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Harry Love is president of the Kern Audubon Society and retired from the Kern High School District, where he was a social studies teacher from 1967-2005.

I first arrived in Bakersfield in 1967, from Los Angeles, hired to teach social studies at a local high school. Growing up in Los Angeles, my earliest recollection of the city was seeing, from the back of our family 1955 Ford station wagon, the Bakersfield sign stretching over Union Avenue, next to the Bakersfield Inn. Upon arriving in 1967, I crossed over the Chester Avenue Bridge and noticed a sign that read “No jumping from the bridge.” Looking down, all I saw was a riverbed, no water. I then asked my students if the sign was a joke. Did they have to be reminded that water was missing? They then laughed (sadly) at the idea that a river without water was all that they remembered.

Fast-forward to 2021, 54 years later. The sign is still there and, alas, neither is the water. The Kern River begins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Mount Whitney and travels south to Lake Isabella and from there through the city. However, along the way water is removed, by canals, away from the city, away from the half-million people of Bakersfield. All that is left is a waterless riverbed created by nature hundreds of years ago.

We all know that water is a natural resource. It is a public natural commodity. All life is dependent on it. As such, the state of California, in its Constitution (Article X, section 2), declares that water is a public trust that must be protected by law. In a landmark 1983 case (National Audubon Society v. Superior Court of Alpine County), the issue of water and Mono Lake came before the California Supreme Court. For background, Mono Lake is the lake along highway 395, just at the turnoff to Yosemite. Five creeks feed this lake, which has no exit.

The city of Los Angeles purchased water rights to these creeks in the early 1900s to divert water from the creeks to go into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This allowed Los Angeles to grow. Soon the water level dropped, and dropped. Land bridges were formed, allowing predators such as coyotes to prey on birds nesting on islands in the lake. Los Angeles claimed that their water rights to the creeks preceded all other claims. However, the Court unanimously ruled that the public trust doctrine is embedded in our state’s Constitution and has an equal footing with water rights.

This doctrine is the principle that certain resources are preserved for public use and that the government is required to maintain them for the public's reasonable use. It is an integral part of California’s water rights system. The court forcefully declared that the “state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.”

This now brings us to the issue and questions now before the California State Water Board: Should unappropriated water (meaning water of which there is no claim) from the Kern River become a commodity for the people? Does the State Water Board need to address other existing water rights to ensure they don’t harm public trust resources?

A recent opinion article by Edwin Camp claims that water sent down the river is lost, no longer available to canals and thus to farmers. One only has to drive on Allen Road, across the Kern River, and notice the recharge basins to dispel this thought. The claim that recreational water is "wasted" is not true. It is banked under the river channel and in recharge basins to be tapped into for future use. Without river water, these banks "fail" (sound like 1929 bank failure?)

Finally, as citizens of Bakersfield clearly see and note, the riverbed has trees along it. This is called riparian vegetation. Besides adding beauty, the trees support birds, from raptors to song birds and they provide shade for those who want to recreate near them. But where there is no water along the parkway, the trees are dead or struggling to survive. This is very visible from the bike path next to the city’s Park at River Walk. Here the path diverges, allowing you to bike/walk across the river. Or should I say riverbed. Unless the state addresses the issue before it and protects this public trust resource, Bakersfield will need to rename the park as “The Park at Riverbed Walk.”

Harry Love is president of the Kern Audubon Society and retired from the Kern High School District, where he was a social studies teacher from 1967-2005.