The once-surging Kern River has shriveled into a sad little foot-wide channel. No one at this juncture can say whether it will return anytime soon to the powerful, fast-moving waterway of mid-2017.

But don't count on it.

This year's Kern River flow was unusually wide, strong and dangerous. Dana Munn, the Kern River water master, chalks it up two main factors: the deep snowmelt from the mountains and heavy rainfalls in February and March. 

And it just kept raining.

"We received 260 percent of rainfall during April and July. In previous years the total rainfall" wouldn't equal that volume over the entire 12 months, Munn said. 

Every day, thousands of local residents see the Kern River flowing through the center of the city, and not those who exercise along the Kern River Bike Path that meanders alongside the channel. Its river bank, like the one near Hart Park, can be a source of camaraderie and family fun on those excruciatingly hot Bakersfield summer days.

The river is a vital part of Bakersfield's identity and seeing it flowing vigorously has even brought other Southern Californian residents to Bakersfield.

Over time, the abundantly flowing Kern River has gotten a negative reputation, too: That of the "Killer Kern," because so many swimmers — and waders — drown in heavy-flows years like this past one.

But its beauty is undeniable.

Local artist Charlotte White has painted scenes alongside the Kern river many times, from the north end near Kernville to the winding riverbanks of Bakersfield. 

"The Kern River is ferocious, but it's beautiful," she notes.

White, who grew up near the Colorado River, said the spot where the Kern River meets the canyon gives her nostalgia for her teenage home. 

White said she often sketches in Kernville at one of her favorite Kern River spots, capturing the glassy complexion of submerged rocks. 

Most recently she painted two watercolors of the river as it runs through Bakersfield, a picturesque landscape depicting trees alongside the bank. "It's beautiful. Especially near this old rock bridge, where the water comes through underneath," White said. 

One doesn't have to have an artistic eye of White's caliber to appreciate the fickle jewel of Bakersfield, the Kern River. 

Many of our readers, when asked on Facebook, said they would love to see the Kern River flow abundantly year-round. 

So, why can't they?

Munn, the Kern River water master, said flow depends on Lake Isabella's levels and the storms we receive. 

Over time the once-behemoth river has been divvied out into canals and irrigation systems — about 10, Munn approximates, at least two of them cutting through Bakersfield. 

Among the diversions is the city's water treatment plant near Calloway Canal.

A heavy running Kern River helps the city's water supply, according to Munn. "More water allows for more usage by the State Water Project, which in turn allows for more drinking water, for instance," Munn said.  

Despite its dangerous reputation, the Kern has a most benevolent side. It provides water for roughly 200,000 to 300,000 acres used for farming and homes. The average annual yield is approximately 700,000 acre-feet. 

Munn said it's too early to tell if 2018 will bring a flowing river or a dry riverbed from lack of rainfall and snowmelt. 

"If we don't get the storms that we need, then we won't get the water," Munn said. "We saw the droughts in the past." 

There's just no predicting the atmospheric pressure phenomena that dictates rainfall. 

"There's no strong signal to say it's going to be a wet year or a dry year," said Kris Mattarochia, science and operations officer at Hanford National Weather Service.

The weather systems known as El Niño and La Niña don't have that much of an impact on these atmospheric conditions, either, he said. The coming year will be a La Niña year, but, Mattarochia said, "there's a possibility every year for a strong winter due to La Niña or El Niño. ... We can't ever say for sure."

Mattarochia explained that 2017 was particularly wet because of the "Pineapple Express," a steady stream of atmospheric moisture from the Pacific that often originates in Hawaii. 

The "Pineapple Express" of 2017 was pointed right at the Kern River, according to Mattarochia, resulting in heavy rainfall Jan. 7-9. 

"It only takes one (major) weather event for this to happen," Mattarochia said of the Kern's heavy flow.

That uncertainty is perhaps one factor that lends the Kern River some of its beauty: One can never be sure what tomorrow will bring to the riparian landscape. As White might tell you, that's one of the chief characteristics of art: Unpredictability.

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