As the drought intensifies, the city is looking to turn a dry river into a flowing river

Activists and officials in Bakersfield, California, see the potential benefits of a dispute over water resources.


The Kern River flows from Sierra Nevada, a flowing oasis of flora and fauna, and flows northeast of Bakersfield, California. It then flows, dries up and turns sand for miles.

The river once flowed through a town of about 384,000 people, providing residents with wildlife and recreation facilities, but the water was diverted decades ago to irrigate farmland. Now, a team of singing citizens is hopeful that the river will return to its former glory as the state decides whether to replenish the water that was left unused 14 years ago.

The appellate court ruled in 2007 that the Kern Delta Water District had to lose its water rights because it allowed water to run off, but the decision on where water should be supplied was left to the state water board.

The state held a hearing on Thursday and Friday to determine whether water should be reinstated. If she decides to consent, she will decide next to whom she will re-respond.

The city of Bakersfield says it has water rights and wants to return them to the Kern River. The decision on the first question will likely not be made until next year, lawyers said.

During the severe drought in California and the West, the community team Bring Back the Kern and other activists took the situation as an opportunity to reclaim the river.

“Water brings abundant life, not just plant life, but also animal life, and without a flowing river, vegetation cannot survive,” said Lia Mendez, a graduate student and member of Bring Back the Kern. "Everywhere in California, Bakersfield is a town people love to make fun of. People call it the 'armpit' of the province."

Adam Keats, an environmental advocate representing California activist groups, said restoring Kern was a matter of environmental justice. About 17 percent of Bakersfield's population lives in poverty compared to about 12 percent nationwide. More than half of the population is Latin and 7.6 percent are black.

"There are many low-income communities, people of color who are in dire need of natural and recreational facilities," he said. "They are very poor in the area, and because of the dry river, they also have air quality problems caused by dust and dry river. Having running water and trees means better air quality."

Mendez, who grew up in Bakersfield, said high-income residents drive elsewhere to get fresh air, but low-income people do not have the time or money to do so.

Water shortages and droughts make the issue of water supply even more difficult than it already is, says Andre Daccache, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis. He pointed out that California is home to 76,600 farms, and the State Water Project supplies water to about 750,000 hectares of arable land.

"There is no secret recipe for that," Daccache said. "You need agriculture. You need water."

Keats and Bakersfield City Attorney Colin Pearce said filling the Kern River would not really take a toll on agriculture.

"We are not saying we will build water, we want to share water with others," Pearce said. "

As Mendez awaits the state's decision, he dreams of Bakersfield having a running river, the rest of his neighbors and loved ones. Despite growing up in a city with a dry riverbed that was often littered with garbage, surrounded by dusty air, he loved his hometown and knew that it could be more than that.

"People today in their 70s remember having the Kern River as their horsepower under cottonwood and sycamore springs, come down and bring home a pile full of crawdads," Mendez said. "I was kidnapped as a child by the river and something that people who grew up in Bakersfield enjoyed a generation before me."