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COMMUNITY VOICES: Bringing clean water home to Kern County

The State Water Project, commonly known as the SWP, is a lifeline for Kern County and California that each day delivers water to a large portion of Bakersfield’s homes and Kern County farms and business. The SWP helped make Kern County the number one agricultural county in the nation and ensures Bakersfield always has a clean, high quality supply of drinking water while protecting our region against drought.

The State Water Project reflects our past generation’s drive to make California the great state it is today. It is the largest state-built water delivery and power generating infrastructure in the nation and one of the largest public water and power utilities in the world. If this is news to you, don’t feel bad. Many Californians are unaware of this invaluable water project that provides fresh water to one in every three California residents. And that’s understandable. The SWP was built more than five generations ago but without this interconnected system California would never have developed into the economic powerhouse it is. Spanning more than 700 miles, the SWP consistently supplies water to large regions of California through an innovative system of reservoirs, canals, power plants and pumping facilities. The visionaries who designed the SWP had the foresight to recognize the substantial benefits of moving water from regions blessed with ample supplies to those in need of additional resources, providing much of the state with water supply, flood control, power, recreational opportunities and important wildlife habitat.

Here in Kern County, the SWP provides critical water supplies for people, farms, businesses and the environment. The Kern County Water Agency (Agency) contracts with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to provide SWP water to 13 local water districts, called Member Units. The Agency’s Member Units in turn provide SWP water to farms, businesses and residents in Kern County. The Agency’s contract with DWR is for approximately 1,000,000 acre-feet per year of water supply from the SWP. However, on average, the Agency has delivered approximately 838,000 acre-feet per year of SWP water within Kern County. For perspective, an acre-foot is enough to fill a football field one-foot deep. Additionally, one acre-foot is the average annual water demand for a family of four.

Fortunately, in Kern County, water is as diverse as the people. While most rural residents in Kern County rely exclusively on groundwater, metropolitan Bakersfield residents can receive water not only from the SWP but also the Kern River and groundwater. In addition to these supplies, agricultural water users in Kern County also receive water from the federal Central Valley Project.

The Kern River is the largest local surface water source. Historically, snowmelt feeding the Kern River would cause seasonal flooding but construction of Isabella Dam in 1953 alleviated flooding and allowed water entities to store Kern River flows for use during the summer months when water demand is at its highest. On average, the Kern River supplies approximately 760,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kern County for agricultural, municipal and industrial use.

Five water districts in Kern County hold contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to receive water from the Central Valley Project for agricultural purposes. A small amount of the Central Valley project is delivered to Kern County from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the SWP’s California Aqueduct and the rest is delivered from Millerton Lake through the Friant-Kern Canal. Kern County receives an average of approximately 404,000 acre-feet per year from the Central Valley Project.

While surface water supplies are critical to Kern County, groundwater is the largest single source of water in Kern County. Groundwater usage varies from year to year in Kern County in response to hydrologic conditions. On average, approximately 1,365,000 acre-feet of groundwater are used annually to meet agricultural, municipal and industrial water demands.

These water supplies are essential to life in Kern County, and we must keep them operating to ensure our water supply for the future. Repair work on the Kern River’s Isabella Dam is nearing completion, and the state mandated Sustainable Groundwater Management Act addresses several groundwater issues. But water supplies from the SWP’s California Aqueduct and the Friant Kern Canal are reduced by the effects of land subsidence that needs costly repairs and changes in environmental regulations will further erode the water supplies from these two projects. Keeping the California Aqueduct and the Friant Kern Canal operating at full capacity and maximizing the water supplies they deliver is the challenge for our generation.

Beth Brookhart Pandol is executive director of the Water Association of Kern County, a non-profit dedicated to providing information and education about California water issues. For more information visit She can be reached at

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