BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – A big court decision Monday may help keep the Kern River as lush and as full as it is now.
A Kern County judge has granted a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit by citizen water advocacy groups, filed against the City of Bakersfield and its water usage.
To ensure protection of fish and other river wildlife, the city is prohibited from using more water than it needs.
“This is wonderful news not only for the fish who thrive on a healthy, flowing Kern River but for the Bakersfield community wanting to see this public resource protected,” said John Buse, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups who filed the lawsuit. “The court has recognized that we can do the right thing and keep water flowing in the river without affecting the city’s water supply.”
The lawsuit is all about what proper management of the Kern River would look like, but long story short, the decision does not affect Bakersfield’s water supply. The city’s more than 400,000 residents will have enough water, which 17 News verified with Colin Pearce, the city’s water attorney.
The lawsuit is on environmental grounds. Advocates say with the river so full of water and wildlife, now is the golden time to keep that status quo, arguing that the city must decide how much river water it actually needs, yet all involved parties have yet to figure out how much water is enough for Bakersfield.
Getting that magic number or numbers is the next step that has been ordered by the judge.
“The issue isn’t whether or not the city of Bakersfield is going to have enough water, it will have enough water,” said William McKinnon, a general counsel at Water Audit California, which is representing the advocates. “The issue is how the water that is flowing, going to be managed. And that really is going to be driven by negotiations, not only with the city of Bakersfield, but also with the irrigation districts. It is nobody’s intention to destroy your agricultural industry or anything else.”
McKinnon added on the importance of coexisting with the river’s wildlife.
“Up until now, no one has been concerned about the needs of the environment,” McKinnon said. “We’ve now got a seat at the table.”
The preliminary injunction states Bakersfield’s annual water demand is around 130,000 acre feet of water. It also says based on past water flow measurements, the river has always provided ample water for domestic use – meaning for city residents – and, in the “average year,” the river provides over five times the city’s total current use.
A major part of the advocates’ argument revolves around California’s Fish and Game Code, which requires that fish have enough water to pass over, around or through any dam.
City water attorney Pearce told 17 News Bakersfield has six weirs, not dams. However, in the preliminary injunction, the judge considers the weirs as dams, because they are “artificial obstructions that may be used to control the flow of water in the Kern River.”
Pearce has previously told 17 News Bakersfield has contracts with other places and must provide certain amounts of water to them. With this preliminary injunction, however, Pearce says it’s out of the city’s hands.
A preliminary injunction is valid until trial, though McKinnon said neither side would benefit from a trial anytime soon. Both the city and advocates must now embark on a mission to determine how much water usage is appropriate.
The judge called out the city for expressing “reluctance to help establish appropriate flow rates” and notes Bakersfield has resources, like the Water Resource Department, to quickly determine how much water it’ll need to pull from the river.
“One thing [the decision] will not be as static, because your river isn’t static, it will always be changing,” McKinnon said. “That requires a thoughtful, adaptive management approach that recognizes this is not one and done. This is something that is a relationship, and like all relationships, has to be built and evolve.”