage massive Kern River flows

April 17, 2023
by Lois Henry
Large black tubes are placed over a sand plug next to the Coffee Road weir in the Kern River. The goal is to manage flows so water doesn't blow out the sand plug, which would reduce ability to move water into the many diversion canals that branch off the natural river channel. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Those highly noticeable big black tubes being placed in the Kern River at Coffee Road are the fulcrum in a full-court press by Buena Vista Water Storage District to keep as much water as possible in the county.

The western Kern County agricultural water district anticipates putting as many as 25 siphon tubes over what’s known as the “sand plug” next to the Coffee Road weir in the next few days in anticipation of the coming snow melt.

“The reason we’re being so aggressive with this is there is an urgency to create more storage in Lake Isabella,” said Terry Chicca, President of the Buena Vista board. “The more water we can get out of the reservoir before the big snow melt, the more they can maintain control over the dam.”

Buena Vista Water Storage District plans to place 25 siphon tubes in the Kern River. Courtesy: Tim Ashlock

The lake has a maximum capacity of 568,000 acre feet and currently has 300,300 acre feet, according to Army Corps of Engineers information

The snowpack above Isabella, meanwhile, has an estimated 1.8 million acre feet, according to Department of Water Resources data.

That’s about three full Lake Isabellas waiting to pour out of the mountains.

In order to move enough water out of the lake, outflow will have to be significantly ramped up from where it is now, which is 5,400 cubic feet per second. 

That’s where the siphons come in.

The objective, Chicca said, is to keep the river flowing and keep that sand plug intact so water can be backed up enough that it can be directed into the many diversion canals that branch off from the natural river channel.

If the river runs too high and blows out the sand plug, it limits how much water can be directed into the canals. 

Losing the sand plug would also likely hasten the river’s flow to the west and then north into the old Tulare Lake bed.

“The intention is to keep all of the Kern River water here in Kern County,” said Daniel Maldonado, Assistant Director for Bakersfield’s Water Resources Department. “Those siphons are working great so we can continue to move water and prevent it from going to Tulare Lake.”

Coincidentally, the city received $1.2 million in state funding this past February to build a new weir across the river at Coffee Road and was supposed to have begun construction in March.

The new weir would have done the job the siphons are doing now, Maldanado said. 

“Yeah, that would have been a plus this year.”

The siphons aren’t about channel safety, he said. The Kern River channel from Manor Street west to Enos Lane has Federal Emergency Management Agency certification to handle 10,200 cfs.

“And that doesn’t take into account 1,500 cfs that are diverted above Manor, so we have room in the channel when we’re talking about the snow melt,” Maldonado said.

The siphon tubes are all about water management, Chicca stressed.

The siphons are a Buena Vista operation but Chicca said it could not be done if not for “great cooperation” from the city.

That includes at the other end of the operation, the old McAllister Ranch along Panama Lane west of Allen Road. 

The ranch had been slated for 6,000 homes and an elite golf course. But that all hit the skids in the 2007 real estate crash and the 2,100 acre property was purchased out of foreclosure by Buena Vista and Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District to use for groundwater recharge.

Though the draft environmental impact report on the project, now known as the James Groundwater Storage and Recovery Project,  is still under review, the property will begin taking flood water under the current emergency, according to Buena Vista General Manager Tim Ashlock.

The plan is to take 100 cubic feet per second onto the old McAllister property. Buena Vista has also been taking 350 cfs onto its other recharge ponds. It’s also building a facility to pump water to other ag water districts. And it plans to fill flood cells on about 4,500 acres of the old Buena Vista Lake bottom, owned by the J.G. Boswell Company.

That’s all on top of what Buena Vista normally takes as part of its Kern River rights. All told, the district is taking in about 1,200 cfs, Ashlock said.

“This isn’t about asserting priority over water,” he said. “We’re in the path of the river and would get water regardless. We’re doing all this work (building the siphons) because we want to help the city divert the maximum amount of water. The goal is to bring storage in Isabella down.”

Along with Buena Vista’s 1,200 cfs, other agricultural districts are also banking as much Kern River water as they can, including Kern’s largest water banker, the Kern Water Bank.

The bank has been taking about 1,500 cfs of river water, said Kern Water Bank Authority General manager Jonathan Parker. As the ground becomes saturated, that will slow to about 900 cfs he said.

The biggest recharge year for the bank was 2017 when it put 560,000 acre feet into the ground, Parker noted.

With anticipated peak run off to hit 620,000 acre feet in May, this year could challenge that record.

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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