From the day the earliest settlers came to the Kern River area, the river has been a plentiful source of water and controversy. Many battles, mainly in the courtroom, were fought over the Kern River and this pattern continues today.
Currently, disputes continue amongst Kern County agriculture water districts, Kern County Water Agency and the City of Bakersfield, all of which have some water rights on the Kern River. These are complicated and challenging issues
Historically, Kern Delta Water District did not fully utilize all of its available Kern River water. Other water users – who did not have first rights to the water – such as the City of Bakersfield and North Kern Water Storage District, utilized the water for farming and urban water needs.
In the late 1970s, Kern Delta increased its use of Kern River water, which meant less water was available to the City and North Kern. This prompted a series of lawsuits that ultimately resulted in a court determining that Kern Delta had forfeited a portion of its Kern River water (approximately 50,000 acre-feet per year, on average) due to non-use. However, the court indicated that the State Water Resources Control Board should make the determination if the forfeited water changed the historical allocation of water; the State Board has yet to make this determination.
The City, North Kern, Kern County Water Agency, Kern Water Bank, and Buena Vista Water Storage District filed applications to obtain the forfeited water. It is expected that the State Board process on the Kern River will take many years, and may be accompanied by additional litigation.
Another Kern River water issue relates to 1976 contracts between several agricultural districts and the City. In 1976, the City bought river water rights from Tenneco, an agricultural company, for $17 million. This gave the City about 160,000 acre-feet per year of river water. To pay for this water, the City entered into contracts with the ag districts. These districts provided money for the City to buy the rights from Tenneco, in exchange for 70,000 acre feet per year of its river water. There are differing interpretations on several aspects of these contracts, including when and if they expire; the City and the ag districts are currently trying to settle these issues.
There are many other agreements among Kern River interests, including some for spreading water for banking, storage in Isabella Reservoir and programs with other groups. Continuing its historic pattern, the Kern River continues to invite controversy and fierce fighting for its pristine water.
The City of Bakersfield has an informational booklet on the Kern River: