Kern River flows through Bakersfield again

Water is flowing down the Kern River in Bakersfield for the first time in many years, thanks to the combination of abundant snowmelt and an injunction preventing water diversions from drying up the river.

Record runoff from last winter’s historic snowpack in the Sierra Nevada brought enough water back to the riverbed that the river flowed through the city instead of drying out upstream of Bakersfield, as it has for most of the last 70 years. And with the water came fish, and echoes of the Mono Lake story.

Last November, a Kern County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring 40% of the Kern River’s natural runoff to remain in the river to keep the fish healthy and restore the Lower Kern River’s Public Trust resources. The injunction was based on Fish & Game Code 5937, which states, “The owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times … to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.”

This exciting development for the Kern River is similar to what happened along Rush Creek, Mono Lake’s largest tributary. In the early 1980s, thanks to wet winters and high runoff, fish were swept over the spillway of Grant Lake Reservoir and into lower Rush Creek, where they thrived for the first time since the stream was dried up by DWP some 40 years before. Starting in 1984 temporary restraining orders and injunctions, using the very same Fish & Game code, were issued to keep water flowing in Rush Creek and later Lee Vining Creek for the benefit of the fish population.

Protection for fish populations in the Mono Basin was ultimately made permanent with court and State Water Board decisions that enforced Fish & Game Code 5937; that precedent was subsequently used to restore flows in both the San Joaquin River and now the Kern River. While legal wrangling continues in Bakersfield, recently the judge affirmed that the plaintiffs can use the Public Trust doctrine and Fish & Game codes as they persist in their efforts to keep water in the Kern River.

This post was also published as an article in the Winter & Spring 2024 Mono Lake Newsletter. Top photo courtesy of Bring Back the Kern.