The numbers are in and they are good.
The April 1 manual snowpack survey for the Kern River basin shows we are at an overall 215 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources. (See side box for particulars.)
The basin was at 49 percent of average last year and that was considered a banner year compared to 2015 when the snowpack was at 13 percent of average (the lowest in the river’s 124-year recorded history).
The only other river basin in California that comes close to the Kern’s overall average this year is the Owens River at 214 percent.
I don’t know why I feel like bragging about our watershed, but I do.
What’s it all mean to you?
Well, for one thing we will have an actual river in our river bed all the way through summer for the first time in nearly a decade.
It also means our water table should be coming back up after being seriously depleted over five years of drought.
Domestic water purveyors will still be asking people to conserve, which should be a way of life, if you ask me.
But we will have plenty of water.
Maybe too much water.
How can that be, you ask?
It’s all a matter of storage and timing.
So far, all the so-called “river interests,” entities that hold rights to Kern River water, have been able to absorb (literally) a ramped-up amount of water coming out of Isabella Lake, according to Kern River Watermaster Dana Munn.
But with the April 1 snowpack survey done, now the water world is waiting for the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to take those numbers and “run them through their black box” to come up with the April-to-July runoff forecast.
DWR wonks look at median temperatures, the previous year’s dryness and a host of other factors to figure out how much water downstream users can expect.
Then Munn takes that forecast number, which was 260 percent of normal but dropped to 242 percent of normal recently, and runs models to figure out how much water needs to come out of Isabella to keep it at or below 360,000 acre-feet.
Isabella can hold quite a bit more, but the Army Corps of Engineers has kept the lake at 360,000 acre-feet since 2006 for dam safety reasons.
That was the last year the Corps issued a “mandatory release” of water, by the way, which came down so fast and heavy it eroded a portion of Highway 178 and escaped into the California Aqueduct.
No one wants a repeat of that.
Right now the inflow and outflow of Isabella are even at 4,115 cubic feet per second. And the lake has been holding steady at about 242,000 acre-feet.
Once things warm up, outflow will have to be ramped up. But neither Munn, nor any of the river interests, want it increased so much that Kern River water goes into the California Aqueduct, or north through its ancient channel to the Tulare Lake Bed.
“It’s kind of like tapping hogs,” Munn said of adjusting the outflow. “You tap their snouts on one side to move them left, then you tap a little on the other side to straighten them out.”
That also involves cooperation from all the entities that hold storage rights in the lake, which is more like holding a bag full of cats than hog tapping.
Already some rights holders are giving the side eye to others.
Buena Vista Water Storage District, for instance, had been selling its Kern River water at $5 an acre-foot to help move water out of Isabella. It upped that price to $50 an acre-foot, though, after it didn’t see other entities moving their water out of the lake.
“We knew we had to unload water fast,” said John Vidovich, Buena Vista’s board president. “So we made all these deals assuming the big entitlement folks would share the load.”
Buena Vista even asked districts not to take their state or federal water to make room for Kern River water.
“We stopped after we woke up and saw everyone else’s account (in the lake) was full and ours was empty. That’s not right,” Vidovich said.
To understand the angst, you have to know that storage in Isabella is strictly divided among five agencies and is critically important to water management.
If you don’t store enough, you may be caught flat-footed in a dry year. That happened to the city in 2015 when the river ran so low, its rights ran out and it didn’t have enough in Isabella to supply two treatment plants. If not for some quick wheeling and dealing, 20,000 homes could have run dry.
So, Isabella storage is closely watched.
“It’s like a Mexican standoff,” Vidovich said. “There’s all these people with water in accounts in the lake and if there’s too much and some has to be let out, if I let mine out, then you don’t have to.”
In particular, Vidovich pointed to the City of Bakersfield as a storage hog.
Not true, said Bakersfield Water Resources Manager Art Chianello.
Well, yes, the city was, and still is, overstored in Isabella, he said.
But it isn’t trying to hoard that space.
“I’m delivering it every place I can to the maximum extent I can,” he said. That includes through the river bed (our main groundwater recharge “facility”), the city’s groundwater bank known as 2800 Acres and the city’s even selling some to Kern Delta Water District.
Ahh, never a dull moment on the river.