Kern River interests allowed to squeeze a little extra water into Lake Isabella this winter

October 18, 2023
by Lois Henry
A rapidly filling Lake Isabella sits behind the "labyrinth" weir in April 2023. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry


There are four Army Corps dams on rivers in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Those include Isabella Dam on the Kern River, which creates Lake Isabella;  Schafer Dam on the Tule River, which creates Lake Success; the Terminus Dam on the Kaweah River, which creates Lake Kaweah; and the Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River, which creates Pine Flat Lake.

Carry over amounts for those lakes vary:

  • Lake Isabella – 170,000 acre feet by Nov. 1. Capacity in Isabella is 568,000 acre feet.
  • Lake Success – 9,095 acre feet by Nov. 15. Capacity in Success is 84,000 acre feet.
  • Lake Kaweah – 12,000 acre feet by Nov. 15. Capacity in Kaweah is 185,600 acre feet.
  • Pine Flat Lake – 525,000 acre feet by Dec. 1. Capacity in Pine Flat is 1,000,000 acre feet. Because there are PG&E reservoirs above Pine Flat (Wishon and Courtright), its carry over amount can fluctuate based on space available in those lakes.

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Kern River irrigators will be able to store more water than usual in Lake Isabella this winter, but not as much as they’d like.

Typically, the “carry over” amount is 170,000 acre feet to allow enough room in the lake to handle a heavy winter. Isabella can hold 568,000 acre feet at full capacity.

Agricultural districts and others with rights to the river, collectively known as the Kern River interests, asked to increase the carry over amount next year to 245,000 acre feet, in case it turns dry again.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, settled on 211,000 acre feet, according to an Army Corps spokesman.

That amount includes the 30,000-acre-foot recreation pool that can’t be used for ag or municipal needs, noted Kern River Watermaster Art Chianello. That means the actual amount of carry-over water available for use by Kern River interests will be 181,000 acre feet.

The Army Corps also backed up the date when Kern River interests have to draw the lake down from its current 307,000 acre feet. Typically, the draw down date is  Nov. 1, but that’s been moved back to Nov. 15, according to the Army Corps spokesman.

That gives the Kern River interests a little extra time to move about 96,000 acre feet out of the lake and find places to store it among the vast network of water recharge basins scattered off the Kern River.

“We’re doing really good right now,” Chianello said of moving water out of the lake.

All these winter preparations mean Bakersfield will have a flowing river through town for at least another month.

Outflow from Isabella is currently at 2,405 cubic feet per second. River rights holders start taking water off the river just west of Hart Park through the Beardsley Canal and several other canals. By the time the river reaches Coffee Road it is running at about 914 cfs, according to the most recent river operation sheet put out by the City of Bakersfield.

Will Lake Isabella fill again next year? It’s anyone’s guess.

Chances for an El Niño winter are growing but that doesn’t guarantee snowfall in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.

On average, El Niños (warming in the Pacific Ocean at the equator) bring wetter weather.

But during the 2012-2016 drought an El Niño winter in 2015-2016 couldn’t get past the “ridiculously resilient ridge,” a high pressure system that sat over the coast of California for several years blocking storms like hockey pucks.

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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