Red tape kept Bakersfield from clearing Kern River channel for years

April 19, 2023
by Lois Henry
Debris in the Kern River at a turnout near Stockdale Highway was minimal Wednesday. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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It isn’t just water that’s been barreling down the Kern River in this historic water year.

Trees, shrubs, trash –  even old appliances – have come swirling down the river bed, plucked out by heavy equipment and piled on the banks in massive heaps.

City of Bakersfield crews, along with other agencies, worked round the clock getting debris out of the swollen river after the March 10 storm drenched the valley and flushed low elevation snow through the system. 

Agencies have continued scooping junk from the river, hauling off an estimated 96 tons since that March 10 storm.

The amount of debris has diminished but with this year’s runoff expected to break records, it could still be a problem

In past years, the City of Bakersfield would have cleared away most of that debris when it was dry in anticipation of exactly this type of big water year.

Except it couldn’t get a permit.

The city has had a channel maintenance program since 1985 but has to renew its permits through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Army Corps of Engineers. The city owns the river bed from just east of Manor Street west to about Enos Lane.

2006 channel capacity ratings for sections of the Kern River. SOURCE: Army Corps of Engineers

In 2019, the city Water Resources Department applied to Fish and Wildlife for a channel maintenance permit. In 2020 it applied to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fish and Wildlife approved the permit in 2020, but “due to staffing vacancies it does not look like we ever sent an oplaw (operation of law) letter,” wrote Julie Vance, a Fish and Wildlife program manager for the department, in an email.

Even so, she wrote, the city has authorization to perform standard maintenance through October 2025. Fish and Wildlife also approved two emergency permits in 2021 allowing the city to remove vegetation around one weir and take out another weir entirely.

Joseph Conroy, Bakersfield spokesman, confirmed that the city scraped away vegetation surrounding the Bellvue Weir near the Stockdale Highway bridge and removed the Rocky Crest weir east of Golden State Avenue.

But approval for the city’s regular channel maintenance program from the Army Corps is still pending.

The city’s application was deemed incomplete and “due to the applicant not responding to our information request, it was withdrawn on Feb. 03, 2021,” wrote an Army Corps spokesman in an email.

The city tried again in June 2021 but withdrew the application a month later.

“There is currently no application pending for that project,” the Army Corps spokesman wrote.

The Kern Levee District, run by the City of Bakersfield, extends from Manor Street on the east to just west of the boundaries shown in this map, which is out of date. SOURCE: City of Bakersfield Water Resources Dept.

The hold up appears to be “substantial environmental permitting efforts required by the City to complete,” Conroy wrote in an email. 

He added that staff is still working on it but “The City then turned its efforts towards other high-priority projects.”

Channel maintenance is important not only to clear debris but also to maintain the river’s ability to handle big flows, its capacity.

Daniel Maldonado, deputy director for Bakersfield Water Resources, said levees maintained by the city, have a 2022 Federal Emergency Management Agency certification to handle a flow of 10,200 cubic feet per second from just east of Manor Street to the river’s intersection with the terminus of Ming Avenue at the Highgate neighborhood. 

The channel capacity through that section of town is rated by the Army Corps of Engineers at 8,000 cfs.

When asked whether regular channel maintenance, or the lack of it, would affect channel capacity, Maldonado said he didn’t know but felt the river was “properly rated.”

The Army Corps spokesman wrote that maintaining channel capacities is up to local agencies.

Channel maintenance is, of course, a moot point now that the river is brimming bank to bank.

Outflow from Isabella Dam was at 5,807 cfs as of Thursday. The Army Corps was seeking to push that up to at least 7,000 cfs relatively quickly, Miguel Chavez, City Hydrologist reported at the Water Resources board meeting on Wednesday.

With runoff predicted to peak in May at 620,000 acre feet – or 10,083 cfs per day – the clock is ticking to see if the Kern River channel lives up to its channel capacity ratings.

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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