Water in the Kern River an inspiration for local artists

October 7, 2021
by Lois Henry
Jennifer Williams-Cordova and Teresa Adamo read from their children's book, "The Mighty Kern," during public comments at the Oct. 5 State Water Resources Control Board. The reading was part of a larger effort to get water back into the river through Bakersfield. SCREENSHOT of the meeting.
Lois Henry

Downstream

The river is quiet here
And almost motionless
Drifting into little eddies of anticipation
Cottonwood leaves tremble
Excited
Although the air is still
The wind has gone upstream
Where you can almost hear
If you listen closely
Whitewater applauding
Something wonderful is coming

From the book “Everything Barren is Blessed” by poet Don Thompson

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Painters, poets and musicians converged on the state Water Resources Control Board Tuesday as part of an unrelenting campaign to get water in the Kern River through Bakersfield.

Bring Back the Kern, a local grassroots group, has facilitated public comments from a wide variety of individuals and groups, including brewers and, now, artists, at the Water Board to remind board members of what the Kern River means to residents.

Monty Byrom

“One thing I’ve found, no matter where I go, Texas or New York, people say ‘Oh, you’re from Bakersfield. You must know Merle (Haggard) and Buck (Owens). And I’m proud of that,” singer Monty Byrom told the board, after apologizing for his groggy demeanor, noting that, as a musician, he’s not usually up before noon. “And whenever other artists come here, the first thing they want to do is go see the Kern River. It represents something to them. But you get to the river and there’s no water.”

He’s never understood, he said, why Bakersfield is the one town in California that has a river running straight through its heart, but it has no water.

Painter David Gordon, owner of Bird Dog Arts gallery at the Tejon Outlets, said artistic expression inspired by a flowing river also helps the economy. As the former director of the Arts Council of Kern, Gordon, hosted plein air festivals where some of the best artists in the west were invited to paint the local landscapes, including the river.

“And we sold those paintings, which made the artists money,” and helped support the economy, Gordon said. “So, I would just like to say I’m all for bringing back water to the Kern. It helps us economically and inspirationally.”

Poets Carla Martin, Don Thompson and Shelly Evans read several works inspired by the river.

“On the banks of where the Kern River used to be, I saw you coyote, too weak to howl at the moon,” were the opening lines of a poem by Jana Lee Wong called Kern River Coyote. It ended darkly with, “Oh, coyote, they know what they do. They sacrifice their grandchildren still, to the price of the milk of almonds and the land they excessively till.”

Some poems were even more pointed.

“Water brings life. Life brings water,” Martin recited. “Will you use your life to bring our water back?”

The Water Board was also treated to “story time” by Teresa Adamo and Jennifer Williams-Cordova who read from their illustrated children’s book, “The Mighty Kern.”

“Look at the people. There’s so much to learn. The ones who love the river and champion: Bring Back the Kern.”

The regular batches of public comments at Water Board meetings is just one of Bring Back the Kern’s multi-pronged efforts to get water in the river.  It has also hired an attorney and become party to an ongoing legal dispute over a chunk of water that is potentially up for grabs on the river.

In 2010, the Water Board said there may, indeed, be some loose water on the river. But it didn’t say how much nor who should get it. Several different entities applied for the water with the City of Bakersfield pledging to run it down the riverbed through town.

Bring Back the Kern, along with several other local and other nonprofit groups, is officially supporting the city’s application for that water under the public trust doctrine, which states that California holds all natural resources, such as rivers, in trust for public benefit.

The next hearing on that issue is set for Dec. 9.

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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