BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Friday morning and into the afternoon, the city and local water storage districts faced off with environmental advocacy groups on how Bakersfield can coexist with the fish and wildlife of the river.
It’s another legal debate on how much water the city can pull from the Kern River, the main source of water for Bakersfield residents and agriculture.
The judge did not make a ruling. There will be a decision in two to three weeks.
Advocates say this is a timely suit, given how full of water and full of wildlife the river is from historic amounts of rain this year.
They said to keep that status quo is why they requested a preliminary injunction.
An attorney for the petitioners told 17 News if there weren’t fish in the water, this lawsuit wouldn’t be a thing. But because there are fish, the city must figure out a way to coexist with them.
They also clarified their goal isn’t to deprive Bakersfield of its water supply.
Friday’s hearing can be boiled down to advocates saying, essentially, hey, we need to take action now in preserving wildlife. It’s the “golden time,” while the typically-bone dry river is full.
Advocates argue, the city must decide how much river water it actually needs and that allowing the entity the entirety of the flow is “absurd.”
Advocacy groups including Bring Back the Kern and the Kern Audubon Society, which educates the public on birds, accuse the city of completely dewatering the Kern River when it diverts water from the body of water.
These are accusations Colin Pearce, the water attorney for Bakersfield, called “false, irresponsible and offensive.”
He noted Bakersfield has already been working to increase water flow but will not do anything at the expense of getting water to Bakersfield’s more than 400,000 residents.
“A while back we had no water, and it was drying up, to where we were losing vegetation and the fish and the birds, and now that we got it back, let’s keep it back, way it should’ve been before,” said Mike Lahorgue, Kern Audubon Society president.
Advocates also emphasized excessive water usage violates public trust law, which allows anyone to use natural resources, such as water.
But the city said it can’t cut off all diversions, as the preliminary injunction requests. That would not only cut off Bakersfield’s water supply but also those of other places the city has contracts with and has to provide certain amounts of water to.
Overall, the city opposed the injunction on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
The two parties pushed those responsibilities on one another, with the petitioners saying it’s the city’s job to determine how much water should be extracted, while the city was claiming the plaintiffs don’t have any guidance on what the city should do, what it should measure, as well as how to measure those.
Outside the courthouse, residents weighed in on the importance of water conservation.
“I remember as a little kid, swimming in Beach Park,” said Bakersfield resident Jose Rangel. “And then the river hasn’t been here a few years. And when I first seen it return this year, I took a video of it … I almost crashed [while driving].”
Rangel said that is why conserving the river is important to him.
“[People] don’t have to care. It’s really easy not to care, it’s really easy to overlook it, live your day-to-day life … This isn’t about us anymore. It’s about the safety, welfare of our children, grandchildren.”
Conservationists also took issue with most of the water being used for agriculture, saying irreparable injury to fish is more consequential than the loss of some agricultural profit.
The plaintiffs also demand the city divert water further downstream. Pearce told 17 News over the phone, because the city does not have a conveyance system, there’s no way to bring that water back upstream. Thus, those in northeast Bakersfield wouldn’t have water.
The city has no rights when it comes to such canal plumbing systems.
While the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued Bakersfield would only need around 24,000-acre feet of water annually from the river, Pearce disagreed, saying the city needs closer to100,000-acre feet per year to distribute water to its entire domestic, municipal supply.
In fact, it’d be closer to 130,000- to 160,000-acre feet of water annually, if you take into account other districts as well.
He further explained water usage is like one’s bank account. When there’s not enough water in the river, the city will pump stored groundwater (which is also from the Kern River). Then in the wet years, the city would divert more river water into groundwater, for future usage.
A major part of the plaintiff argument revolved around California’s Fish and Game Code. This law requires that fish have enough water to pass over, around or through any dam.
Technically, Bakersfield operates weirs — not dams — but because all six weirs are over six feet tall, they’re considered dams, according to the plaintiffs.
The city attorneys, however, maintain such is not true and that the Fish and Game Code has no basis, as Bakersfield doesn’t operate said dams. Pearce added, the city’s weirs have operated for over 100 years.
During the hearing, the plaintiffs also cited expert opinion that the city would only need around 40% of the gross river flow.
City attorneys again disagreed, countering that the mentioned expert had never looked at the Kern River and was basing his estimate off evidence from other rivers up north.
The plaintiffs noted, though, that regardless of whether their proposals are considered feasible, and regardless of whether there’s enough evidence behind their claims, the goal and request, now, is to secure a preliminary injunction, so they can save the river’s wildlife while water is plentiful.
One of the attorneys told 17 News the city is blowing up a simple demand.