Kern River flows ramping down thanks to cool weather but will remain strong through the fall

June 9, 2023
by Lois Henry
Boys play in a full Kern River in Bakersfield west of Allen Road in 2019. The river is expected to remain full through this fall. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Cooler weather has slowed the anticipated snowmelt above Lake Isabella enough that outflows from the dam will ramp down to 6,500 cubic feet per second starting Sunday, according to Kern River Water Master Mark Mulkay.

“We’ve been watching the snow surveys and weather up there and think we’re in really good shape to be able to manage the flows,” Mulkay said. “We’ll turn it down to 6,500 cfs and watch it for a while but we think we’ll be able to continue to reduce outflows down to our irrigation demand through summer.”

That’s significantly lower than previously expected flows through Bakersfield, which had been predicted to exceed 9,000 cfs by mid-June. That amount of water could have caused a great deal of damage to homes and businesses in low-lying areas along the river east of Manor Street.

But physical and airborne snow surveys conducted June 3 convinced area water managers they could reduce outflows, Mulkay said.

Mulkay has also requested the Department of Water Resources cut off the intertie, which has been routing about 500 cfs of Kern River water into the California Aqueduct so that it wouldn’t run north into the already flooded Tulare Lake. The intertie hadn’t been used since 2006 before it was opened May 20. Mulkay estimated a little more than 20,000 acre feet had sloshed through the intertie near Tupman and made its way to southern California.

Sean De Guzman, manager of the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting for the Department of Water Resources, said it appears most watersheds feeding rivers in the Tulare Basin are past their one-day peak snowmelt.

“For the Kern, it’s going to be close,” he said. “The Kern may still get some of those higher values but it’s unlikely, especially with how cool the remainder of June looks.”

However, he cautioned, the volume of water coming into Lake Isabella for June will be greater than it was in May.

DWR is forecasting 570,000 acre feet of water will flow into the lake in June. In May, the amount was 539,000 acre feet.

“You’re going to have high, sustained flows for a while,” De Guzman said.

The June 3 snow surveys showed 758,000 acre feet of water in the snowpack still waiting to come through the Kern River watershed. He estimated that was down to 700,000 acre feet by the time he spoke with SJV Water six days later on June 9.

“Now that we’re into June, the snowpack has a good amount of melt going and once it starts it’s hard to stop even with cooler weather,” De Guzman said.

Total runoff for April through July on the Kern is expected to set a record at a forecasted 1.73 million acre feet. The previous record was set in 1969 at 1.657 million acre feet.

Lake Isabella could still overfill, Mulkay said. And that’s a good thing.

“We’re even OK with having to use the spillway a little bit,” he said. “We really want the reservoir to fill so the Army Corps of Engineers can do all their testing on the new dam and check all the features so it can come back under regular operations. We really want to get past that 360 mark.”

He referred to recently completed repairs to the dam for seismic and seepage concerns. While construction was ongoing, the Army Corps had restrained the lakes maximum capacity at 360,000 acre feet instead of its full capacity of 568,000 acre feet.

An email to the Army Corps wasn’t returned in time for this story.

With the looming snowpack looking more manageable, Mulkay said, Kern River water districts are starting to look toward November 1, when they have to pull enough water out of Lake Isabella to get it down to 170,000 acre feet in anticipation of winter storms.

“So, we’ll have to continue pulling water out and the river will continue flowing at 4,000 to 5,000 cfs all through the summer and fall,” Mulkay said.

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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