(Courtesy of Andres Amador)
A RIVER RAN THROUGH IT
Bakersfield residents want their waterway back
By Jonathan Horwitz
BAKERSFIELD, CALIF. - When California ordered a lockdown last March, Bre and Virginia Parks sought an escape from the anxious doldrums of staying-at-home. They found it by walking their local river trail.
The only thing missing was the water.
The mother and daughter live together in Bakersfield in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Not too far from their home is a bike path running along the banks of what should be the Kern River.
But for most of the year the water is gone, diverted to local water districts. The city is left with more of a dust bowl than a river.
In place of wildlife, there’s litter. Glass bottles and plastic cutlery are haphazardly strewn across the sandy riverbed like artificial seashells. Shopping carts are abandoned like miniature shipwrecks.
“It’s depressing because there’s no water,” said Bre, a communications and digital media major at CSU Bakersfield, where she’s also enrolled in a history class on the state’s water policies. “The course has opened my eyes to the ways we have overexploited our natural resources.”
Her mother, Virginia, a lifelong Bakersfield resident, cannot even remember a time when the Kern River consistently flowed through the city. “On our walks, we often ask each other why there’s no water,” she said.
The Desert Scar
The mighty Kern River once roared through the heart of Bakersfield, repeatedly flooding downtown in the late 1800s.
Today, it’s a bone-dry, 10-mile strip of desert that cuts through town like an unsightly scar.
Although seasonal conditions affect the river’s flow, Bakersfield’s dry river problem is man-made: a byproduct of antiquated water laws and backroom politics that have left many residents feeling high and dry.
Around town, the conversation about how to restore the river’s flow goes back generations. Since the 1970s, state and local politicians have promised to run water through the riverbed for aesthetic, recreational and environmental purposes. That hasn’t happened.
Unlike the river itself, the decision about how to allocate its upstream waters is far from cut and dry.
The Kern River, which receives snowmelt from the High Sierra, is a major source of water for eight irrigation districts near Bakersfield, according to the Water Association of Kern County.
From Wild to Tamed
The Kern River runs from Mt. Whitney, through Sequoia National Forest and into the San Joaquin Valley.
Source: Bring Back the Kern
California law grants surface water rights not only to riparian land owners whose properties are located along rivers and streams but based on prior use of water, as well. Since farmers have been using the Kern River for irrigation for more than a century, they continue to have a legal claim to its water.
The North Kern Water District's closest boundary to the river is nearly a dozen miles to the northwest. However, a canal originally built in the 1880s diverts approximately 25 percent of the river's water to the district from upstream of Bakersfield, according to the district's general manager. North Kern and the City of Bakersfield are embroiled in multiple lawsuits about how to divvy up the water.
Speakers at countless water board hearings and bureaucrats at private mediations and, even, ballot measures have vowed to let river water flow through Bakersfield before its diverted for agriculture. All of them have either failed or gotten tangled in the state’s murky water politics. One ongoing dispute about how to reallocate Kern River water forfeited by a local water district has been deliberated by the State Water Resources Control Board since 2007.
People's frustration with how government has handled the river goes hand in hand with a mistrust of politicians in one of California’s most conservative counties. It is precisely this vexed political attitude that country music legend Merle Haggard captures in “Kern River Blues,” the last track he released before his death in 2016.“Somebody stole the water, another politician lied,” he sings in a song about the desiccation of his hometown waterway.
The river has inspired jazz, as well. Bakersfield artist Gregory Porter calls the Kern a “liquid spirit” in the eponymous album which won him a Grammy for best jazz album in 2014."Un re-route the rivers, let the dammed water be,"he sings.
Far beyond music and politics, Bakersfield residents say the parched riverbed has etched its way into their sense of local identity.
“The fact that there’s not a river perpetuates a feeling that our city isn’t a good place to live,” said Jonathan Yates. “It’s like we’re not worthy of a flowing river like you might have if you are in Sacramento.”
Yates and multiple other Bakersfield residents noted in interviews that people frequently call Bakersfield the “armpit of California” and urbandictionary.com indeed says that "the armpit" is an unofficial moniker of the city. The site adds that Bakersfield is also a place "where oil refineries pollute the air, and there are more cows than people."
Lia Mendez left Bakersfield to earn a graduate degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana. She says she has never taken a trip out of state without running into someone who makes fun of her hometown, but fellow Californians are even more unkind to Bakersfield.
“I cannot tell you how many times I have been insulted for being from my hometown,” Mendez said. “When I meet people, their first reaction is to apologize or to make a derogatory remark about where I’m from.”
Mendez loves Bakersfield. So does Yates, a San Joaquin Valley transplant. He grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, did his undergrad in the Midwest, completed graduate studies at UC Davis and traveled to more than 40 countries before settling down in the Central Valley with his wife.
“I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but I don’t think I’m naive when I say I love where I live,” Yates said.
