Officials identify local infrastructure at risk of flooding in Bakersfield

May 9, 2023
Lois Henry, SJV Water and John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian
by Lois Henry, SJV Water and John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian
Kern County Fire Chief Aaron Duncan, who also serves as the county’s director of emergency services, discussed the water level at Isabella Dam during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the newly reactivated Emergency Operations Center. Duncan said it's still too early to tell which areas will be affected by floods, and that in the interim, people need to stay prepared. John Donegan / The Californian
Lois Henry, SJV Water and John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian
Lois Henry, SJV Water and John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian

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Senior Kern County officials assessing flood risks to critical local infrastructure have identified Bakersfield Heart Hospital as potentially vulnerable to inundation in the weeks ahead, followed to a lesser degree by Mercy Southwest and the former Big West refinery on Rosedale Highway.

In case either medical center does flood, a plan has been put in place for other local hospitals to take in patients who might have to be evacuated, said the county’s director of emergency services, Aaron Duncan, who emphasized he was not saying the area around Bakersfield Heart will flood.

“I’m saying we need to be prepared,” Duncan said, adding, “Right now, there’s no risk to any hospitals.”

The Bakersfield Heart Hospital is seen behind the north bank of a very full Kern river on Tuesday. Courtesy of Don Martin

The three sites are among few that have been specifically mentioned by authorities as possibly subject to inundation, along with Manor Street in general, part of the Kern River Oil Field, Hart Park and Truxtun Lakes.

Uncertainty remains but chances of flooding in and around Bakersfield are greatest if temperatures warm for a prolonged period and a rush of snowmelt into Isabella Lake forces water managers to release unmanageable flows toward Bakersfield. Duncan said the greatest risks lie between the mouth of the Kern River Canyon and the Manor Street bridge, because that stretch contains few options for taking water off the river.

Duncan, speaking by phone after he ordered the reactivation of the county’s Emergency Operations Center next to Bakersfield College, said the Heart Hospital stands at a “low spot” near the Kern River such that someone standing on the north bank of the nearby levee can look straight at the hospital’s second floor.

While Mercy Southwest also faces possible flooding under current planning scenarios, Duncan said, chances are lower that it will.

Officials have generally avoided referring publicly to specific locations facing the threat of inundation. But mention was made of Bakersfield Heart Hospital in a copy of part of an internal government email dated Monday and obtained by SJV Water.

The same email referred to Manor Street as well as possible closure of the Chester Avenue Bridge. Duncan said current scenarios do not envision the bridge closing, “but that is always subject to change.”

City of Bakersfield spokesman Joe Conroy declined to comment on the email other than to say staff are preparing for possible closure of the bike path below the bridge, “not the bridge itself.” He noted the city continues to remove debris from along the river and that staff are monitoring levees and the river system 24 hours per day.

Bakersfield Heart Hospital said through a spokeswoman Tuesday the hospital is aware of potential flooding risks from water released from the lake. She added the medical center is collaborating with local emergency management agencies to gain insight and information on any possible threat.

“As part of our ongoing disaster preparedness, we are continuously planning and performing disaster drills,” spokeswoman Laura Sabedra said by email. “In an effort to ensure effective coordination during a possible flooding event, our drills are focused on flooding scenario exercises, which involves communication with all of our staff.”

Representatives of Mercy Southwest could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

A spokeswoman for the company that owns the refinery on Rosedale, known now as Bakersfield Renewable Fuels Refinery, said the facility “has emergency response plans in place.” She was unable to be more specific.

County and city officials hosted a news conference Tuesday afternoon on the heels of an announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that releases from the Isabella Dam will be “near, at or above” designated capacity levels of channels along the Kern River for several weeks starting in late May to mid-June.

At Tuesday’s news conference, local officials struck a balance between urging residents to take critical action and simply calling on them to be prepared.

“There is no emergency in the county right now,” said Duncan, who also serves as chief of the Kern County Fire Department. He noted the state recently granted his request for 50,000 sandbags that will be placed at or near Sam Lynn Ballpark, Round Mountain Road and Goodmanville Road.

“We suggest that all residents use the sandbags,” he said. “They’re there for you.”

Duncan added, “We want you to plan your evacuation. We want you to be prepared.”

The county’s chief administrative officer, Ryan Alsop, suggested residents sign up for the ReadyKern emergency alert program, available online at The system allows participants to receive text messages and phone calls in the event of an emergency.

Alsop said there is no question some properties will flood, and that Manor Street in particular faces risk, but that it’s unclear to what extent flooding will occur. He said officials plan to visit residents door to door, make direct phone calls to homes and host meetings on potential flooding.

“There are lots of different scenarios — draft scenarios depending on a bunch of scenarios,” he said. “What we do know is there will be inundation (along) the river.”

Josh Champlin, the county’s interim public works director, asked during the news conference that residents call the agency if they notice a road problem or other issue that could affect ground transportation during a flood.

“We rely on you a lot to notify us when there’s a time when you notice something that’s not quite right,” Champlin said, referring people to the department’s phone number, 661-862-5100, or its website:

Californian Business Editor John Cox can be reached by phone at 661-395-7404.

Lois Henry, SJV Water and John Cox, The Bakersfield Californian

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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