Locals speak up for the Kern River at the State Water Board

October 23, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

Parkway talk

LISTEN HERE to Kern River Parkway Foundation co-founders Rich O’Neil and Bill Cooper talk on the Richard Beene radio show (KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM) about the importance of a wet river to the well-loved and expanding parkway through Bakersfield.


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Love was overflowing for the Kern River Tuesday at the State Water Resources Control Board’s monthly meeting.

A slew of Bakersfield locals told board members how much an actual, wet river means for residents.

Speakers asked board members to make the Kern a priority and finally allocate unappropriated water on the river that has been in limbo at the board for the past 10 years.

The Kern River wasn’t on Tuesday’s agenda, but residents used the public statement portion of the meeting to grab the board’s collective ear.

“This is a matter of social justice,” said Bakersfield teacher and writer Kelly Damian. “The Kern River through town is wide and easily accessible.”
When it has water, Damian said, she takes her children to the Kern where she’s seen multilingual families, families with disabled children, rafters and waders all enjoying the water, connecting with nature and each other.

“It’s an equal opportunity playground for everyone.”

But water is the key to unlocking that playground.

And, except in rare circumstances, the Kern River through Bakersfield is typically dry.

“The people in Kern County work hard for this state,” Damian continued. “We work in the fields, we pump the oil, we drive the trucks up and down this state and we even soak up pollution from the coastal areas. You’re welcome for that, by the way.

“The people here deserve to have their river back.”

Damian was one of seven speakers who are part of a movement to bring back the Kern River. The movement started this summer as a small, change.org petition seeking water in the river.

Since then, the effort has grown in strength and focus.

The petition, which had more than 3,500 signatures as of Tuesday morning, was sent to all the state Water Board members as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Environmental Protection, and the chairs of the Senate and Assembly committees on water.

The petition will remain open for more signatures indefinitely, according to Jonathan Yates, who began the effort.

He told Water Board members Tuesday that this is just the beginning.

“We are not going away and we’re not going silent,” he said in his statement. “We will continue to build support from within and outside our community for the cause of bringing back the Kern.

“If Mono Lake can be saved, the Owens can be restored, and the San Joaquin can flow again, we will bring back the Kern.”

The petition points to three areas where backers believe the Water Board could use its authority to wet the riverbed through Bakersfield:

  • Issue a permit to the City of Bakersfield for 50,000 acre feet of water that was declared unappropriated by the board in 2010. In its application for that water Bakersfield promised to run it down the river, which could be made a part of the board’s permit.
  • Pressure the Kern County Water Agency to use a series of wells that the agency built using Proposition 13 money (the water bond from 2000, not the property tax measure from 1978).The agency said it would use those wells to provide a river at least from Manor Street to the Stockdale Highway bridge. But, in 20 years, the wells have never been used for that purpose.
  • Declare that running water down the Kern River is a “beneficial use” of Bakersfield’s river supplies. This is specific to a pot of Kern River water the city owns but sold under long term contracts to local ag water districts. Those contracts were up in 2012 and the city announced it would put that water down the river. One district sued under an extension clause in the contract that said the city had to keep selling available water unless it had a “project and use” for the water. The court found that running it down the river, even for recharge, was not a project and use.

That last bullet point about “beneficial use” could be tricky.

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) has tried twice to have groundwater recharge declared a beneficial use with no luck.

In fact, it was the state Water Board itself that cautioned against creating a blanket beneficial use designation for recharged groundwater as doing so could alter water rights.

How the Water Board handles groundwater recharge permitting, particularly in big water years, has become even stickier as more water districts are looking at recharge to comply with the state’s new groundwater sustainability law.

Meanwhile, there are no hearings or pending actions listed on the Water Board’s Kern River page.

Despite those, and other, hurdles, Yates and his compatriots have vowed to keep pushing against what they called the “environmental injustice” of a dry Kern River.

“A generation of people has come and gone waiting for the river to return,” Yates told the board on Tuesday. “It’s time to put the Kern River back on the Board’s agenda and to make the decisions the board has been delaying for over a decade.

“You owe it to this mighty river and to the people of Bakersfield.”

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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