KERNVILLE, Calif. — On Tuesday Jan. 30, a sixteen mile stretch of North Fork of the Kern River below the Fairview Dam would naturally have had roughly 400 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water flowing through it. However, the stretch only had a fraction of that due the diversion of water at Fairview Dam, which fed a majority of the water into a flume that would carry it to the Kern River No. 3 Hydroelectric Project (KR3) in Kernville.
Now, the relicensing process for that project is underway, and a group of local advocates are hoping to make their voices heard during the lengthy process.
“I view this almost as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Chris Brown, owner of White Water Voyages, one of three outfitters in the Kern River Valley.
The last time KR3 was relicensed was roughly 30 years ago. This next relicensing will determine how the powerhouse functions for the next 40 years. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commision is the agency responsible for overseeing and relicensing this project.
“We have an opportunity now to look at what's really going to be the case in 2064,” Brown said.
The last agreement allowed up to 600 CFS of water for the KR3 powerhouse to be diverted at the Fairview Dam, and fed into a flume that runs for sixteen miles down to the KR3 powerhouse, where it is eventually put back into the North Fork of the Kern River.
Brown and a group named the Kern River Boaters are advocating to reduce the amount of water the Fairview Dam can redirect to keep it in the river for those sixteen miles.
“Today, if they weren’t taking water, it would be pretty much a perfect flow for my family,” said a concerned local Geno Hacker.
Another prong of their argument is the impact the reduction in flows have on the environment, saying it hurts fish populations.
“It completely destroys and interrupts the natural ecosystem,” said local resident Scott Toland, “And it completely destroys many many days of recreational use and boating for this section of the river.”
On Tuesday, according to data provided by SoCal Edison showed the flow of the river above the dam was roughly 420 CFS, below it around 85 CFS.
Advocates say the hydroelectric power plant is no longer a significant source of energy for the Kern River Valley, and reducing its flow of water would not significantly impact power supply or prices in the Kern River Valley.
“The lionshare of the electricity KR3 generates is during the spring snowmelt, when demand in the state for energy is low and there is a glut of solar energy,” said Brett Duxberry, one of the Directors of Kern River Boaters.
Kern River Boaters have been active during the relicensing process, which is currently in its pre-filing process. Duxberry officially providing comment to the Initial Study Report published by SoCal Edison last October as part of the relicensing process.
Duxberry and the Kern River Boaters are working on a proposal that advocates for a limit on the ability of the KR3 project to divert water from the river during daylight hours. Duxberry says during these hours solar generation is high and demand for energy is low. As part of this plan, when the sun goes down, and people’s ability to recreate on the river also goes down, the project could then take more water.
An email from Gabriela Ornelas, Spokesperson for SoCal Edison stated:
“We are seeking to renew our FERC license to continue operating the Kern River No. 3 Hydroelectric Project consistent with current operations, while we balance power generation with resource protection and public interests.
At this point in the FERC relicensing process, we are evaluating resource data and information that will be used to support a larger environmental analysis of project operations, with the goal of developing protection, mitigation and enhancement (PM&E) measures.”
The relicensing process takes years. The current license for KR3 expires on November 30, 2026. However, SoCal Edison’s license application is due November 11, 2024.
SoCal Edison is planning to conduct more studies this spring and summer, the results of which will be published in their Updated Study Report which is due to be filed with FERC by October 11, 2024.
SoCal Edison is currently seeking input from those who use this stretch of the river for recreation.
You can take their survey here.
For those like Brown, it’s simple, more water in the river means more benefits to the Kern River Valley.
“When there’s water in the river people come. When there isn’t water in the river people don’t come and businesses suffer.”
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