Isabella Dam power plant repairs could cut Kern River flows causing a “massive fish kill”

December 4, 2023
by Lois Henry
The Kern River, looking east from Yokuts Park in Bakersfield, has been flush with water as runoff continues allowing releases from Isabella Dam of about 1,000 cubic feet per second. That could change if the Army Corps of Engineers OK's cutting releases to 25 cfs for owners of the power plant in the base of the dam to make repairs. COURTESY: Don Martin
Lois Henry

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Anticipated repairs to the power plant at the base of Isabella Dam could cause a “massive fish kill” along the length of the Kern River as flows would have to be cut to almost nothing for weeks.

Isabella Partners, which operates that power plant, submitted a request to the Army Corps of Engineers to cut water releases down 25 cubic feet per second starting Dec. 18, according to plant operator Rush Van Hook. The dam is currently releasing about 1,100 cfs. If approved, the flow reduction could last several, or more, weeks, he said.

Operators need to get into the plant to determine the extent of needed repairs, which, Van Hook said may be related to the “vibration” issue that caused the Army Corps to shut off flows in mid-April during the height of this year’s epic runoff.

“There was a little bit of erosion on the concrete,” he said of the potential damage. ” It’s not that extensive to our knowledge but we won’t know for sure until we get in there.”

Van Hook said he hadn’t heard anything about fish flows but that the river would still have a minimum 25 cfs.

The Army Corps is reviewing Isabella Partners’ request, according to an Army Corps spokesman.

If the river flows are constricted that much for any length of time, it could have serious implications for the fish that have re-emerged along with water in the lower Kern through Bakersfield and beyond.

“It could be a massive fish kill,” said Adam Keats, an attorney who represents several public interest groups that recently won an injunction mandating the City of Bakersfield keep enough water in the river to keep fish in “good condition.”

That amount was determined to be 40% of the river’s natural flow, which has been about 190 cfs since the order was signed Nov. 14 by Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp.

With a flow of just 25 cfs, or less by the time it gets to Bakersfield, that would give the fish only 10 cfs, at best under the judge’s order.

Keats said he and his clients are still considering their legal options options.

Meanwhile, Bring Back the Kern, one of Keats’ clients in the action, has started a social media campaign urging people to call or email the Army Corps to demand that flows not be curtailed.

The problem is, Pulskamp’s order extends only to the City of Bakersfield, which owns and operates weirs in the river from about Hart Park out to Enos Lane. It does not extend to operations of Isabella Dam, nor the Army Corps.

The request to cut flows so Isabella Partners could make repairs was run by all the Kern River rights holders at a meeting in October with the Kern River Water Master, according to other rights holders.

Keats was frustrated that the city didn’t mention the necessity of maintaining water for fish to the Army Corps.

The city, as one right holder among many on the river, actually can’t make requests of the Army Corps.  River flow issues must be discussed jointly and then run through the Water Master,  the official liaison to the Army Corps.

For its part, the city says it has provided all the information it has on the power plant repairs to the plaintiffs and has referred them to the Water Master.

In related news, will be another hearing on the river Dec. 21 at 9 a.m. in front of Judge Pulskamp.

Agricultural district with river rights are seeking a stay or reconsideration of Pulskamp’s injunction and order citing what they believe was an overreach by the city. Since, Pulskamp’s Nov. 14 order, the city has been setting aside 40% of the river’s flow for fish and taking another 180 cfs for its demands on top of its existing rights.

Ag districts have called the action the biggest water heist on the Kern River in 100 years.

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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