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  • Why is the Kern River dry?
    Although we’re currently in a drought, the real reason the Kern is dry and has been mostly dry for years is because all of its annual flow (averaging 700,000 acre-feet a year) is diverted out of the river channel east of the city of Bakersfield, just below the Panorama Bluffs. The river below this diversion point remains dry in average water years, not only drought years. Only in extremely wet years does any water flow through the river channel through Bakersfield or beyond to Buena Vista Lake. This only happens when the amount of water greatly exceeds the ability of agricultural water districts to divert the water.
  • I see water coming down the Kern River Canyon. Where does all of that water go?
    Water from the Kern River is transported through a network of canals away from the river channel first into the Beardsley Canal by China Grade Loop, then into the Kern Island & Carrier Canals below the Panorama Bluffs. If there is more water than those canals can take, the rest of the river is typically diverted close to the Kern County Museum into the Calloway Canal. No water is prioritized for the plants, animals, and people that depend on the river for sustenance and recreation. A large portion of this water is transported parallel to the river channel, so that it’s not unusual to see abundant water flowing in a concrete lined channel adjacent to the river, blocked off by a chain link fence, while the dry riverbed languishes. The vast majority of Kern River water is going to agricultural irrigation, although some is used by the City of Bakersfield for its municipal water supply.
  • Who owns Kern River water?
    In California, all water is owned by the people of California and managed by the state government. Water rights over any California water do not constitute ownership of that water, as water rights are usufructory, meaning the state grants the ability to use the water and doesn’t give ownership of that water into perpetuity. When deemed in best interest of the public, the state has the power to modify or take away water rights, and it has done so on many occasions, particularly when use (or overuse) of water resources were shown to harm Public Trust resources that the state is obligated to protect for future generations.
  • What is The Public Trust?
    The Public Trust is a critical part of California law that sets asides certain resources as owned by all people, held “in trust” by the government. The government has an obligation to protect these resources for future generations. Resources included under the Public Trust Doctrine originally were tidelands, fisheries, and navigable waterways (of which the Kern is one) but over the years the resources the state has a legal obligation to protect has expanded to include wildlife & wildlife habitat, clean air, and public access to recreation (all of which also apply to Kern River).
  • Is it okay for the Kern River to be dry?
    The Kern River being dry violates California law. Drying up entire rivers, especially large ones which formerly were navigable, that had significant wildlife and recreational resources, is a clear violation of the Public Trust Doctrine. It also indisputably non-compliant with Fish and Game Code 5937, another law that requires operators of dams to maintain fisheries below the dam “in good condition,” by always allowing enough water to pass through the dam to ensure the fish could survive. These laws are in place to protect the public’s natural heritage from efforts to destroy our shared natural resources for private gain. The problem is that the state governing bodies in charge of water do not have the resources to proactively look for areas where these laws are being violates, and that they have never been asked to enforce these laws in regards to the Kern River. In case you’re wondering if whether enforcing these laws to restore a flowing river is worth it for Bakersfield / Kern County, read the answer to the next question.
  • Will putting water back in the Kern River hurt Kern County’s economy?
    Putting water back in the river will have a significant positive economic impact on Kern County. Much of the jobs and economic value generated in Kern County is linked to Bakersfield, our largest city. Bakersfield is bisected by the Kern River and the Kern River Parkway is a critical amenity for local quality of life. Restoring a flowing river will improve property values in Bakersfield in thousands of properties near the river, directly create jobs in recreation linked to a flowing river and increased use of the Parkway, and indirectly create even more jobs by completing a key regional amenity. With a flowing Kern River, Bakersfield will become a more competitive city for attracting companies and top talent to relocate to, live in, and stay in Kern County. Community leaders continually emphasize the need for our region to diversify away from oil and agriculture; restoring a flowing Kern River will unleash enormous potential for more economic growth and diversification, which will not only benefit Bakersfield but also outlying Kern County communities. Research done on other restored waterways has also shown that the economic impact of recreational use of water on a per acre foot basis equals or exceeds the price of that same water sold to farming. Fortunately the water can still be used for agriculture anyway, so it’s not a net loss to farmers (See “How much water does the Kern River “lose” when it flows?”). Money spent on river restoration (which is badly needed to restore the ecosystems that have been destroyed) has been shown to have a very high ROI in jobs created and economic impact generated. State and federal grants would pay for much of the needed restoration, but it can’t happen without a perennially flowing river.
