Isabella power plant repairs postponed to protect Kern River fish flows – for now

December 15, 2023
by Lois Henry
A flowing Kern River glides through Bakersfield where it is normally dry in average water years. Courtesy: Don Martin
Lois Henry

Share This: 

Work on a power plant at the base of Isabella Dam has been postponed while plant owners and several public interest groups look for a solution to keep enough water in the Kern River to protect fish.

“We are not proceeding on the 18th and are working to find a solution that works for everyone,” plant manager Roger Kirk confirmed in an email.

When asked how long the project would be postponed, Kirk replied that isn’t yet known.

“But we need to get the work done soon so we don’t interfere with the (Army) Corps (of Engineers’) need to be prepared to make releases due to winter storms,” he wrote in an email.

The Army Corps has only said that it is still reviewing the situation.

The repair project had been slated to start Dec. 18, which would have necessitated cutting releases from Isabella Lake from the current 640 cubic feet per second down to 25 cfs. Repairs to the plant, owned by Isabella Partners, will take several weeks potentially, according to plant operator Rush Van Hook.

That could have resulted in a “massive fish kill” further downstream, according to Adam Keats, an attorney who represents several public interest groups in a lawsuit against the City of Bakersfield for “dewatering” the river through town.

The groups had recently won an injunction and order from Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp mandating that Bakersfield keep 40% of the river’s flows in the stream bed in order to keep fish in good condition.

At 25 cfs, that would have left just 10 cfs, at best, for fish.

The public interest groups are upset that Bakersfield and all the other Kern River rights holders, apparently knew of the planned cutback to river flows since at least late October but didn’t share that information with the plaintiffs, nor with Pulskamp, who held the injunction hearing Oct. 13, issued the injunction Oct. 30 and then signed the fish flow order on Nov. 14.

Similary, Bakersfield didn’t share the injunction and fish flow order with the Army Corps, which operates Isabella Dam, nor the owners of the power plant, attorneys for the plaintiffs complained in a string of emails between Keats, attorney Bill McKinnon, who represents Water Audit of California in the action against Bakersfield, and Colin Pearce, who represents the city.

The emails, dated Dec. 4 through Dec. 8, are included in a declaration by McKinnon that was filed in opposition to a motion to reconsider the injunction and fish flow order that was filed by several agricultural water districts. The reconsideration will be heard by Pulskamp Dec. 21 at 9 a.m.

“We first want to express our continued dismay with the City’s failure to perform its duties as a trustee to protect environmental and public trust flows of the river,” Keats writes in a Dec. 8 email to Pearce.

Keats asks if the city can find water elsewhere in the system to keep the river flowing through Bakersfield at 200 cfs, but Pearce declines in a Dec. 8 reply email.

“We, again, point out that the City will not have access to any alternate or additional water supplies for Kern River flows during ‘the shutdown period,'” Pearce writes. “Nor does the City have an independent, unilateral ability to suspend, control or limit the planned construction at Lake Isabella.”

He writes that the City can’t be blamed for actions taken by the Army Corps.

But McKinnon writes in another Dec. 8 email that Pearce knew of the pending river cutback during the injunction hearing and only made “sly references” to flow changes.

“You could have told Water Audit and the Court what was on the immediate horizon, but you did not, and you are proud of that decision,” McKinnon wrote. “We’ll see how that plays out in time.”

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.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER