BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The latest court decision in a legal effort to keep the Kern River flowing has both advocates and the City of Bakersfield hopeful.
Attorneys on both sides told 17 News they now have a temporary framework on distributing water to Bakersfield residents, river wildlife and the local agriculture scene. But the city’s water needs will come first, they explained.
“It’s for an interim flow regime to basically set up what the river flows are going to be between now and whenever the lawsuit ends,” said Adam Keats, an attorney for some of the river and wildlife advocates. He noted on the side, “There was surprisingly very little disagreement [with the City attorneys] about the plan.”
On Tuesday, Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp ruled 40% of the river’s flow always must remain in the river. This decision follows Pulskamp’s granting of a preliminary injunction late last month, in which he mandated the defendants and plaintiffs to determine appropriate river flow levels.
Attorney Keats explained the number came after discussions with the team’s river scientists. While the Bakersfield City Council had the option to appeal the decision, it chose not to, allowing its attorneys to pursue talks to the plaintiffs.
“The judge specifically told the city not to divert water out of the river without leaving enough water in the river to benefit the fish,” said Bakersfield Water Attorney Colin Pearce.
Pearce said 40% seemed a reasonable compromise to do just that.
“The judge did make it very clear that this does not impact the city’s water supply,” Pearce continued. “He recognized the city’s demand, and he assured the city that we would have sufficient protection and no adverse impacts on our water supply.”
Pearce stated the city initially opposed the injunction, as it was “concerned about negative impacts in the city’s water supply…” and said, “We recognize that the people in the city of Bakersfield like water in the river, want water in the river. We’re working to accommodate that.”
Pearce said the next steps include continuing talks with the other side and establishing a more concrete plan on managing river water flow. The attorneys joined for a phone call earlier Tuesday afternoon. The next court date has not yet been set.
“To find the right balance, frankly, between environmental needs, the needs of the people who want more water in the river, the needs of the drinking water and the water supply needs of the city, and the needs of the agricultural districts because we recognize the importance of agriculture to political economy,” Pearce added on his outlook on the future.
Led by local citizen advocacy group Bring Back the Kern and five others, this lawsuit attempts to regulate the city’s water usage to protect river wildlife.
“It only works though with constant reassessment,” Keats said. “Hey, what are the fish needs? Is there a lot more water? Maybe there’s a lot more water, maybe we don’t need 40%? Or maybe there’s not enough water? Maybe we need more than 40%.”
Now, local water suppliers may appeal the judge’s decision, as the lawsuit may affect water usage for agriculture.
There are five such entities — Buena Vista Water Storage District, Kern Delta Water Storage District, North Kern Water Storage District, Rosedale-Rio Water District and Kern County Water Agency.
Pearce noted the judge ruled water supplies for the city and fish population take priority over agricultural usage.
The general counsel for the Kern Delta Water Storage District and attorney for Kern County Water Agency declined to comment on an ongoing case.
“We expect them to appeal the order,” Keats said. “And we expect they [will] pursue this vigorously. But right now, we don’t know what that’s going to look like.”
Bring Back the Kern member Bill Cooper added his team is in it for the long haul: “We have the funding, we’ve put together the coalition to do it, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Keats and Pearce agreed, though Bakersfield has had many water suits, wildlife has never been the center of attention.
“The river in town has been mismanaged from a wildlife and environmental standpoint,” said Cooper. “I mean, it’s been used as a conduit for water but little else.”
Cooper explained the lawsuit is not only about wildlife, but also the “health of the river itself.”
“Having the Kern River through Bakersfield is an important geographical feature, and having a greenbelt through this city of ours, and we live in a desert, is important,” Cooper added on why restoring the river would prove beneficial. “It’s important for the quality of life, for people to be able to get up and enjoy things. Fish and wildlife are part of that.”
Cooper also noted efforts to enhance river quality has recently become multigenerational. He said the younger generation began asking why the river running through town was so “awful.”
“You just got this new generation that has taken a look around and says, “Why does it have to be this way?” Cooper added, saying many of the younger folks joined the nonprofit and helping form the Bring Back the Kern Committee, the legal arm of the Kern River Parkway Foundation.
Bring Back the Kern Attorney Keats concluded, “I think people should be really hopeful that they will see a flowing Kern River. It’s here to stay there. Kids will see it, their grandkids will see it.”