  • How many ag jobs are linked to Kern River water? Will these jobs go away if we put water back in the river?
    Agriculture is a big part of Kern County’s economy, and water is a critical need for agriculture. However, the Kern River isn’t the only water source that local farmers tap into for their water. In average years, Kern County water districts get an average of 2,180,000 acre feet of surface water per year from the Kern River, the Central Valley Project, and the State Water Project. Per local groundwater management plans, agriculture overdrafts an additional 324,000 acre feet of groundwater per year. This brings the total amount of water used in Kern County each year to 2,504,000 acre feet. The Kern River is only 30% of this total supply of water, or 700,000 acre feet. Taking a portion of Kern River water and leaving it in the river won’t significantly reduce ag jobs using Kern River water, because not much water is actually lost when the Kern River is flowing (see “How much water does the Kern River “lose” when it flows?”). For the small amount of water that is lost by having a flowing river, not many jobs are affected due to a high degree of automation in the crops grown in Kern County. The dominant crops in Kern County are almonds (234K acres), pistachios (148K acres), and grapes (109K acres). Per UC Davis, 4.6 and 22 jobs per thousand acre feet of water in almonds/pistachios and grapes, respectively. Using these job numbers and hypothetical loss of 6,000 acre feet on the 100,000 acre feet needed to restore a flowing river through Bakersfield (see “How much water does the Kern River “lose” when it flows?”), the job losses range between 28 in the case of almonds/pistachios and 122 in the case of that water being used for grapes. These jobs matter and the families and communities where these jobs matter too, but it’s worth noting that many of these jobs are the lowest paying jobs in the region and that agriculture has a long track record of having difficulties finding enough workers willing to do the work at the wages offered. This is why local farmers often apply for special work visas to bring in additional seasonal laborers from outside the country to work on their farms. Putting water back in the river will result in significantly more and higher quality jobs created for our community than the few that might be lost in agriculture. See “Will putting water back in the Kern River hurt Kern County’s economy?”
  • What about droughts? Can water really flow in the river during a drought when farmers also need the water?
    Examples from elsewhere across the state (i.e. Yuba River, Putah Creek) demonstrate that adaptive management plans can be put in place to allow dynamic management of water left in rivers, with reductions in river flows dry years to compensate for droughts. A drought may result in less water flowing through a river channel, but it doesn’t mean the river has to dry up entirely. Fortunately all of the water in the Kern River stays in Kern County and not much of it is actually lost (see "How much water is 'lost' question"), even in dry years.
  • How much water does the Kern River “lose” when it flows?
    Water flowing in the Kern River channel isn’t lost to our community. A minimal amount is lost as evaporation but most water that “disappears” is really recharging the groundwater. Years of pulling out more groundwater in Kern County than what goes back in has led to a falling groundwater table that needs to be recharged for long-term sustainability of the region and to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Local water managers have a long history of utilizing the sandy layers underlying the Kern River, also called the Kern River alluvial fan, to bank groundwater. These banks get used regularly to either store water or to tap into stored water. Water managers assume that of the water “banked” in the the sandy sediments below the Kern River, 94% of it can be recovered. That means if in a given year 100,000 acre feet of water percolates into the Kern River channel after the flowing river is restored, only 6,000 acre feet of water is actually “lost” and unrecoverable. By some estimates, 100,000 acre feet of water is enough to restore year-round flowing river for the entirety of Bakersfield’s river, meaning to restore more than 10 miles of dead and lifeless river through Bakersfield, our community would lose less than 1% of the Kern River’s 700,000 acre foot average outflow. Restoring flowing water to the river year round for several years in a row will also help restore the natural hydrology of the river channel and reduce the amount of water required to maintain a flowing river. Since the sediments under the river will have been filled up with Kern River water already, water will percolate more slowly into the groundwater table, eventually leading to a reduction in the amount of water required to obtain the same flowing river results.
  • Doesn’t it cost more money to pump water back up out of the ground than to use it as surface water?