He and Mendez are leaders of Bring Back the Kern, a grassroots movement seeking to convince state and local agencies to restore the flow of the river through Bakersfield.
In less than a year, a Bring Back the Kern petition on change.org asking the State Water Resources Control Board to award Kern River water rights to the City of Bakersfield has garnered more than 5,500 signatures. The city promises it will once and for all allow that water to flow its natural course through town for aesthetic, recreational and environmental purposes.
Agriculture: The river's biggest user
Richard Diamond, the general manager of the North Kern Water District for nearly 15 years, explained, "The Kern River is the lifeblood of the agricultural activities within our district. It also supports some urban development.”
The North Kern Water District encompasses 60,000 acres of irrigated land between Bakersfield in the south and McFarland to the north, Highway 99 to the east and Shafter to the west.
“The district’s biggest crop is almonds and then in smaller numbers there are vineyards, grapes, table grapes and pistachios,” Diamond said. Almond trees are a notoriously thirsty crop. During the state's drought from 2011-2015, a prominent water policy analyst called for a moratorium on planting them.
In a year with average rainfall, the North Kern Water District receives 170,000 acre-feet of Kern River water, or roughly 25 percent of the river's average flow, Diamond says. In wet years, he says the district owns rights to 400,000 acre-feet.
However, Diamond says that about 40 percent of all that water is subject to what he calls “current activities” by the State Water Resources Control Board and the City of Bakersfield. In plain talk, he’s referring to ongoing litigation about how to reallocate 50,000 acre-feet per year of river water forfeited by the Kern Delta Water District in 2007. Kern Delta lost the water right when a judge ruled it didn't use it all.
North Kern’s position is that the state should not reallocate the water in dispute because the river is already overutilized, Diamond says. One argument is that the water right forfeited by Kern Delta in 2007 no longer exists because climate change means the river gets less snowmelt most years and, consequently, has less water to offer.
Nevertheless, the City of Bakersfield believes the water is theirs. City Water Resources Manager Art Chianello declined to comment for this story because of ongoing mediation.
Ironically, it was the North Kern Water District's decision to sue the Kern Delta Water District in 1994 that provoked this conundrum in the first place.
The legal proceedings have gotten so convoluted that a single appellate lawsuit labeled both North Kern — the plaintiff — and Kern Delta — the defendant — as cross-complainants, cross-defendants and appellants. Meanwhile, the City of Bakersfield is listed as a cross-complainant, cross-defendant and respondent.
Amid the layers of legal recriminations, the case has taken surprising, even surreal, turns. In a lengthy 2014 superior court opinion, one judge cited literary passages from the Book of Proverbs, Leonardo da Vinci and other literary icons.
On top of that, the North Kern Water District and the City of Bakersfield are embroiled in another lawsuit about a different swath of Kern River water.
In 1976, the City bought water rights from a natural gas company. To finance that purchase it had to issue bonds. But to pay off those bonds, it had to lease the water to local irrigation districts, including North Kern.
When those leases expired in 2012, North Kern successfully sued the City to force Bakersfield to continue to lease its water. The court ruled that the City’s proposed uses of water — aesthetic, recreational and environmental — were not "beneficial" and, therefore, invalid.
Whose water is it anyway?
Philip Garone, an ecological historian at CSU Stanislaus and author of the book “The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley,” says the court's decision is in line with California’s legal history of dismissing the value of natural ecosystems.
“California water law developed with this notion that irrigated agriculture was the optimal use of land,” Garone said. “There really wasn’t much thought given to protecting wildlife, waterfowl, biodiversity or any of that.”
Conversely, he says, “Wetlands were seen as an impediment to civilization.”
Plus, rivers brought dangers — mosquitos, malaria and, of course, floods. They were to be tamed, canalized, dammed and diverted. They were to be used as tools of development, not as a break from it.
“There was a mythic vision that we would turn California into an agricultural Eden,” Garone said.
Now, of course, we know that ecological services provided by natural rivers such as groundwater recharge are a boon to all aspects of society, the economy, in particular. We also know that "rain does not follow the plow," as many early American climatologists asserted and that water is, in fact, a limited resource.
Nevertheless, the law has not caught up to the modern understanding of our society's relationship to nature.
Meanwhile, the Kern River generally only flows through Bakersfield in name only.
And, the grassroots Bring Back the Kern movement is gathering momentum in spite of the pandemic’s obstacles to organizing.
Bring Back the Kern activists have published op-eds in the Bakersfield Californian, testified in front of the State Water Resources Control Board and installed art exhibits on the riverbed to bring attention to its dryness.
“I hope Bring Back the Kern helps our community come to a wide-reaching consensus that the best use of some of our water is to put it in the river channel,” Yates said.
Consensus is an elusive goal for government these days.
Yet, maybe, just maybe, this citizen-led effort will convince bureaucrats and politicians to accomplish what they have failed to do for decades: Bring back the Kern River.
Or, maybe all their efforts are little more than a drop in the bucket. But with a river this dry, every drop counts.