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New petition demands water be put back in Kern River in Bakersfield

A new online petition demands a swifter resolution to water disputes that could potentially mean more water in the Kern River channel in Bakersfield, the latest in long-sought efforts to restore flows to what for decades has been a dry river channel.

"The people of Bakersfield need a flowing river — with water in a thriving river parkway, quality of life in Bakersfield will be significantly improved," says the petition, posted recently by local resident Jonathan Yates on Change.org.

Yates, 30, said he and his wife moved to Bakersfield four years ago to accept jobs and were pleasantly surprised by what they found. Plenty of access to surrounding outdoor recreation, "great local flair and flavor and big city dynamics yet a small town feel," he said. He's become involved with the Kern River Parkway Foundation and the Hub of Bakersfield, a nonprofit whose mission is to redefine and revitalize the city’s downtown.

A recent hike to the headwaters of the Kern near Mount Whitney to celebrate his 30th birthday was the catalyst for the petition, Yates said.

"The Kern River is such a beautiful, amazing river," Yates said. "I think it's an environmental injustice that we don't have water in the river. This is one of the greatest rivers in the Sierra Nevada."

He also feels if the city wants to diversify its economy and keep companies like startup Bitwise Industries, a flowing river is key to building the quality of life to make that happen.

"They're not just going to stay in Bakersfield unless there's good reason to," Yates said.

Yates' effort is only the most recent in a long, complex history of local water wrangling.

As Kern River Parkway co-founder Bill Cooper recalls, water was promised for the riverbed in 1976, when the city purchased water rights from Tenneco West. However, first the city paid off the water purchase, made with taxpayer-approved bonds, through several long-term contracts it entered into with local agricultural water districts, including North Kern Water Storage District.

When that obligation ended in 2011, the city intended to make good on its promise but was soon met with a lawsuit from North Kern Water Storage District, which wanted to keep receiving its water supply. North Kern has succeeded in doing so in court so far.

"Bakersfield city taxpayers own 70,000 acre-feet or so of that water ... and we’ve been waiting a long time for that water to show up in the river," Cooper said. "We were always told once the city met certain contractual obligations it would be put back in the river channel."

"The bottom line is there can never really be a parkway unless we got our water in the river," Cooper said.

In the late 2000s, another potential source of water became available when state water regulators determined forfeited water was available on the Kern, drawing a gaggle of local interest for the water, including from the city, which said the water would be solely earmarked for the river channel for aquifer recharge, natural habitat restoration and recreation.

The state process for deciding who gets the water, however, has now dragged on for 10 years and no decision is in sight.

Despite that, Bakersfield City Councilman Bob Smith said headway has been made and there's now water in the river whenever possible, which is more often than in the past. This is partly because the city now uses the natural river instead of canals when making water deliveries. This year, that meant water flowing through the end of May despite a rather lackluster snowpack, Smith said.

Smith said the first priority for the city's water will always be water supply but the side benefits of water in the riverbed hold great potential for the city's future.

"It’s really unique to have a river running through town that is as accessible as the Kern River is," Smith said. "Some rivers are so big they’re dangerous, other rivers, the sides are steep. Fresno's river runs ways to the north (of the city) and is not accessible. Obviously, the L.A. River has been changed into a concrete channel and ... historically has not been accessible and a real river."

"It’s a great unique amenity," he said.