Kern River
Kern River between the bluffs with wildflowers and riparian habitat (Photo by Marcia Wolfe)

Marcia Wolfe
Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Marcia Wolfe with her dogs
Marcia Wolfe, Valley Ag Voice Contributor

What do you think of when you hear the words “Kern River”? Immediate to the minds of many is its famous white-water river rafting. Then is it fly fishing, camping, or picnics in the park? Biking the Kern River trail, concert in the city park or concert and art show at Buena Vista Lake? Boating and water skiing/boarding at Lake Ming or Buena Vista Lake? Maybe you are one of those lucky enough to have a home with a view of the water above the riverbank. For others, it is a myriad of opportunities for bird watching, wildlife viewing, wading, swimming, or just playing with family and friends in the park. Maybe you are the one who was making out in the shade of the trees with your partner? Perhaps your volleyball team practices in the Kern River Parkway volleyball courts? Or perhaps you are one of the avid bicyclers who travel the 22 miles of bike trail? Do you walk your dog along the trail with the many joggers? Of more recent times, you might think of the homeless camping out along the river. Perhaps you think of the Kern River in terms of water for helping to generate the carrot, garlic, almond, pistachio and many other crops that spread across the valley floor? Then there are the many thousands (used to be millions) of migrating and resident birds. They rest along it and forage in its waters, the sometimes dry riverbed, or nest in its riparian and rangeland habitats. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Kern River channel and habitat corridor is the only wildlife movement corridor across the valley floor south of Fresno, over 120 miles to the north! Most beneficial is its alluvial and deep groundwaters help sustain many of our drinking water and agricultural water wells too. We all depend upon the Kern River, one way or another.

Starting as melting ice dribbling into small streams from snow patches off the shoulder of Mt. Whitney, the waters of the Kern River take a winding path of over 151 miles from its origins to get here. The river got its name from John C. Fremont, the explorer, to honor his typographer who almost drowned in the river during one of Fremont’s exploratory expeditions. Prior to that, it was called the Rio de San Felipe by the Spanish missionary Francisco Garces back in 1776.

Historically tributary river waters split off upstream of Bakersfield and went in a small channel downslope to form Kern Lake near Arvin. It was a seasonal lake, but in very wet years it would flow to the west, connecting to Buena Vista Lake. The main river waters reached the valley floor, followed a main channel through town and splayed out into many smaller channels and sloughs generally in the direction of Old River Road, until they formed Buena Vista Lake. In very wet years and years of high snowpack in the mountains, the waters of the Kern River would flow north through the sloughs and marshes of Tulare Lake, eventually merging with the San Joaquin River and ultimately flowing into the Delta.

I wrote about the Kern River about five years ago for the July 2015 Kern County Valley Ag Voice paper (“A River Runs Through It Even When It’s Dry”). Since then, members of the Kern River Parkway Foundation, bike clubs, and other interested parties have been working to get both the City of Bakersfield and Kern County to designate all their owned lands alongside the river in the Kern River Parkway. Doing so would require that City and County personnel collaborate to manage such lands. It also could be possible for private landowners to designate their own properties to be included or to place conservation easements upon them for protection and perhaps even enhance them. Grants are often available for the enhancement of riparian habitats along natural drainages. Such habitat improvements could be used to help enhance groundwater recharge in and adjacent to the Kern River.

Wake up everyone! Get on the Kern River bandwagon! The Kern River is important to all of us. It’s important for taking care of the environment and everything that encompasses: business, agriculture, water management, air-cleaning vegetation. It all relates to our lives. We all need to work to help keep it safe, improve groundwater recharge, clean up water quality, and water recharge. That can be done through conserving and enhancing the wildlife habitats, eliminating trash and degradation, and improving the bird nesting habitats and forage. Additionally, we can plant trees and shrubs to replace those lost in the drought.

More action should be taken. Demand environmental education for children and adults showing the need to care about the land. This can help spread the knowledge of the adverse effects of litter and the use of pesticides and herbicides that can contaminate our drinking water. Last week two men picked up a small area in Hart Park, and in 15 minutes they had 100 pounds of trash. We should not need to pay someone to pick up trash that never should have been thrown or dropped there in the first place. That money could be going to a myriad of things: additional picnic tables, interpretive signage to educate about the Kern River and its habitats, the bike path extension, new walking trails, or even a ranger-naturalist to help educate visitors and parkway users about the Kern River. Encourage your city council member, Kern County supervisor, the mayor, Parks and Recreation Department, and Public Works Department. Encourage everyone to help improve and take care of the Kern River Parkway by adding to it and developing a budget and tasks to manage it. Join a bike club, join the Kern River Parkway Foundation, make a new river club surrounding your favorite activity or a need of the Kern River. Taking care of the Kern River and its Parkway is not really an optional thing. You all who love the Kern River, where are you? Get busy!