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Kern's spring melt could feed the river through the summer

Kern River Water Master Mark Mulkay says the river may very well be flowing through Bakersfield for the rest of the year, given the size of the snowpack and expected melt.
kern river through bakersfield
Posted at 7:21 PM, Apr 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-12 00:28:12-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — The California Department of Water Resources gave an update on flood monitoring efforts on Tuesday. Their report showed that the snowpack is at 233 percent of average and Kern County is at 429 percent of average for expected runoff.

Officials are hoping for a long, cool spring so the snowmelt doesn't cause rapid large inflows to a watershed that's already at capacity, but area residents are glad to see the water again.

"It has been so dry for so many summers that it it is so good to see the water back here again," said Bakersfield resident Bill Dorr. Dorr walks down Yokuts Park every day, and says he's happy the amount of snowmelt expected.

Kern River Water Master Mark Mulkay explains why Dorr and others who like seeing the river back in action should be happy about the expected melt.

bill dorr
Bakersfield resident Bill Dorr is glad to see the Kern River flowing through Bakersfield once again.

"There is going to be water in the river for a long time this year, well into the fall. There may very well be water in the river all year," said Mulkay.

The averages DWR is using to make these predictions are based on models using historical data. Officials say these predictive models can change based on the environment. For Kern, DWR says it expects our peak snowmelt will be in May, provided the weather doesn't drastically change.

Organizations like the Flood Operations Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working to manage dams, including Isabella Dam at Lake Isabella, to monitor runoff and to time water releases, according Jenny Fromm, the chief of the Water Management Section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"When there is not enough space available in the reservoir to capture the snowpack, the space needs to be created. You may hear reservoir operators say we're 'digging a hole' in the reservoir. We're not digging an actual hole anywhere, but we're decreasing the storage in the reservoir so that there's space available for the snow melt to come into," said Fromm.

jenny fromm uscoe isabella
Chief of the Water Management Section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jenny Fromm

By creating that space, Fromm explains they're helping mitigate larger releases in the spring and summer.

Mark Mulkay explains the downriver impacts.

"Where you're sitting, you're on the river side of the levee. There may come a time this summer that where you are sitting is flooded, so if it's inside the levies through the City of Bakersfield, areas like Yokuts Park and up around Lake Ming and some of those campgrounds and some others, they may be flooded," said Mulkay. "The bike path. There will certainly be parts of the bike path that go underwater."

However, Mulkay adds, the county is prepared.

"Again, that's inside the levees. They're designed that way to keep water flowing without breaking out and damaging homes and businesses," said Mulkay.

Meanwhile, the corps is taking into consideration current reservoir storage and forecast water demand, which is something Mulkay is also keeping tabs on

"We are looking at somewhere around 1.8 million acre feet of water coming through this reservoir between now and the end of July, and now we have to find homes for it. We're recharging right now, and the irrigation demands are beginning to come up as well," said Mulkay.

mark mulkay
Kern River Water Master Mark Mulkay

Right now, some of the water is staying in the channel to recharge, and some is going towards irrigation.

Mulkay says the Kern basins are full, but the Water Association of Kern is continuing to add water, as that is then expected to refill local aquifers.

April through September are the months of highest water demand. Mulkay says this is when he expects agriculture and irrigation water use to increase significantly as well.

Mulkay also mentioned that if people are going to be out on the river for recreation, to be safe because the water is moving much faster than it seems.

In-Depth: California water from the snowpack


Snow melt is a key source of water for people in California, and the United States Department of Agriculture has compiled some statistics about it.

On Climate Hubs, a USDA research sharing tool, it says the volume of water runoff from snow and rain is about 12.16 million acre feet of water altogether.

The runoff volume from snow alone is 7.21 million acre feet, while the runoff from rain alone is 4.95 million acre feet.

In the San Joaquin Valley 59.3 percent of the water runoff comes from snow alone, making the snowpack a vital resource for the region.