“Where’s the river?” Bakersfield lowers required Kern River flows pending interim flow agreement

January 25, 2024
by Lois Henry
The Kern River at Allen Road. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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Required flows down the Kern River channel were lowered by the City of Bakersfield on Monday as officials have collected more data on how much water is actually needed for the river to get west of town, according to an email from the City Water Resources Department.

The move is part of a larger effort to re-water the river through town per an ongoing lawsuit against Bakersfield by several public interest groups.

In late December, parties involved in the lawsuit were ordered by Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp to come up with an interim flow regime that would keep fish populations healthy pending full environmental studies that would set long term flows in wet and dry years.

The City of Bakersfield Water Resources Department had issued a memo in December to Kern River rights holders that it would keep enough water in the river so that 20 cubic feet per second passed over the McClung Weir, several miles west of Allen Road.

On Monday, the city notified Kern River interests that it was changing that flow requirement so that water passing McClung would “not exceed 20 cfs.”

As of Thursday, only 5 cfs was measured at McClung and residents had definitely noticed the drop as rivulets weaved between large sandbars in the riverbed.

“Where’s the river,” was the subject of an email sent to SJV Water on Wednesday from an anonymous reader. “Based on your articles, the repairs on the dam only took one week to complete, yet I can’t help but notice the lack of water in the river. They claimed water flows would ramp back up. But from Beach Park to Enos Ln…there’s a considerable lack of water flow.”

Releases from Isabella Dam had been restricted to 100 cfs as a tunnel in a power plant at the base of the dam was repaired. Releases have since ramped up to 615 cfs as of Thursday.

But the city, which owns or operates all the weirs on the river from about Hart Park to Enos Lane, opted to reduce water flowing through the river bed based on its observations over the past few months.

“After several months of data collection, expert consultation and internal discussion, City of Bakersfield (“City”) has determined that a lesser volume of water than previously described in City’s December 28, 2023 email is necessary to flow past McClung Weir; this amount need not exceed 20 cfs,” Water Resources Director Kristina Budak wrote in an email to other Kern River rights holders on Monday.

Until the parties to the lawsuit come up with an interim flow regime, water flowing to McClung will vary based on observed conditions, according to the city.

The new emphasis on river flows stem from a preliminary injunction issued by Judge Pulskamp in late October that requires Bakersfield to keep enough water in the river to keep fish populations in good condition.

The injunction came out of a lawsuit filed by several public interest groups against Bakersfield that sought to force the city to study how its river operations impact the environment. When the floods brought fish back to the river through town, the groups sought and won the injunction.

Kern River rights holders have appealed that injunction to the 5th District Court of Appeal and have filed motions to dismiss portions of the lawsuit, which will be heard by Pulskamp at 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 31.

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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