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Casey Christie /The Californian

A tube fisherman tries his luck fishing Tuesday morning in the Kissack Bay area of Isabella Lake. Locals and tourists alike are concerned about the future of the lake and the economy of the area.

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Casey Christie /The Californian

A tube fisherman casts his line (center left) in Isabella Lake in the Kissack Bay area Tuesday morning.

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Casey Christie /The Californian

Although the water level of isabella Lake is very low right now, Oildale resident Larry Michael came to the lake to spend the day fishing from the windy shores near Mountain Mesa. He said he wasn't surprised at the lake level because he had been watching the news and was prepared.

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Casey Christie /The Californian

The lower portion of the Kern River flows down the canyon Tuesday. We may be on target to break a 120-year-old record for the driest year on the Kern River. The upper Kern River may already have peaked at 1000cfs.

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Casey Christie /The Californian

Dry grass already surrounds the lower Kern River in this April 2013 photo.

Low. Very low. Historically and, as one person put it, tragically low. That's the state of the Kern River right now and it's only going to get worse as we move into the summer months.

The Kern has always been fickle, roaring down the canyon one year and trickling the next, but only three times in the past 120 years has the river's flow been this low.

Right now, the river is forecast to run at 20 percent of normal.

If we don't get any more rain in the near future, the state Department of Water Resources is predicting the river will shrink to just 17 percent of normal.

That would shatter the lowest flow on record of 19 percent in 1961.

The pain will be felt throughout a large swath of the Kern economy.

And while this is partly Mother Nature's fault, there's a man-made component.

The Army Corps of Engineers has enforced a drawdown of Isabella Lake, starting in the early 2000s, because of structural concerns with the dam.

The lake can hold up to 570,000 acre feet but the Corps has allowed no more than 360,000 acre feet.

Back-to-back dry years and less water stored in the lake have added up to a crisis. Particularly for rafting companies in the Kern River Valley that need a strong river below Isabella Dam for late spring and summertime rafting trips.

The lower Kern has to be flowing at about 800 cubic feet per second to be boatable, explained Tom Moore, owner of Sierra South, a rafting outfitter in Kernville.

Flows on the lower Kern are projected at no more than 450 cfs, however. (Think of a cubic foot of water as about the size of a basketball.)

At 450 cfs, the river will be unboatable for commercial rafters or even private rafters and kayakers, Moore said.

Having the lower Kern to raft through the summer has been a "cash cow," he said. Rafters ply the upper Kern through early spring and when that bottoms out, "we bank on riding the wave" below the dam.

Without it, outfitters will suffer a direct loss of $4 million to $5 million, he said. Considering each tourism dollar spent in the Kern River Valley bounces around about seven times, he estimated a $30 million to $35 million hit to the valley at large.

"I've never seen it this bad and I've been here 29 years."

In that time, he and his fellow rafters have boated the lower Kern during drought years.

"But the lack of storage in Lake Isabella means we have no backup water," he said.

When rafting companies learned of the 450 cfs projection for the lower Kern, they set up a meeting with the Kern River Watermaster and City of Bakersfield to see if they could time releases from the dam to accommodate both rafters and agricultural water districts.

The rafters' idea was to "ramp" the river by releasing 800 cfs during the day, then shut the tap at night. Same amount of water, just moving at different times.

Can't be done.

Valley growers can't take a slug of water like that all at once with no place to store it. They need a steady, predictable supply. Plus it would involve a massive and expensive recycling of valves and weirs throughout the system.

Not to mention the strain it would place on several of the six power plants on the river.

(As an aside, you have to be impressed by what a hard working river the Kern is. Seriously, from top to bottom, we work this water like a rented mule.)

Anyhow, rafters have regrouped and are now hoping to get Kern County to declare the area a drought disaster, which could at least give businesses the opportunity to apply for low interest loans to carry them through.

Aside from that, they're looking at ways to increase trips on the upper Kern, or diversify.

"We also offer climbing, mountain biking and paddle boarding on the lake," said Rhonda Stallone, who owns Mountain and River Adventures with her husband, John.

Moore is already planning to get tubes and offer tubing trips on the upper Kern after the high water smooths out.

They all stressed that visitors to the valley will still have plenty to do and water to play in, just not like in years past.

Ag districts were also hunkering down for their own hard summer.

North Kern Water Storage District will get no river water this year. Zero, said General Manager Richard Diamond.

"We don't have any water to draw out," he said of Lake Isabella storage. The district is down to its last 10,000 acre feet, its emergency supply.

North Kern's farmers will be pumping groundwater exclusively.

Meanwhile, the district will look into expanding its "weather modification" program -- cloud seeding.

Buena Vista Water Storage District is also not taking any of its river water this year, instead giving it to Kern Delta Water District in exchange for Kern Delta's state water from the California Aqueduct. It's just a more cost efficient use of resources in a year like this, explained Buena Vista's General Manager Maurice Etchechury.

Even with all that maneuvering, Kern Delta won't be whole and has alerted its farmers to be prepared, said General Manager Mark Mulkay.

"They'll either have to lump together their water allotments and grow one little crop, use wells if they have them, or fallow," Mulkay said.

And that's from the district with the best rights to the river.

Kern Delta gets the first 300 cfs off the river. If there is no more water after that, rights holders down the line are out of luck.

Seems like we all are this year.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com