The two Bakersfield City Council candidates who debated Thursday night in Beale Memorial Library's auditorium differed sharply on their views on the city's plan to run water down the dry Kern River riverbed.

"If it's a question of running water through the river for the aesthetic value of it, versus helping farmers that have built this community ... I think we have to help the farmers," said local restauranteur Terry Maxwell, who is running for the Ward 2 seat.

"We've gone without water in the river for how many years? And suddenly it's become so important," Maxwell said. "It has to benefit the farmer first."

But Bob Smith, a civil engineer and the founder of Bike Bakersfield, said running water through the city will add to the quality of life for residents.

"I believe that water in the river is a quality of life issue," Smith said. "It's also replenishing the aquifer and for domestic needs."

Smith is running for the Ward 4 seat.

The candidate forum was hosted by the Kern County Farm Bureau and the Water Association of Kern County.

Last week, Bakersfield City Council members approved a final environmental impact report, two years in the making and the city's formal application to the State Water Resources Board for rights to about 50,000 acre-feet of water a year that the Kern Delta Water District forfeited rights to in 2007. The report outlined plans for the water, to run it through the Kern River through the city and possibly sell any surplus water to local farmers.

Other bodies -- the Buena Vista Water Storage District, North Kern Water Storage District along with the city of Shafter, the Kern Water Bank and the Kern County Water Agency -- also are applying for the water. Water district representatives and farmers have argued the city hasn't considered the impact of taking water away from farmers and towns north of Bakersfield. Bakersfield city staff have said restoring water to the river will enhance natural habitats, improve drinking water and add recreational opportunities.

Maxwell questioned whether the city has a plan for the water.

"I'm a little appalled that there isn't more information or a better plan being put forth as to what the city plans on doing with this water."

Yet, he said, "I'm as for putting water in the river as anybody else is. I think it has to be mutually beneficial for everyone."

Maxwell didn't rule out a compromise solution that would benefit both sides, though he didn't offer specifics.

"I still believe there's a way we can be mutually benefitted by this water, and if we can find that common ground, we should."

Maxwell said agriculture, as a major economic driver for the city, has to be protected. "If at the end of two years, we have seen that it has not benefitted groups that we have a vested interest in, then let's come up with another plan" instead of the city's plan, he said.

Smith stood by his support for the city's plan.

"The percolation (of water through the riverbed) is something that's needed for the aquifer," Smith said. "The city needs to provide domestic use (water) for its citizens."

"By having a livable, quality city, it enhances the farming community," Smith said. "Your workers live here, some of you live here, the environments aren't completely separated."

Maxwell is running for the Ward 2 seat that represents much of downtown Bakersfield. Also in that race are Bakersfield Planning Commissioner Elliott Kirschenmann, who couldn't attend because of a concurrent Planning Commission meeting, and David Mensch, who teaches people with disabilities to use assistive technology. Mensch was invited to the event but didn't confirm he would attend.

Smith is the only candidate actively campaigning for the Ward 4 seat, which represents a section of northwest Bakersfield. Oil industry lawyer Harley Pinson stopped campaigning, citing disagreements with his campaign managers. Daniel Mbagwu, a third candidate, hasn't campaigned visibly so far. Ben McFarland of the Kern County Farm Bureau said he didn't invite Pinson and Mbagwu didn't respond to an invitation.