It’s been more than 100 years since a 16-mile stretch of the North Fork of the Kern River has run full and free in its natural course.
Local boaters, anglers and other river enthusiasts say that’s long enough.
To that end, a new campaign called “Free the Kern” opposes the relicensing application for a Southern California Edison hydroelectric facility that pulls water from the river at the Fairview Dam near McNally’s Lodge and hauls it 16 miles by tunnel to the Kern River No. 3 (KR3) power plant near Kernville.
Under its current license, Edison is allowed to take up to 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the river’s flow. Though it’s required to leave a minimal flow for fish and recreation purposes, the large amount taken out nearly “dewaters” that 16-mile section, especially in dry years, according to advocates. For example, the North Fork was running at 420 cfs Friday, June 3, above Fairview Dam, but after Edison’s cut, it was running at only 111 cfs below Fairview, according the Dreamflows website.
Leaving the river such a piddling amount destroys recreation, decimates fish populations and degrades water quality, according to the Free the Kern website.
Free the Kern wants those and other issues studied using modern scientific methodologies and a contemporary view of environmental and recreational value versus the value the plant provides.
For it’s part Edison is also encouraging more study but feels its operations have successfully co-existed with boating and fishing needs under the current license, according to spokeswoman Gabriella Ornelas
“We are working with rafters and fishing groups. That’s always been an important part of the process,” she said. The current license was issued in 1996 and is set to expire in 2026. The utility began reaching out to different groups starting in 2020, she added.
Comments on the study phase of the relicense application are due to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by Monday, June 6. The process is expected to take another two years.
Having the plant decommissioned, however, isn’t an option, per a FERC scoping document. The Kern River Boaters, Kern River Outfitters and American Whitewater groups all brought that up. But FERC stated decommissioning the plant would only be studied at the licensee’s request and Edison has “stated its unequivocal intent to seek a new license for the project.” Indeed, the facility was refurbished by Edison in 2015.
“No one who loves the river wants to see this thing relicensed,” said Brett Duxbury, co-founder of the Kern River Boaters, which helped launch the Free the Kern effort along with the Kern River Fly Fishers Club.
Even though the groups anticipate the plant will likely be relicensed, they want to make sure impacts to the river and the public receive greater consideration under the new license, which would span 40 years.
“This is our, and our kids’ and their kids’ only chance to contribute to how this river is managed for the next 40 years,” Duxbury said.
KR3 has been a fixture on the North Fork since construction began on the facility in 1919. It began generating power in 1921 and has the capacity to produce 40.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 30,000 homes, according to Edison’s Ornelas.
“KR3 is an important contributor to state’s decarbonization goals,” she added. “Especially as energy demand is expected to double. Hydroelectricity is a dependable source that offsets the use of fossil fuel-generated electricity and balances intermittent sources such as wind and solar.”
Kern River Boaters argues that’s not the whole picture. KR3’s full capacity may be 40.2 megawatts, but it is a “run of river” powerhouse, meaning its output is entirely dependent on the North Kern’s highly variable flow, according to the group’s comments to FERC.
The group analyzed KR3’s annual power output from 2001 to 2020 using California Energy Commission figures and found it produced an average 12.5 megawatts over that time period. That represents just .038% of the state’s total electricity production, according to Kern River Boaters.
In fact, the project was completely offline for 16 months during the height of the last drought for refurbishment and the loss of output did not affect power supplies or rates, the group says. It also points to a 1995 memo from an analyst with the California Public Utilities Commission stating that elimination of KR3 would have “essentially no impact” to Edison customers even at a production capacity of 36 megawatts.
With the rapid expansion of wind and solar power alternatives, KR3’s contribution to state power needs will only continue to shrink, according to Kern River Boaters’ FERC comments.
Meanwhile, the group says, depriving the North Fork of greater flows does have an impact. Not just on boating and fishing but public safety as well. The group says fecal coliform and arsenic have been found in the flows below Fairview Dam at “unhealthy levels.” More water would dilute those constituents, it says.
Other groups are weighing in on Edison’s quest for relicensing as well, including the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Though the Forest Service filed its comments late Friday, they weren’t immediately available for review. A call to state Fish and Wildlife wasn’t returned.