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Several entities battle over water rights in Kern County

Kern River December 10, 2021
Kern River December 10, 2021
Posted at 3:40 PM, Dec 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-10 22:19:57-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — It's an issue other communities have faced, who owns the natural resources in the area. In Kern County, the resource battle is over water and several local entities have been fighting over who gets it for over a decade now.

This battle is because whoever has the water rights is allowed to choose how to use and divert water from water sources, which in this case is the Kern River. This impacts domestic use, irrigation, recreation, stock watering just to list a few.

This week, the state water board has taken up the case.

In part of the Kern River that runs through Bakersfield, there’s nothing more than sand and some brush. While some believe there is a way to bring water back to the river others argue that is just not viable.

The Kern River once ran from the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range through the Southern San Joaquin Valley into the City of Bakersfield.

“I would argue that our water resources have been really mismanaged, under an old model of take it and run with it. Like Americans have always seemed to do because it has been so plentiful, it is not plentiful anymore,” Bill Cooper, Bring Back the Kern Committee, co-founder Kern River Parkway Foundation.

The take it and run model as Cooper called it is a set of agreements created by the state through the decades that list how the storage and distribution of the Kern River water is allocated, also known as the law of the river.
Cooper argued that these agreements were created so long ago, with the earliest version set in the 1800s.

“We just think that is getting ready to change or is changing and we hope the state recognizes the public trust issues and realizes water as a public resource and has to be managed for everybody,” said Cooper.

Currently, bring back the Kern and the Kern River Parkway Foundation wants the state to give the over 50,000-acre-feet of Kern River water in limbo, to the city of Bakersfield.

The body of water in question was removed from the management of the Kern Delta Water District in 2007. After the North Kern Water Storage District sued them over it, claiming the delta did not need the water as they had not used it in five years.

The courts agreed with that but did not rule on who had jurisdiction over the water rights.


Six entities are fighting over the water rights:

North Kern Water Storage District and the City of Shafter are working together.

Entities individually fighting for the rights include:

  • Buena Vista Water Storage District
  • Kern Water Bank Authority
  • Kern County water agency
  • Rosedale Rio Bravo Water Storage District
  • City of Bakersfield

“The city wants to run the water down the river, they want to have their water available for their people, where it would benefit the people and it will serve as a drinking water supply,” said Colin Pearce, an attorney with law firm Duane Morris, outside special water counsel to City of Bakersfield.

While the attorney for Bakersfield said the fight is for residents the North Kern Water District manager said the law is clear and running it down Bakersfield is not viable.

“That water for many years, decades now has been used to irrigate farmland, helps support our economy, drinking water. Supports local business,” said David Hampton general manager, North Kern Water Storage District.

As part of their fight for water rights, North Kern Water Storage District created a new group called the Sustainable Kern River Coalition made up of seven other entities.

“It is an organization that provides a platform for Kern River water users to come together and work through any differences and collaborate on finding win-win solutions,” said Hampton.

However, the City of Bakersfield said the solution would be to share the water and argue the north water district is not on board with that plan.

“The water in the river is still available for these corporations, it just cost them a little bit more money to pump it out. So, this is not about sustainable, it is not about the environment, it is about money,” said Pearce.

But, Gabriel Gonzalez, the manager for the City of Shafter and city representative in the Sustainable Kern River Coalition argues it is about much more than money. He says he has seen this issue take the jobs of many farm workers in other areas of the Central Valley and does not want that to happen here.

"If farmers aren’t able to support their crops and their fields with sufficient water, then that means that our residents within our community will have a difficult time being employed locally. That would require them to have to commute to outside the area, whether that is Arvin, Tulare County or Fresno County to look for the jobs," said Gabriel Gonzalez, Shafter City Manager

Meanwhile, the City of Bakersfield argues that if the North Kern Water Storage District does keep the water, it will only benefits the large companies that have farmland in that area.

"The water issue is economic and it impacts these corporations economically and they want to get the water for free or at minimal unrealistic costs. It just cost them a little more money to pump the water that is all it is, everybody can still have jobs, there will still be plenty of jobs plenty of agriculture. It is just going to cut a little into the profits of these private corporations," said Pearce

The state says they expect the case to go well into 2022.