Kern River advocates accuse utility of “lawless” water diversions on behalf of a long closed fish hatchery

July 20, 2022
by Lois Henry
Southern California Edison's Kern River No. 3 power plant sits just upriver of the a state-owned fish hatchery that has been closed for more than 2 years. Edison has been taking water out of the river 16 miles upstream that it says is required for the hatchery but river advocates disagree. Source / Google Earth
Lois Henry

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As water in the North Fork of the Kern River dwindles, controversy over its diminished flows is ramping up.

At least some river watchers are accusing Southern California Edison of misusing a portion of the flows by continuing to divert water, ostensibly, for a state-owned fish hatchery that has been closed since 2020. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) even sent a letter to Edison in January 2022 directing the utility to stop taking water out of the river for the hatchery, saying the facility and its pipeline are inoperable.

Yet, Edison continues to remove 37 cubic feet per second from the river’s natural flow at Fairview Dam near McNally’s resort purportedly for the shuttered hatchery, which is just downriver from Edison’s Kern River No. 3 (KR3) power plant in Kernville.

River advocates say the water is simply being diverted to spin turbines at KR3 without regard for the health of the 16-mile stretch of river between Fairview and Kernville that is being dewatered.

“Edison’s lawless appropriation of the hatchery flow for power generation not only shows its utter lack of concern for the environment below Fairview Dam, but is a thumb in the eye to the CDFW and other managing agencies it supposedly ‘collaborates’ with,” wrote Brett Duxbury in an email. Duxbury is a co-founder of Kern River Boaters, which advocates for river recreation.

In this critically dry year, that 37 cfs is badly needed in the river, according to Duxbury and other river advocates. Total flows coming in to Fairview are only 147 cfs, according to the Dreamflows website. With 37 cfs taken out for the hatchery, that only leaves 110 cfs for the river.

Edison, meanwhile, says it is bound by its KR3 operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which requires the utility to provide 35 cfs to the hatchery, said spokeswoman Gabriela Ornelas. Edison is taking an extra 2 cfs as a “buffer” to make sure the long-closed hatchery has enough cold water, she added.

Since CDFW directed Edison to stop diverting water for the hatchery, Ornelas said, the utility has been “in the process” of applying to FERC for permission to temporarily suspend its hatchery diversions and allow that water to flow down the river.

“We want to make sure we have FERC’s permission before making that change, or any change, in our operations,” she said. As soon as FERC agrees, the utility will  “work quickly” to stop diverting that water.

She provided pages from Edison’s 1996 license that, indeed, state the utility may “request” that FERC change the requirement to provide 35 cfs to the hatchery if the CDFW specifies the water isn’t required.

However, a 2004 amendment to the license drops the need for Edison to request approval from FERC if CDFW says the water isn’t needed.

Either way, the CDFW directed Edison to stop diverting water to the hatchery seven months ago and Edison still hasn’t submitted a request to FERC to suspend diversions.

“It’s a bit of a process,” Ornelas said. “And we understand that it’s longer than stakeholders would like but we’re doing our best to balance the interest of all our stakeholders.”

That did not satisfy river advocates.

“It is also deeply cynical,” Duxbury wrote. “Edison knows that by the time FERC gets around to doing anything, the minimum instream flows will have decreased to an amount it can satisfy and Edison will have kept its turbine spinning through summer — at the expense of the fishery, of course.”

In the background of this current flow fight, Edison is applying to relicense its KR3 power plant, which river groups have opposed without greater consideration to increasing flows between Fairview Dam and the plant.

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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