Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Banking Water

The official Bakersfield motto is “Life as it should be.” The unofficial Bakersfield motto is “A riverbed runs through it.”

Anyone who has lived in California is painfully aware of how crucial water is in our state, and how contentious the battle for water can be. One significant reason for this is that most of our water originates in the northern third of the state, while most of the use takes place south of that. We have an extensive system of canals and aqueducts which make possible the existence of Los Angeles and the urban south, as well as the central valley agriculture. Bakersfield is at the south end of the Central Valley (really, two valleys: the San Joaquin in the south, and the Sacramento in the north.) This valley is one of the most fertile places on earth, making California the most productive ag state in the US.

There is a long and convoluted history of water in California. If you want to read an interesting summary, here is a good place to start. Beyond this, though, you get into the political weeds really quickly, and there is a LOT of misinformation out there. The debate is generally spun (particularly on the Right) as being environment versus agriculture. But this ignores a lot of the actual facts of the situation, which makes discussion frustrating. (For example, agricultural use has gone down a little bit due to efficiency - but it remains well within historical patterns. And most “environmental” use is by rivers in the northwest of the state that have never been connected to the water grid…) The specifics are beyond the scope of this post, but it does help to understand the background a bit, and why there is so much overheated rhetoric and deliberate distortion of the facts.

During 2014 and 2015, California suffered through two years of historically deep drought. As in, the tree ring evidence revealed that we hadn’t had that bad of a run in at least 500 years, maybe more. I posted this picture in my review of The Big Thirst - it shows a normal year of snowpack versus 2014. Since the majority of the water for our area comes from the mountains, this was a huge deal.

During the drought, groundwater (which hasn’t been sufficiently regulated) was used to make up the difference, and we really hit our supplies hard. 2016 was an average year here, but 2017 has been an above average year - we have quite a bit of snowpack, and the reservoirs that nearly disappeared are full again. But we cannot be wasteful.

So, anyway, most years, we do not have water in the Kern River where it flows through Bakersfield. All the outflow from Lake Isabella is diverted for irrigation. This year, for the first time in a while, we actually have water in the river - not just during the winter, but we will have it through the summer. This has been nice, as we have gotten to take the kayaks out on Sunday afternoons.

But that water isn’t being wasted. Far from it.

The southern San Joaquin Valley, back in the day (as in 200 years ago), would turn into a shallow lake during wet years. Wetlands, really. This “Lake Tulare” was huge, and the water table was high as a result. This water didn’t make it to the sea, but merely soaked in. Once agriculture was established, the lake was drained for farmland, and the water used for irrigation. The Kern, Tule, and Kaweah rivers no longer flow to their ends, but dry up as water is diverted.

But this year, there is water, so the rivers flow. In the case of the Kern River, the water goes to the southwest of Bakersfield, and is used by the Kern Water Bank. This entity uses 30 square miles of settling ponds to store water in the aquifer underlying Kern County. During good years like this one, water is replaced to raise the table, and is then available for pumping in dry years. It’s a remarkable system, and a real gem of a facility.

I have a friend who works for the Water Bank, and he showed us around the place, hunting wildlife with our cameras. The wetlands that are created by the water draw thousands of migratory birds, and the place is a birder paradise. There is a whole colony of White-faced Ibis that is nesting there right now, five species of heron, and a whole lot more.

According to my friend, this year, they are storing about 920 cubic feet of water per second. That is 1800 acre-feet of water being put in the ground every single day. Since an acre-foot will serve an average family for an entire year, imagine how much water that is.

One of the reasons that water is being run down the river right now is a political consideration. If Isabella needs to release water during the summer to make room for more snowmelt, then Los Angeles gets that water. If they run it now, and store it locally, Kern County gets the water. So we store as much as we can now, and let LA purchase more expensive water from the aqueduct.

Anyway, there is your bit of history and local politics for the day. Which is all just a setup for some pictures I got at the water bank. Enjoy.

 Probably my best shot of the day. A White-faced Ibis taking flight. 

 Black-necked Stilt.

 This Gopher Snake let us get really close. Just beautiful, and over four feet long.

 Lots of Red-winged Blackbirds. Also a few Tri-colored Blackbirds, but I didn't get as good of a closeup of those. 

 Two of the five species of herons we saw. Great Egret (L) and Snowy Egret (R).

 Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron.

 Cinnamon Teal.
 The focus is just a bit off on this one, but these are Cattle Egrets, and I like the way the framing turned out. 

 Adult Black-crowned Night Heron.

Black-necked Stilt on its nest.


For those who care: This was the first outdoor shoot with my new camera - a Nikon P530. These were mostly shot from my vehicle - the car serves as camouflage so that the birds aren't spooked.  


  1. This is a nice concise summary of California water history setting up your photo shoot at the Water Bank. I was delighted to be along for this Kern County Safari.

  2. Beautiful photos! I really like the 5th one of the 2 herons. It's framed nicely by the grass.