Kern River bed
Kern River bed. (Photo: SustainableKernRiver.org)

By Melissa A. Nagel, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag  Voice

Kern River Photo: SustainableKernRiver.org

The fight for water in Kern County is a long-standing one that traces back to the mid-1800s when water from the Kern River was diverted for the first time. Fast-forward to today and not much has changed. At the core of the water issue is the debate to either let water flow freely through the Kern River in Bakersfield, or uphold the water rights that are already in place to ensure that water goes to the customers, businesses, and ag industries that need it most. The Sustainable Kern River Coalition was established recently to fight for the latter and bring awareness to this issue. 

The Sustainable Kern River Coalition is apprised of concerned citizens, businesses, and agricultural industries here in Kern County who are taking a stand to make sure that the public is informed of the potential negative impacts that diverting water to once again fill the Kern River running through Bakersfield will have on everyone. The Coalition acknowledges that while it would be wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to see water flowing in Bakersfield’s riverbeds as it used to years ago, it just is not feasible for our county. Doing so would pull from the water levels in Lake Isabella, affecting the wildlife and recreational industry, as well as increase the need for groundwater pumping, and put an even larger strain on communities who are already being affected by limited water availability. 

In turn, the Sustainable Kern River Coalition suggests that we maintain a system similar to the one that is in place now. David Hampton, one of the Coalition’s primary founders, states “We helped form the Sustainable Kern River Coalition because the fact is, there’s not enough water to go around.” The current system allows water to flow freely through the Kern River in Bakersfield during “wet” years, or rather years where we experience favorable rainfall and a decrease in drought situations. On the flip side, the system would reserve water flow in “dry” years where Kern County is experiencing severe drought, much like we have currently been in for the past several years. 

While the Coalition is still in the early stages of development, it has garnered major support from organizations such as the North Kern Water Storage District, Sierra South, Inc. of Kernville, DM Camp & Sons, the Kern County Black Chamber of Commerce, as well as the cities of Shafter and Wasco. All members of the Coalition “…are committed to protecting and maintaining the rights and access to Kern River water that support the families, farmers, small businesses and disadvantaged communities who are the backbone of Kern County’s economy.” (Sustainable Kern, 2021) 

In simple terms, the Sustainable Kern River Coalition will aid in the protection of historical water rights and economic revenue generated by recreation and agriculture here in Kern County in direct relation to the Kern River. The goal is simple, to continue to maintain Kern’s water supply responsibly and ensure that the water goes to the people, communities, businesses, and agriculture who need it the most first. As the Coalition continues to grow and garner support from the community, there has been some push back by activists on the other side of this issue. Some believe that it would be better to let the water flow and help to restore Bakersfield’s image to what it was years ago. The Sustainable Kern River Coalition is not against that initiative, however, they realize that such aspirations must be managed for the good of the hard-working communities that Kern County is made up of. 

If you would like to learn more about the Sustainable Kern River Coalition or are interested in joining, please visit www.sustainablekernriver.org for more information.