Kern Island Canal headgate
Kern Island Canal headgate

By Mike McCoy
Executive Director, Kern County Museum

Mike McCoy
Mike McCoy Executive Director, Kern County Museum

The story of agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley is the story of water. When the very first visitors came through the valley the first reports were not good. The valley was described as an endless swamp broken up by tule reed islands and stretches of trees. The Sierra Nevada snow melt made its annual run from the high elevations down to the valley where the water was held in shallow lakes and riparian wetlands. The swampy land also hosted hordes of mosquitos with malaria and yellow fever.

The new American settlers, however, saw the opportunity to build extensive ranches, farms, and towns. They knew the secret to creating order from this chaos was taming the rivers that roared out of the Sierras. The statue of Colonel Thomas Baker at Bakersfield’s City Hall captures him in the pose of an engineer. He is holding a drawing compass over a set of survey plans and laying out the very first canals in Kern County. Baker began taking water from the Kern River beginning in 1864 in the development of the Kern Island Canal. It was Baker and several other engineers and land speculators that realized that creating a network of canals was the best way to reclaim the valley’s land for agricultural use.

Pioneer Canal

The Kern Island Canal was the first major canal in the county. The canal starts at a diversion point at the foot of the bluffs near Manor Street in North Bakersfield just south of Gordon’s Ferry. It rolls along next to Union Avenue and at the Cross-Town Freeway it moves west. You can still see the old canal at Mill Creek Park and Central Park. The canal continues south to Brundage Lane where it splits into three branches.

In the Mill Creek portion, the canal was dug with the famous Souther Ditch Plow. It is capable of cutting a furrow three to four feet deep and six feet wide. The plow, one of the largest in the world, was pulled by 40 oxen and weighed 1,500 pounds. After being used a few times, engineers decided the plow was more trouble than it was worth, and it was abandoned. Fully restored, the plow is now on exhibit at the Kern County Museum in the Rosedale Barn.

As the valley’s farmland and pastures began to take shape in the 1870s due to the development of other new canals such as the Calloway and Pioneer. As new canals were built and small communities began to spring up on the new land, the ancient deltas and riparian woodlands dried up and disappeared. Water became scarce and a valuable commodity. The 1870s also were a time of alternating drought and flooding. Additionally, it was a time of lawsuits and litigation over water rights.

Souther Ditch Plow that now resides at the Kern County Museum

A long-sustained drought period in the 1920s moved the state government to develop a plan for the construction of the Friant Dam and the Friant-Kern Canal to bring the San Joaquin River to the southern valley. The Central Valley Project was developed in the 1930s as a federal project for an intelligent integration of dams and canals that supported agriculture in the Central Valley. The centerpiece for the entire vision of water utilization was the Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River which was the storage reservoir for the valley. Water was a powerful force in California and the basis for much debate and legislative action.

For Kern County, the Central Valley Project insured water for the south valley. This was reinforced by the Isabella Dam on the Kern River. Before the Kern River was tamed by the dam and the Army Corps of Engineers, Bakersfield was often flooded. The dam also allowed for the expansion of agriculture on the West side of the valley. The State Water Project gave Kern County a final boost in the 1950s where water from Northern California was moved to the south valley and then lifted over the mountains to dry Los Angeles.

The new debate is now over whether the pioneers went too far in taming the rivers and eliminating the valley’s natural topography in favor of agriculture. Again, this is still being litigated in the courts. One does have to marvel, however, when driving through the valley and seeing the network of canals and levees. It is amazing to know that all of the development in the valley started with an engineer like Thomas Baker taking a drawing compass and pencil and drawing a series of lines on a piece of paper.

(Thank you to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army corps of Engineers for the background information.)