BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — : The Lower Kern River is one of the country’s most imperiled waterways, or so says the environmental nonprofit organization American Rivers, which has just released its annual report, America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2022. 

The Lower Kern – that is, the section west of the entrance to the Kern River Canyon – is what might  be called a lifeless eyesore. At least that’s what American Rivers calls the Lower Kern, which comes in at Np. 7 on its list of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers, right between the polluted Mississippi River and Arizona’s overextended San Pedro River.

 American Rivers says excessive water withdrawals hinder community access and recreation, as well as fish and wildlife habitat. Decades of water diversions for agriculture have dried up the river’s westernmost 25 miles, according to the report.

Bakersfield’s Kelly Damian, local spokeswoman for the organization, says the dry riverbed is, among other negatives, an attractive nuisance.

“You have a real eyesore here in the middle of town,” she said. “and we’ve seen this become a real derelict space … a lot of encampments, a lot of trash in the riverbed.”

And a lot of missed opportunities to recharge the area’s declining groundwater storage, which contributes to our supply of municipal drinking water. At many locations throughout the city, it is obvious — a barren riverbed right next to a concrete lined canal full of water.

“The problem with that, although it’s a very efficient system, as you can see back here, it’s completely dried out our ecosystem,” Damian said. “Not a lot of thought has been given to where the water needs to go first, before it gets diverted for business and for municipalities.”

What can be done about it? The cooperation of all involved parties, including agricultural interests, which are already dealing with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,  which limits their share of water for farming. It all starts, river proponents say, with conversation.

“We need to switch to a more cooperative mindset,” Damian said, “where water rights holders get their water, businesses get their water, municipalities get their water, but the community also has a voice in this decision.”

Is that even possible? Mark Mulkay, the area’s water master, tells KGET he’s heard these arguments before and his response is the same. River apportionment is based on water rights that have been in place for more than 100 years, and running water down the river channel would result in additional groundwater pumping, which would just exacerbate the situation.

American Rivers maintains that, by some estimates, allowing 15 to 20 percent of the Kern’s average flow to stay in the river year-round would support a restored and flowing river. Right now, no water is earmarked for that purpose. That, American Rivers says, needs to change.

When it’s full and flowing, the Lower Kern can feel like the city’s aesthetic blood supply. When it’s empty and dry – well, the city takes on that demeanor as well.