BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – We’re all accustomed to the sight now – dirt, weeds and tire tracks where water should be flowing through the barren channel of the Kern River.

What would you say, though, if you knew your tax dollars had paid to put water in that empty riverbed – but instead that water was sold for profit? Sadly, that appears to be the case.

In 2000 California voters approved a $2 billion ballot initiative to fund an array of purposes involving water, from safe, clean drinking water to more reliable farm irrigation to the preservation of river habitat and the so-called view shed – natural beauty for us all to look at.

The Kern County Water Agency got $23 million of that Proposition 13 bond money and spent a portion of it — about $3 million — to build six wells along the north side of the Kern River. Kern River Restoration Wells, they called them at the time.

The idea – according to the water agency’s own documents – was that it would pump water into the Kern River channel to maintain a minimum flow throughout most of the year. In good years, it would provide recreation opportunities and the aforementioned visual beauty. 

Twenty-two years later, we have no such thing. What happened? Well, drought happened. 

Yet, somehow, there was enough excess water last year for the water agency to sell off some of it for a neat little profit of $10 million – up to 10 times the going rate.

Lois Henry of, a nonprofit news organization specializing in the often confusing world of water rights, uncovered this turn of events:

She says those Parkway wells, as they’re now known, pumped more than 24,000 acre-feet of water last year, most of it to supply Oildale and east Bakersfield homes and businesses through the agency’s drinking water division, called Improvement District 4.

But there was a lot left over – a lot – which, one might think, based on the terms of that 2000 water bond, would have gone back into the river for us all to look at. Nope.

“If you so desperately need to use these wells for drinking water, why are you then selling excess water at exorbitant rates?” Henry asked. “I think we all just need to be aware and understand – and I understand water is a very difficult concept, it’s very complicated – but I think it’s important for people to understand where their water is going and not only that, but how their public money is being used.”

Kelly Damian, spokesperson for the nonprofit Bring Back the Kern, says she’s glad we have this evidence that the Parkway wells are producing so effectively. But she is alarmed that taxpayer funded water wells that are supposed to be enhancing the flow of the Kern River whenever it’s feasible are instead cash cows for a government agency. 

She likened the situation to the city fencing off the Park at Riverwalk and charging admission to people who already paid for access with their tax dollars.

“That would be an outrage,” she said. “People would be up in arms. It is much the same thing that has been happening right now.”

What can we do about it now? Not much, Henry says.

“This is public funding – again, (funds) we’ve used to do all of these wells and yet the public is not seeing the benefit of that water,” she said. “…If you have excess water to sell, what’s the priority there? How is that being worked out, and there’s no inclusion of the public in these decisions.”

The next time you look at the barren Kern River bed and ask yourself why Bakersfield can’t have water in its river, consider this: Maybe we’re just not paying enough attention to how our tax dollars are being spent.

The Kern County Water Agency confirmed for KGET that they do in fact closely monitor groundwater recharge, recovery and distribution totals. Officials did not volunteer a comment on the report by