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Casey Christie /The Californian

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

My apologies to those who've had their fill of Kern River news from me lately, but I have a couple housecleaning items.

First, representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers called me last week after my column on how low river levels will ruin this summer's rafting season on the lower Kern.

They argued my article was misleading as to the Corps' share of responsibility in the crisis.

I had noted that Mother Nature was supremely stingy with our snow pack this year and officials had predicted the river would run at record-breaking lows of just 20 percent to possibly 17 percent of normal.

That will make it too low for rafting trips (see below for a clarification on that item.)

I also said there was a man-made component to the disaster.

Back in 2006, the Corps restricted how much water could be stored in Lake Isabella due to dam safety concerns.

The lake has a capacity of 570,000 acre feet. But the Corps will allow no more than 360,000 acre feet. (Think football field covered by a foot of water to envision what acre foot means.)

I wrote that the Corps' restriction has reduced the amount of back-up water in the lake that could have been used to keep the lower Kern flowing at levels high enough to support commercial rafting.

The Corps disagreed with my interpretation.

Corps representatives took me to task saying the 360,000-acre foot cap has nothing to do with this year's terrible river outlook.

Every winter, starting Nov. 1, the lake is drawn down to 170,000 acre feet so it will have enough room to hold a massive spring run off, should we have a heavy snow pack.

The lousy winter of 2012 left so little water in the lake it didn't even need to be drawn down. This winter was even worse.

So there, the Corps guys told me, the low river is not their fault. It's just a bad water year.

Hold up there, Hoss.

There's a little more to the story.

While it's true the lake should be drawn down to 170,000 acre feet during winter, that isn't always the case.

In fact, the Corps has routinely allowed agricultural water districts that store water in the lake to carry over extra water -- about 75,000 acre feet extra -- whenever they've had it to store.

Well, 2011 was a big water year. A monster, at 200 percent of normal.

The ag guys had tons of water and asked to carry over an extra 75,000 acre feet into 2012.


The Corps refused and anything above the 170,000-acre-feet mark was dumped in the fall of 2011.

Given how crappy 2012 was, (38 percent of normal) no, the Corps didn't need to draw down the lake last November. It was already way down at just 83,000 acre feet.

So far, the spring melt has only brought that up to 99,000 acre feet so the 75,000 acre feet the Corps refused would have helped out quite a little.

I asked the Corps why they didn't allow the extra carry over last year and they cited dam safety concerns.

Kern Watermaster Chuck Williams, who works with the Corps on behalf of the ag districts, told me it was a timing and space issue.

The thinking in fall of 2011 was if extra carry over was allowed and 2012 was another high water year, the Corps would have far less time to move water out of the lake before runoff would overtop that 360,000-acre-foot cap.

All of which is to say that, absolutely the 360,000-acre-foot restriction had a hand in where we find ourselves today.


One reader took issue with the idea that the river needs to run at 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to be boatable, saying he has kayaked the lower Kern at just 600 cfs.

"Last I heard, a kayak was a boat," the reader said in his email.

The same reader also felt I was remiss in not mentioning that the runoff period of the Kern River is for April to July.

"If (Lois Henry) is going to cover water issues, it would serve her to write as knowledgeably as possible."

Duly noted.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail