Fifty years ago this week, the Bakersfield City Council committed an audaciously historic act.
On Monday evening Sept. 28, 1970, council members decided to sue Tenneco West for a slice of the Kern River.
“The shock was great to many, but from that day forward we had their attention and cooperation,” states the “Kern River Purchase” booklet compiled by the Bakersfield Water Resources Department in the early 2000s.
Ultimately, Tenneco West representatives made a deal with the city in June 1973 over lunch at the Bakersfield Country Club to sell the company’s water rights, the river bottom and its lands alongside the river to Bakersfield for $17.9 million.
It was a deal that would ultimately give Bakersfield rights to an average 140,000 acre-feet a year.
Even at lower end prices of $600 an acre-foot, that amount of water would cost $84 million today.
“We achieved far more for the citizens of Bakersfield than we had dared dream,” wrote the late Walter F. Heisey, a former councilman who negotiated the deal at that luncheon.
Indeed, this was the first time in the Kern River’s history that such a large chunk would be owned by a public agency.
“When the city started making noises about buying the river, we just laughed,” recalled Gene Bogart, who worked for Tenneco West at the time and would later go on to become the city’s water resources manager.
“We all thought it’d be a cold day in hell before a public agency would get its hands on the river.”
The river had been in private hands practically since the first white settler, Christian Bohna, moved his family into an abandoned fur trader’s hut at what is now 21st and M streets in downtown Bakersfield in 1860.
It wasn’t long before more settlers arrived, staking claim to the Kern River’s water.
Just 30 years after Bohna set up his homestead, the river was legally divided by two rich San Franciscans, Henry Miller and James Ben Ali Haggin, who owned the Kern County Land Company.
The Kern County Land Company was bought by Tenneco West while Miller’s share of the river would eventually belong to the Buena Vista Water Storage District.
By the 1960s, even the “old timers” had only known private ownership of the Kern River.
During that time frame, California began building the State Water Project to bring water down from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to replenish aquifers that were being over tapped by growing agricultural needs.
The federal government was finishing construction of the Central Valley Project on the east side of the valley to bring San Joaquin River water from Millerton Lake for the same reason.
The water table beneath Bakersfield was dropping and the river through town was drying up as Tenneco West began diverting more water out of the channel.
Bakersfield city leaders knew they had to act.
“Before they got to that vote (in 1970), they did their homework,” said Art Chianello, Bakersfield’s current water resources manager. “They studied the issue for five years and believed the city had a riparian right to the river. It runs right through town. So just like a farmer with land along a river has rights, so did Bakersfield.”
City leaders started negotiations with Tenneco West in the late 1960s but made little headway.
So, on Sept. 28, 1970, they voted to “protect the rights of its citizens to the use of such amounts of Kern River water as the court determines to be valid,” according to the Kern River booklet.
They filed eight legal actions against Tenneco West, which were settled three years later under the $17.9 million purchase agreement.
To fund that purchase, Bakersfield floated a bond in the November 1976 election; it passed by 19,738 “yes” votes to 8,914 “no” votes.
Bogart, who retired from the city in 2002, still remembers the measure’s name, “Proposition B.”
“It was really a surprise,” he said of the vote. “That so many people wanted the river turned over to a public agency. We were really surprised.”
The foresight of both the city leaders and regular folks who voted for the bond is amazing to think of now, Chianello said.
“It’s the greatest thing,” he said. “The river is Bakersfield’s most important asset. Those folks really got it done for Bakersfield.”