Group files motion to compel city to comply with order for more water in Kern River

April 16, 2024
SJV Water
by SJV Water
Flows in the Kern River through Bakersfield dropped substantially during repairs to the power plant at the base of Isabella Dam. Looking east at the Highway 58 overcrossing of the Kern River on Jan. 1, 2024. Lois Henry / SJV Water
SJV Water
SJV Water

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Frustrated with the amount of water dribbling down the western reach of the Kern River, plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit over the river filed a motion Tuesday asking the judge in the case to intervene. 

The motion says the City of Bakersfield has not maintained flows required to keep fish in good condition, particularly in the areas of the river from Allen Road westward. 

“Fish have died and habitat has dried up and the Bakersfield community has lost much of the living river that it had enjoyed for almost all of 2023,” it says.

The motion seeks to compel the city to keep the flow at a specified level based on water levels where the river enters the city’s jurisdiction. 

The city’s water attorney Colin Pearce said the motion is being reviewed and the city will respond accordingly.

The coalition scored a major legal win last fall when a judge ordered the City of Bakersfield, which owns most of the riverbed from Manor Street to Enos Lane, to maintain enough water in the river “to keep fish in good condition.”

Fish returned to the lower stretch of the Kern after last year’s epic winter. But in recent weeks, the flow has noticeably declined and dead fish have been spotted in the riverbed. 

When the issue of low flows and fish dying was raised last month, Bakersfield Water Resources Director Kristina Budak  told SJV Water the city was providing adequate flows for the fish. 

The judge’s decision didn’t get specific about how much water had to be maintained in the river. Instead, city, plaintiffs and irrigators, named as “real parties in interest” in the lawsuit, were left to negotiate an “interim flow” until environmental studies determine adequate flows during different seasons and water year types.

So far the groups have not reached agreement on what those interim flows should be. 

But coalition members say conditions in the riverbed are obviously inadequate to comply with the judge’s order.

“We filed this motion because it’s clear that the city and water districts only want to do the bare minimum to comply with the law,” said Bill Cooper, a co-founder of the Kern River Parkway Foundation, one of the groups in the coalition that filed the motion. “We’ve been watching closely over the last several months to assess whether the current state is good enough and it’s clear that the bare minimum isn’t enough to adequately address needs of public trust resources.”

The motion includes water data that shows high flows entering the city at the Beardsley Weir and low flows at the McClung Weir, three miles west of Allen Road.

Simply put, there has been a lot of water entering the City of Bakersfield in 2024 but very little making it to, or past, McClung Weir, despite this Court’s Preliminary Injunction Order,” the motion states.

The motion also provides analysis from a fish expert who said the small pools of water at the western end of the river, combined with increasing daytime temperatures, will not support fish.

The original lawsuit 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.


SJV Water

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