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Happy 50th “Kern Riversary!” 1970 vote brought river into public hands

 •  by Lois Henry
Local paddle boarders enjoy a full Kern River in Bakersfield west of Allen Road in April 2019. Credit: Lois Henry

Fifty years ago this week, the Bakersfield City Council committed an audaciously historic act.

On Monday evening Sept. 28, 1970, council members decided to sue Tenneco West for a slice of the Kern River.

“The shock was great to many, but from that day forward we had their attention and cooperation,” states the “Kern River Purchase” booklet compiled by the Bakersfield Water Resources Department in the early 2000s.

Ultimately, Tenneco West representatives made a deal  with the city in June 1973 over lunch at the Bakersfield Country Club to sell the company’s water rights, the river bottom and its lands alongside the river to Bakersfield for $17.9 million.

It was a deal that would ultimately give Bakersfield rights to an average 140,000 acre feet a year.

Even at lower end prices of $600 an acre foot, that amount of water would cost $84 million today.

“We achieved far more for the citizens of Bakersfield than we had dared dream,” wrote the late Walter F. Heisey, a former councilman who negotiated the deal at that luncheon.

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