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Officials urge Kern River visitors to take safety seriously this year

With this year's 300 percent snowpack melting into the river, the water is expected to be higher, faster, and colder than it has been in several years.
killer kern signs
Posted at 8:00 PM, Apr 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-28 23:49:19-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — As temperatures rise, you may be tempted to seek refuge from the heat in a body of water somewhere in Kern County. This year, county officials are urging residents to choose a body of water other than the Kern River if possible, and to exercise extreme caution when playing in or around the river.

"This year, there is heightened concern because there are higher water levels than we've had in a lot of years," said Kern County Sheriff's Public Information Officer Lori Meza.

This year's high snowpack means the river will be running higher, and for longer. That high river flow creates extra dangers for everyone, but especially children.

"Don't ever leave your children unattended if you are even close to any water, especially in the river. Make sure that your children are just going to stay on the edge," Meza said.

Officials say it's also important to never go to the river alone, and to be aware of where you'll be able to pick up a reliable cellphone signal for service. Kern River Conservancy Executive Director Gary Ananian says the last situation you want to be in is having to abandon someone you've seen slip underwater just to call 911.

Ananian adds that the Kern River can be dangerous even in parts that may seem like they pose no threat.

gary ananian
Kern River Conservancy Executive Director Gary Ananian

"Just being in the water up to your shins is still dangerous," said Ananian. "There's a lot of heavy currents that you don't see on the surface. It might look calm, but that doesn't mean you aren't going to slip in."

Ananian also points out that it's not just the river that poses a danger this year.

"There's still a lot of damage from the flood, and a lot of the shores and a lot of the riverbank is still unstable. We were just out there yesterday and I lost my footing walking on something I thought was flat," said Ananian.

Even for experienced swimmers, Ananian says it's important not to take the Kern River lightly. The nickname "Killer Kern" is well deserved.

"Well, you can swim. You were trained to swim in a swimming pool, not in class 5 whitewater, and the temperature of the water alone, it's all snowmelt. It's freezing cold water, and that alone throws your body into shock and gets you disoriented," said Ananian.

One safe way to enjoy the river and its extra high flows is to contact a permitted white water rafting company.

"The safest way and the number 1 way, and probably the best way to enjoy the Kern River is going through a permitted outfitter on the Kern River," said Ananian.

Meza says the Kern County Sheriff's Office also wants to remind residents to stay vigilant around the river.

"Substance or alcohol use is never a good idea, and it's especially a bad idea near the water," said Meza. "Anytime you are inhibiting your sense or inhibiting your ability to think clearly, you put yourself in a higher risk category."

A life vest is also an important water safety tool, according to Meza.

lori meza
KCSO Public Information Officer Lori Meza

"If you are going to be near the water, near the river, make sure that you are wearing a life vest. A life vest is added protection, but it does not save your life necessarily. It can help, though," said Meza. "Mainly, our biggest message is Stay out, Stay alive."


If you are buying a life jacket to go into the river, it's important to know what sort of jacket to buy. It's one of the main pieces of gear that can help keep you and your family safe while visiting the Kern River or any other body of water.

There is no state law requiring anyone to wear a life jacket while on the river, only when riding in a canoe, kayak, or river rafting boat. However, it is still highly recommended by almost all state and local officials to wear a life jacket near the water whether you're on a boat or not.

Free life jacket rentals are available for pre-reservation from Kern River Outfitters in Wofford Heights. Call (760) 376-3370 to reserve life jackets.

According to Kern River Conservancy Executive Director Gary Ananian, one of the issues he sees among visitors to the river is that they bring inadequate life jackets.

"The biggest thing we see here is people who walk into a Walmart or Target and buy, like, a $20 dollar life jacket. Those are not whitewater jackets. Those jackets are made for the swimming pool," said Ananian.

According to Ananian, the kind of life jackets that are needed for people visiting the Kern River are available to buy at sporting goods stores in town, but they can be expensive. That's why Kern River Outfitters rents exactly those types of life jackets.

"They rent jackets out for people that are just coming for the day that don't want to invest in a $200 dollar life jacket. They can come and rent one out for a few dollars and just go use it for the day," said Ananian.

The California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways says the most important thing about wearing a life jacket is making sure it fits properly. There are precautions you can take to ensure a proper fit before you hit the water.

Raise your arms straight up over your head while wearing your life jacket and then ask a friend to grab the tops of the arm openings and gently pull the jacket upwards. If there is excess room above the openings and the jacket rides up over your chin or face, it does not fit properly.