The lawsuit aims to restore Bakersfield’s dry Kern River

The lawsuit aims to restore Bakersfield’s dry Kern River

  • US News
  • December 19, 2022
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Conservation groups are going to court to try to bring back a flowing river in Bakersfield, where for years so much water has been diverted in canals to feed farms that the Kern River normally becomes a dry, sandy river bed.

Six environmental groups sued the city of Bakersfield, saying continued diversion of water upstream from the city harmed the environment and the community.

“The river is in a state of total collapse right now,” said Kelly Damian, a spokeswoman for the group Bring Back the Kern. “It’s clear to anyone who goes and just looks at the river. It is dry. It’s dead. It’s run down. It’s a shame for the community instead of what it should be.”

Damian, a high school teacher, often walks a bike path next to the dry river bed, where she sees withered trees that have died or are dying from lack of water.

“It’s very unbalanced,” Damian said. “We really just want to see water flowing through the river.”

A man stands next to a weir.

Bring Back the Kern organizer Miguel Rodriguez, 29, of Bakersfield, stands at the weir at Rocky Point in 2021, the second site where water will be taken from the Kern River and diverted into a canal.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Plaintiffs argue that allowing water diversions to dry up the river violates California’s public trust doctrine, the principle that certain natural resources must be preserved for the public.

If activists get their way in the case, it could help restore a flowing river in downtown Bakersfield and set a precedent for additional protections for rivers and streams in other parts of California, which have been severely tapped by years of drought and the effects of climate change and were devastated.

“There’s a whole lot of rivers in California that are being diverted and dammed and basically destroyed,” said Adam Keats, an attorney representing the groups. “If we can bring the Kern River back to life through the center of the city of Bakersfield, we can do it anywhere.”

The Kern River cascades from the Sierra Nevada and emerges from a steep gorge. Decades ago, the core flowed through Bakersfield. But so much water is diverted in canals to supply farmland that the river rarely extends beyond the city’s northeast side.

Downstream from diversion dams, the last river dries up and disappears.

Instead, the water flows in channels to farms that grow almonds, pistachios, grapes, oranges, and other crops.

For the past year, activists from Bring Back the Kern and other groups have been trying to secure water for the river as the State Water Resources Control Board considered a long-standing dispute over water rights. However, a state-appointed hearing officer has declined to consider the public trust doctrine at the time.

The environmental groups are now targeting the city’s diversions away from the river instead. They argue in the lawsuit, filed Nov. 30 in Kern County Superior Court, that the city “created a public nuisance” by diverting water and drying up the river “without affecting use and.” public trust resources were analyzed. ”

The environmental groups – which also include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Kern River Parkway Foundation, Water Audit California, the Sierra Club and the Kern Audubon Society – are urging the court to order the city to release enough water to “avoid irreparable damage.” ‘ and ‘provide rivers for fish passage and habitat.’

The groups want the city to start diverting water from a location further downstream on the other side of the city so the river can flow through the community.

“All they have to do is direct the water closer to the valley floor and not direct it up over the city,” Keats said. “It’s a very feasible change for the city to make.”

The lawsuit, which is being filed with the city, also lists agricultural irrigation districts that receive water as parties with interests in the case, including Kern Delta Water Storage District, North Kern Water Storage District and Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District.

The city operates its own dams that divert water from the river and has contracts to supply water to agricultural water districts.

However, Keats said those contracts “do not trump the public trust doctrine” and that the city is violating its obligations by allowing diversions that drain the river.

Colin Pearce, an attorney representing Bakersfield, said the city would not comment on the case at this time. Representatives of agricultural water districts either declined to speak about the case or did not respond to emails.

The lawsuit summarizes the history of water extraction from the Kern River, which historically filled two shallow lakes and vast wetlands in the southern San Joaquin Valley. It explains how an 1888 agreement between wealthy land barons Henry Miller and James Haggin divided shares in the river and how that agreement has been expanded and modified over the years.

A man walks through a swampy area.

Miguel Rodriguez wades through the Kern River at Panorama Vista Preserve, where the Kern River ends and goes dry in this 2021 photo.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Over the last century, as more water was drawn from the river for farm expansion, Buena Vista Lake and Kern Lake dried up and were converted to farmland. To the north, Tulare Lake — which was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi — also dried up in the 1930s as the valley’s rivers became heavily used for agriculture.

Since 1976, the city has owned several weirs along the Kern River and is responsible for managing the water diversions. Some of the water is consumed in the city, but much of it is used to supply agriculture.

“We can put a river back through Bakersfield, and we can still have these companies grow crops and still make money,” Keats said. “There is no reason why there is an either-or.”

Other similar lawsuits are ongoing elsewhere in California. Keats is working on two public trust cases, one involving the Merced River and the other involving the Santa Clara River.

“I think it’s very important to say, as a community and as a society, that we’re not going to sacrifice our rivers that flow through our communities,” Keats said.

Damian and other residents say having water flow through Bakersfield would restore the river’s ecosystem and nourish a green corridor in the heart of the city, allowing people to regularly wade, kayak and picnic along the bank – as they do did decades ago.

Damian, who has lived in Bakersfield for 16 years, said she was deeply concerned that the river was completely dry and its parched ecosystem was deteriorating.

“The people of this town deserve a river,” Damian said. “I think there’s a sense of dignity that can be restored if we rehabilitate the river, because when they drained that river, they really cut out the heart of the city.”

She said agriculture could still have water, but changing the water intake point would greatly improve the flow and life in the city.

Damian said using the entire river created a “massive dead zone” and impacted how people view Bakersfield.

“I think we’ve been taken out of the house long enough,” Damian said. “And I think it’s time to give something back, to restore something and to heal something in this place.”

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