    When a flowing Kern River is restored, most of the water that flows out of the Kern River each year will continue to be used as surface water the same year the water comes down from the mountains, with no pumping required. In the above example, with 100,000 acre feet used to restore a flowing river and then recharging the aquifer, 6,000 acre feet is lost, and 94,000 acre feet will eventually be pumped back up. Pumping water takes electricity. This cost varies based on the depth to the recharged water, utility rates, and whether technologies like solar are used to reduce pumping costs. As a rough ballpark, pumping up the recharged groundwater might cost around $100 an acre foot, which would be $9.4 million to pump up all 94,000 acre feet. This $100 an acre foot is a bargain, as Kern River water is essentially free to water rights holders who pay what is only a delivery service fee of around $30 an acre-foot. Farmers routinely pay over $200 an acre foot and sometimes $500 or $1000 an acre foot in dry years. (For comparison, home utility rates for water in the CalWater service area are more like $1500 an acre foot). Kern River water, even with pumping costs, is still the cheapest and most reliable water available to users. Current users of Kern River water have been benefiting from its “discounted” use for decades and should be willing to pay the true cost of supplying that water without taking a entire river away from the public. This pumping cost won’t reduce farming jobs as much as it will make a dent into farm owners bottom lines. To put the $9.4 million for pumping in additional perspective, 94,000 acre feet of water could be used to grow 23,500 acres of almonds (4 acre feet of water per acre of almonds). At an average yield of 2,500 lbs. of almonds per acre, this water will grow 58.75 million lbs. of almonds. At a price of $2.50 / lb. (the price has been as high as $4 / lb. in recent years), this will bring in farm revenues of over $147 million. Of course there are other costs to farming these almonds, but over a million acres across CA have been planted to almonds for the simple reason that they are one of the most profitable crops in farming. Having these water users that are profiting off the use of the Kern pay their fair share for Kern River water is a more equitable solution than drying up the public’s river (see disadvantaged communities). Plus, restoring a flowing river is required by CA law (see “Is it okay for the Kern River to be dry?”)
  • Does the Kern River impact disadvantaged communities?
    Much of the city of Bakersfield is classified by the state of California as disadvantaged. This classification is associated the income of residents in these areas as well as how certain areas bear extra burden from pollutants and being less resilient for the effects of climate change (i.e. less park spaces, places to cool off, trees and vegetation). (see disadvantaged map here). People living in low income, disadvantaged communities have less resources to travel out of town to get to other places to recreate or to escape the summer heat. They also have less amenities in their neighborhoods or at their houses for outdoor recreation or for cooling off (i.e. backyard swimming pools). Because of these factors, some of the most frequent users of the Kern River parkway are from disadvantaged communities. The lack of a flowing river, the recreation it would provide, and the habitat that the river would sustain (think trees for shade) is a enormous loss of a public resource for all of the half a million people who live in the Bakersfield metro area in close proximity to the river, but this loss disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities, who have fewer alternatives to the public spaces in our community for exercise, recharge, and play. Opponents of water in the river have at times tried to play the disadvantaged communities card to protect the status quo and keep the Kern River dry. They have claimed that the towns of Wasco and Shafter will be catastrophically impacted by putting water back in the river. This is extremely misleading, as these communities do not use Kern River water directly as a drinking water supply, these communities have several sources of water other than the Kern River for agricultural jobs, if the Kern River is restored only minimal amounts of water would actually be “lost”, there aren’t very many jobs actually tied to this hypothetical loss of water, and the cost of pumping back any water is minimal relative to the value of the water that can still be used after being pumped back up. Furthermore, if water was restored to the Kern River, the burden of this restored flow will likely be shared between all irrigation districts and the City of Bakersfield, greatly diluting any direct impact on the communities of Wasco and Shafter, which are adjacent to only one of the four major irrigation districts that use Kern River water (North Kern Water Storage District).
  • Isn’t the Kern River being used to grow food?
    Water from the Kern River is being used to grow food in fields and orchards across Kern County. These farmers are doing what any business owner would do, which is to optimize with their limited resources to maximize profits. This has led to a shift in farming acreage from annual crops to perennial, higher value tree crops with a high degree of automation, such as almonds and pistachios. These are nutritious plant based foods, but much of the volume of these crops is exported outside of California and the U.S. to other parts of the world. While this strategy does well in optimizing for farm revenues, the use of Kern River water for farming is definitely not a food security issue. The water being used to grow these crops is a public resource, and the food being grown with that public resource is being eaten in other countries. The state has an obligation to protect resources like rivers for public use and it has even chosen to do so in instances where water was being put to substantially higher economic value use than what Kern River water is currently being used for (i.e. Mono Lake being protected from the City of LA’s water diversions). Urban areas generate significantly higher economic output per unit of water than agriculture. Fortunately for Kern County, the water from a flowing river isn’t lost and can still be used, and the impact of a flowing river will be a substantial net positive for our local economy.
