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Art installation in Bakersfield's sandy riverbed hopes to bring 'Flow' back to the Kern

Stephen Yaws points to banks of the Kern River near Beach Park and imagines what the scene might have looked like a few generations ago before the flow was diverted, turning this stretch into a sandy riverbed.

"This used to be a thick forest along the river, not that long ago," he said. "But years of it not having water, it's been denuded, there's hardly anything growing."

Yaws and other volunteers were working hard Thursday putting together an art installation called "Flow" that calls attention to the lack of water running through a portion of the riverbed that goes right through the heart of Bakersfield. But it's also imagining what it used to be and what it could look like one day: a lush, beautiful wetland ecosystem.

"I want people driving by the 99 being proud and like, 'Wow, this is a beautiful place. I wouldn't mind living here and coming and stopping,'" he said. "I doubt anyone who comes by here now wants to stop, when they see this river."

"Flow" is a piece with a sense of irony: Dried-up reeds have been gathered and arranged to spell out the word "Flow." They also sketch out the way eddies and currents might curve in the sand were the river flowing under the overpass of the Golden State Highway.

The project is a vision of Andres Amador, a Northern California-based artist known for his large-scale temporary earthscapes. His work is often done collaboratively, involves the community and has an environmental component. In this case, Bring Back the Kern, a community group advocating for water to flow through Bakersfield again, reached out to him to commission the project.

"It’s a whole process: What are the symbols? What would be meaningful? What would be impactful?" Amador explained.

This one is a little different than his other works, which are often traced in the sand on ocean beaches. He and his collaborators at Bring Back the Kern had to find a readily available material to work with that wouldn't disturb the ecosystem. They settled on those dried-up reeds known as Arundo donax, an invasive species.

The giant reeds will be disposed of when the project is dismantled in two weeks, taking care not to let them take root. In the meantime, "Flow" and its 2,500-foot-long reed eddies will be available for the public to view.

Bring Back the Kern has several proposed solutions to the lack of water in the Kern outlined in a petition. One is calling upon the State Water Resources Control Board to award 50,000 acre-feet of unappropriated water to the city of Bakersfield.

“As local and regional managers and leaders work together to restore some of the river flow through town, this water will complement conjunctive use of our water resources and provide recreation beneficial use to the community," said Matt Mayry, a committee member with Bring Back the Kern.

The benefits of a flowing river are myriad, Mayry said: It revives the local ecosystem, it's a place for people to cool down in summer, it's a chance for recreation and it enhances property values in the city.

"There is water available now that could be used to beautify the city," he said.

He points out "Flow" is actually at a point in the river that used to be a big recreation spot. Beach Park was named that because of its beach, he said. It's hard to picture that or the raging river that once fed Tulare and Buena Vista lakes, once some of the largest lakes in the west.

Bring Back the Kern is a subcommittee of Kern River Parkway Foundation that in the 1970s advocated for the bike path and has advocated for the river. 

"This is the next phase," Mayry said. "We need to do what’s right and restore the water flow."

For more information about the art installation and upcoming events, visit Bring Back the Kern's website at https://www.bringbackthekern.org.