By: Marcia Wolfe, Valley Ag Voice
The headwaters of the Kern River originate from snowmelt that flows into Lake South America on high rocky alpine slopesnorth and west of Mount Whitney. It wends its way south through the western side of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains to Kernville. It fills Isabella Lake and enters the Kern River Canyon, winding and cutting its way through and roaring around the rocks to the southern floor of the San Joaquin Valley. As the foothills open, the river channel loosens up and meanders alternatively north and south, with the channel concomitantly widening compared to its width in the canyon. Before being channelized with dikes to protect the city and farmlands from flooding, numerous small sloughs skirted off the river channel, to return. The river meandered into Kern and Buena Vista Lakesthrough multiple small channels and sloughs. There the waters turned north to run through the edges of oil fields on the west side of the valley floor, and then Buena Vista Slough through a sand ridge into Tulare Lake, north through what is now the Tule Elk Reserve. Eventually, waters of the Tule River and other creeks from the western side of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains also drained into the lake. From there it charged further northward all the way through Tule swamps and eventually into the Fresno Slough, from which it finally entered the San Joaquin River. It was quite a trek. About 165 miles from Mount Whitney and down the canyon to Bakersfield, and then more than another 159 miles to Fresno Slough and the San Joaquin River. A map made by explorers in 1850, shows the original Kern River drainage.
Of course, today the River no longer runs natural and wild its entire original distance. Of its entire channel length, a relatively small portion of the Kern River passes through Bakersfield. However, in spite of that, the benefits that are bestowed upon us from the river’s presence are immeasurable! They range from complicated hydrological values for surface water and alluvial and critical deep groundwater aquifer recharge,both the human and financial values of the agricultural production of foods like carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, fruits, nuts and spices like garlic and onions, and fibers, such as cotton and wool, to the multitude of simple, yet positive and relaxing,psychological benefits of its surrounding beauty. The ever-changing colors during the day and evening sunset, the smell of spring, the different smell of fall, the quiet trickle and rush of water passing across willow branches hanging in the water, the silence when there is no flow, the different species of birds singing and calling are constantly evolving during each day and the seasons.
The river channel and associated riparian cattail and wetland habitats and the upland habitats of willow trees, cottonwoods, sedges and grasses alongside the river floodplains and adjacent uplands create the only contiguous wildlife movement and habitat corridor across the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno, over 125 miles to the north. The values of the river corridor to all wildlife, both resident species who live in its habitats and migratory species who rest and forage on their trips north and south is invaluable. The river habitats are also used by endangered species like the San Joaquin kit fox, the Nelsons or San Joaquin antelope squirrel, eagles and hawks and other California species of concern, like the western spadefoot toad,and other species too numerous to list here. We volunteer environmental education for underprivileged schools in small classes alongside the Kern River at the Panorama Preserve. When our lives depend upon a healthy environment, it’s almost frightening to realize how little our children seem know orare aware of about the values of the environment, the outdoors and its care and conservation today!
Rafting, canoeing, swimming, snorkeling and fishing are also activities enabled by the river when there is water. But water is not needed for all activities. There is always eating lunch, relaxing, talking with friends or simply reading a book (or your phone these days) in the shade of a tree.
The bike trail along the river goes from Hart Park to Enos Lane! It’s 3 times as long as the bike trail along the San Joaquin River in Fresno! Beginning bikers, exercisers, families, friends, and those practicing for marathons ride the trail everyday. The Kern River Parkway includes the stretch of the river and city lands from Manor Drive to the Stockdale Highway Bridge. Plans are underway to extend the Parkway Plan to include the area east around Lake Ming. The Kern River Parkway Foundation and others also are pursuing the potential to include the county lands in the Kern River Parkway from the Stockdale Bridge to the west to at least Enos Lane, or maybe Buena Vista Lake. The precise ending point is still under study. The Parkway also includes other recreational areas, such as picnic sites, fishing sites, exercise areas and volleyball areas.
Part of the purpose of the Parkway Plan is to enhance the river corridor habitats, with thousands of new trees having already been planted by dozens of volunteers. Since the drought, with the death of many of the cottonwood trees from the resulting drop in groundwater, a lot more trees need to be planted, and proper maintenance needs to be conducted, which costs money. Upland shrubs more resistant to changes in groundwater table also could be planted on the secondary floodplains.But leave the dead trees as even they have wildlife value for cover and nesting. They also help new plants and trees germinate and become established. Boy Scouts and other volunteers have made and installed wood duck houses and bat houses along the river corridor. A million (figuratively speaking) opportunities to help enhance and improve the riverand its habitats exist on all fronts.
Opportunities for disseminating interpretive information are being evaluated. This could include nature trails, or plaques on stones with natural history, habitat and wildlife information. The river brings us so many benefits, I have only begun to brush the surface as they are so numerous. But everyone needs to get on the band wagon to help take care of the river and its environment. If you have a picnic, and carry things in, carry them out. When everyone takes care of their own debris, maintenance costs less. Use a trash can; don’t throw your garbage on the ground! It’s too simple. At the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia, “a carry it in/carry it out” campaign resulted in a spectacular 90% decrease in solid waste. Just imagine how much money that could save us. That money could be spent on other improvements, interpretive naturalists, or habitat enhancements and restoration of trees, shrubs and native wildflowers and grasses, benches along the trail and so many other things.
So, help take care of our Kern River, its treasures are too numerous to count and too valuable to discount.