  • Is there actually infrastructure in place to allow water to be pumped back up from under the Kern River?
    Kern County has an intricate network of canals that have been developed over the past century to convey water to all parts of the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Numerous canals take water north and south away from the Kern River, thereby giving options to divert water further downstream from the river at places like the River Canal Weir (Coffee Road, the Bellevue Wier (by the Park at River Walk) the McClung Weir, or even the California Aqueduct intertie. Water can be taken out of the river at these places and then put in canals going north or south, or transferred back east via the Cross-Valley Canal, back to other canals like the Calloway, the Buena Vista, and the Friant Kern Canals. There are already some pumps in place along the Kern River Parkway, paid for by taxpayers via a 2000 bond measure, that were supposed to be used to help restore the river. Additional pumps may be required in places to ensure that sufficient pumping capacity is in the right places to recover recharged groundwater. Water storage districts using Kern River water are regularly making these types of infrastructure investments elsewhere. There are several groundwater storage projects under review across different districts to expand groundwater banking capacity, all of which would include large pumps. Instead of some of these groundwater banking projects, these proposed investments could be repurposed towards the Kern River as the preferred location for any additional groundwater banking, to allow for the river to be restored at the same time as banking groundwater, rather than transferring that water away from the river and preventing the public from or wildlife from accessing the water as should be required.
  • Will having water flowing in the Kern River hurt whitewater recreation in the Kern River canyon below Lake Isabella?
    Exact amounts of flow and timing of these flows required to restore the Kern River require further study, but there shouldn’t be a big impact on whitewater releases from Lake Isabella. While restoring a living river ecosystem requires water in the river at all times, the amount of water flowing in a restored Kern River will vary by season to mimic the historic pattern of the Kern River. California River systems are cyclical and closely mirror the standard summer whitewater season. Natural river flow regimes are typically much higher in the late spring and early summer, starting to taper off in the late summer and fall. This late spring to summer peak natural flow season is when water is already being released from Lake Isabella for agricultural irrigation. In the case of a restored river, this water would simply be taking a different route to its final destination in a farmer’s field or orchard. Even in off season months or in dry years, there is always some water flowing out of Lake Isabella, for agricultural, municipal, and hydropower use. This water that is already being released from the dam could continue further down the Kern River and then be diverted further downstream or “banked” in the aquifer for future use. For community members who are concerned about whitewater recreation or whose livelihoods depend on whitewater recreation, there are many other ways whitewater recreation access can be improved and protected irrespective of what happens with restoring flows to the dried up lower Kern River. Currently the Army Corps of Engineers takes water quantity requests from the Kern River Watermaster, who aggregates the requests from various stakeholders. Water is then released in a steady state, often for days or weeks at a time. With some operational changes and slight timing variations to when this water is delivered, it’s possible that water releases could be pulsed to higher flows during the weekends or perhaps even daylight hours to allow for a better and longer whitewater season. Doing this would extend the whitewater season and ensure that recreation was viable through the summer even in extremely dry years when historically the steady state flow releases have been lower than desirable whitewater flows.
  • What about in drought years? If you put water in the Kern River, how will any be left for farms?
    Dry years are a part of the Kern River and of life in California. The river alternates between years of abundance and years of scarcity. Just because the Kern is low on water or State and Federal projects curtail water deliveries to farmers due to a drought doesn’t mean farmers don’t have access to water. Dry years are when agriculture has historically relied on groundwater to make up for reductions in surface water supplies, and with a restored Kern River, agriculture will have an annual banked more water under the Kern River channel and will be able to pump this water back up during these dry years. Unfortunately, agriculture across the San Joaquin Valley has a long history of using groundwater unsustainably. By estimates from local groundwater sustainability plans, the basin has an average overdraft of groundwater of 324,000 acre feet per year (slightly less than half of the Kern River’s average annual outflow). Due to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, all users of groundwater need to gradually bring overdrafts in balance by 2040. A restored Kern River should be a part of this groundwater recharge to make up the difference, where the water being stored is put to the greatest public good and most uses before it is banked and later pumped up to use. Water back in the Kern River only results in a minimal net loss of water (~6%, see “How much water does the Kern River “lose” when it flows). Without a push to restore a flowing river, most water storage districts in Kern County would prefer to put extra water from the Kern River into canals east of Bakersfield and convey the river’s flows directly to banking projects in their districts. Left unchecked, this approach will continue to deprive the public and wildlife of access to a flowing Kern River.
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