Kern River

By Marcia Wolfe Biology/Ecology Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

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

The other day, I was sitting in the backyard eating lunch. The sun felt so good–not hot, sweaty, or irritating but warm and cozy. A scrub jay was screeching periodically from somewhere in the mulberry tree. Unless he moves, I can never find him, and he is not a small bird. The black phoebe was hunting insects from atop of the vines on the grape arbor. The vines still appear to be dormant. I could not see any green leaf bud getting ready to open at all and its almost March 15, which is about when it typically stops raining.

A huge yellow swallowtail butterfly came flickering across the back yard, then across the pool and up into the pine tree somewhere. But instead of two or three, like there usually are, there was only one. Good heavens, I imagine you read in the paper or otherwise heard on the news recently that Bakersfield hasn’t had so little precipitation (rainfall) in February since 1893. It is dry here again. I think it was 1985 when I moved here. Then the average annual rainfall was, and still is, about 5.5-6.5 inches. Generally, the last rain of the growing season was about March 15, after that we were lucky to get anything. They say we are in a drought–that we are. They say climate is changing. Yes, it always has been changing. But apparently our pollution exhaust is speeding up the rate of change. Or maybe, as no one was around to write about a seeming increase in the rate of change of the climate 30,000 years ago. Interestingly, that is when humans were first thought to have arrived on the North American continent. Apparently, that was before most of the continent was covered with ice and snow, in a long cold period called the Last Glacial Maximum, which melted away between 19,000 and 26,000 years ago.

I now am beginning to wonder if we are not only facing a change in the rate of climate factors, but perhaps also in the timing of the seasons? Certainly, they have changed since 30,000 years ago. There is so much we do not know and are just now discovering with new research techniques.

All this came up in a discussion with my sister and her husband who were visiting last weekend from Tucson, Arizona. We took some lunch and went to the Park at River Walk. We had our lunches and wanted to sit in the sun and munch. When my brother-in-law started to open his food sack after sitting down on a park bench, we were faced with an actual stampede of coots from across the pond- about 40-60 of them, coming from clear across the pond! They had been lying in the grass, jumped up, ran down the slope to the pond, jumped in and swam across and came up on the bank near where we were sitting. And they sat around us like my dogs do when I eat. It was hilarious! And some ran right up to us, like dogs begging for food. One pecked the napkin I held in my hand and pecked my knee! The coots weren’t alone. There were large Canada geese, a tall snowy egret, pairs of mallards, barnyard ducks (type undecipherable but white and cream colored). Also, there was a small group of pairs of Muscovy ducks from Central America and Mexico (at least that is where they originated). They are quite large, with the males weighing 12-15 pounds! Muscovy ducks are very strange looking with a lot of red on their heads and not just the males. Most of the feathers are black, white or both but seem highly variable in pattern.

To see the river was one of the main reasons we came to the park. We viewed across the dikes on the south side clear to the northern dike. Of course, not a drop of water was flowing in the river. Many of the cottonwood trees have died or are in a deteriorated condition from inadequate water. No fish, obviously, but a number of egrets were hunting rodents and lizards in the river bottom.

The Kern River is the only river we have in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Naturally, it would carry its flow all the way from near the top of Mt. Whitney to the San Joaquin River west of Fresno, where it eventually ends up in the San Francisco Bay. Along its way there, it recharges both shallow alluvial and deep groundwater aquifers. It nourishes the riparian habitats, including cottonwoods and willow woodlands and primary and secondary floodplain vegetation. If it’s not diked so tight and steep, water is not allowed to do that. The habitats provide bird nesting and resting locations for those that help control insects, which then helps to protect humans, wildlife, and agricultural crops. They also provide resting for foraging habitat for migratory birds of all types.

Everyone can help enhance the river. You can start by not throwing your trash on the ground. Teach your kids and friends to not throw things on the ground. So many things contain toxins that are released when they are degraded by the soil, air, or water. These toxins can poison invertebrates that birds live on. They can make our drinking water toxic, which often can lead to humans and wildlife getting cancers or other illnesses. The same thing can occur with the use of certain pesticides and herbicides. Remember, over the last 50 years, we have lost 3 billion birds just in North America! If we had no birds, the entire world would wake up knee deep in dead insects overnight (Dr. Gordon Alcorn, personal communication 1964).

Planting the primary and secondary floodplain with native species helps to enhance groundwater recharge. Planting native species also helps to minimize the numbers of California ground squirrels which can be bothersome to adjacent agricultural crops. That is based upon the positive results identified by our revegetation test plots along canal rights-of-way.

Only your imagination is the limit as to what and how to do things to help the river. When you do something to help the river, you help everything in the environment. All we need to do to make a positive difference is to get together and do it!

Take a look at a few ideas to get started:

Organize a river cleanup project by your club to help improve its appearance and safety. Better than that, encourage and help educate adults and children about tossing things on the ground!

Get your scout troops to do river habitat enhancement projects by planting native species, installing bird nest boxes.

Have your class design a nature trail. Not only does one learn by doing that, but then those who use it also learn. It will help teach everyone about the river.

Take your school class on a nature hike and teach them about the river ecology so they learn to want to help take care of the river.

Put a Conservation Easement over your property if you own land along the river and want to help protect it or you could set up a preserve of some type.

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