New Kern River hearing set and the J.G. Boswell Company fears water in the river for fish will jeopardize its massive ag holdings

January 24, 2024
by Lois Henry
The Kern River flows west from the Calloway bridge in Bakersfield on Dec. 25, 2023. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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The  J.G. Boswell Company fears its agricultural interests – and possibly even the City of Corcoran – could be in jeopardy if water is allowed to remain in the Kern River for fish, according to its request to be admitted as a party to a lawsuit brought by local and statewide public interest groups

That’s just one of several new actions in the ongoing fight over river water.

Here’s the rundown:

  • Both North Kern Water Storage District and the Kern Delta Water District have filed notices of appeal with the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno. The districts hope to overturn Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp’s Oct. 30, 2023 preliminary injunction requiring some water be kept in the normally dry riverbed through Bakersfield in order to keep fish populations “in good condition.”
  • All of the so-called “real parties in interest,” ag irrigation districts with rights to Kern River water, have filed motions with Pulskamp seeking to dismiss at least some portions of the case. Pulskamp will hear arguments on those motions at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 31.
  • Meanwhile, the City of Bakersfield, ag districts and public interest groups are discussing how much water should be kept in the river on an interim basis before extensive environmental studies are begun to determine ecological flows needed long term and how to achieve those flows during both wet and dry years.

The groups are supposed to bring a suggested flow regime to Pulskamp at some point in the future, or any party can request him to rule on an interim flow level if they can’t reach consensus.

Kevin Moreno holds a sign asking motorists to honk in support of the Kern River. He attended a hearing Oct. 13, 2023 in Kern County on whether to grant an injunction that would cut back diversions from the river. Lois Henry / SJV Water

As all these plates are spinning midair, Boswell has entered the fray. The company wants a seat at the table out of concern that an order requiring some percentage of the river’s flow remain in the river bed could flood its properties both in Kern and Kings counties.

Boswell owns the Buena Vista Lakebed south of Tupman in Kern and almost the entire vast Tulare Lakebed in Kings County. Tulare Lake was the Kern River’s natural terminus before the region was settled and the lakebeds drained and river’s harnessed for farming.

Boswell also owns a small fraction of a Kern River right.

If flows are required to be kept in the river, the system could become overloaded during floods, sending Kern River water barreling up to the Tulare Lakebed “..and damage lands in the Lakebed that Boswell farms while – far more critically – putting the City of Corcoran and nearby communities at risk of flooding,” according to Boswell’s motion to intervene.

The Kern River never made it to the Tulare Lake during last year’s floods but Corcoran was indeed threatened largely because its levee had sunk – again – due to massive groundwater overpumping. And other Kings County farmers accused Boswell of creating even more danger for them and the town by holding flood water off of large portions of the lake in order to plant tomatoes in the lake bottom.

Boswell’s Kern River motion also notes that excess water could be sent to its lands in the old Buena Vista Lakebed, which are subject to a “flood servitude” held by the Buena Vista Water Storage District.

In fact, only 5,170 acres of the 22,000-acre lake bed owned by Boswell can be used for flood water per a 1964 agreement, as SJV Water reported last April.

Boswell’s intervenor motion also states that an early implementation ruling by Pulskamp (now rescinded) ordered 40% of the river’s flow be kept in the river. At that percentage, the motion states, 9,300 cubic feet per second would have had to be released from Isabella Dam, flooding Bakersfield and destroying Highway 178.

The Boswell motion worries that using arbitrary percentages to keep flows in the river for fish, “… could have effectively undermined the flood protection that the Isabella Dam offers.”

Except Pulskamp’s injunction only covers river flows from Hart Park to the McClung Weir, several miles west of Allen Road. And it only applies to the City of Bakersfield, which operates the weirs in that section. It has no effect on the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Isabella Dam.

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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