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Is New Kern River Water Coalition Grassroots or Astroturf?

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Dry Kern River bed
A rope swing dangles from a tree above the dry Kern River west of Allen Road in Bakersfield in 2020. (SJV Water/Lois Henry)
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The main water district involved in several legal battles for Kern River water has launched a new coalition/messaging campaign it is calling Sustainable Kern River.

By Lois Henry

SJV Water

Its website says the organization is a coalition and lists several members, but its creation and funding come from North Kern Water Storage District, according to North Kern’s General Manager Dave Hampton. North Kern hired Los Angeles public relations firm Fiona Hutton & Associates to run the campaign.

“We wanted to do this right,” Hampton said. “The idea is, the hope is, to bring water users to the table and develop a collaborative solution that works for all parties and not take water away from existing beneficial users.”

He said this is an effort to “balance the narrative” in regard to the Kern River partly as a response to ongoing water rights hearings by the State Water Resources Control Board as well as in response to the awareness campaign led by local group Bring Back the Kern.

Water Board Hearing on Dec. 9

The Water Board is considering whether a 2007 forfeiture of some river water by Kern Delta has resulted in available water on the river and, if so, how much. If water is available, the Water Board will consider several different applications for that water, including one from the city of Bakersfield, which has pledged to run the water down the riverbed through town. Bring Back the Kern supports Bakersfield’s application.

“The idea is, the hope is, to bring water users to the table and develop a collaborative solution that works for all parties and not take water away from existing beneficial users.” — Dave Hampton, GM, North Kern Water Storage District

The next Water Board hearing on the forfeited water will be Dec. 9 at 9 a.m.

“We’re very concerned about protecting Kern River rights and that people don’t fully understand the benefits of how the river is used and how it benefits farming, urban, recreation, and groundwater recharge,” Hampton said.

Though the campaign mentions collaborative solutions, Hampton said those are yet to be developed as the effort is still in its infancy. He invited any interested residents or groups, including Bring Back the Kern, to join the coalition and bring their ideas.

Growers, Cities, Rafting Company in Coalition

So far, the coalition includes five members including North Kern, grower DM Camp and Sons, the cities of Wasco and Shafter, and Sierra South, a rafting company in Kernville. Tom Moore, Sierra South owner, is quoted in the Sustainable Kern River press release as saying changes to outflows from Isabella Lake, presumably to facilitate a wet river through Bakersfield, could impact recreation-based jobs in the Kern River Valley. Moore did not return a phone call from SJV Water.

The website and press release also include comments from city leaders in Wasco and Shafter, which Sustainable Kern River notes are “disadvantaged communities,” stating that the river helps provide for the economic well-being of those towns.

Shafter is joined with North Kern in its application to the state Water Board for that forfeited water.

The launch of Sustainable Kern River was met with considerable skepticism.

Bakersfield Councilman: It’s a ‘Slick Marketing Campaign’

“To say you are for a sustainable Kern River and at the same time advocate for a dry river bed, doesn’t seem to be consistent,” said Bakersfield City Councilman Bob Smith, who chairs the city’s water board and supports water in the riverbed. “I think this is a slick marketing campaign by (North Kern).”

“To say you are for a sustainable Kern River and at the same time advocate for a dry river bed, doesn’t seem to be consistent.” — Bakersfield City Councilman Bob Smith

Adam Keats, who is representing Bring Back the Kern and other public interest groups at the state Water Board hearings, called the new effort “obvious astroturfing,” in reference to the practice of creating a false grassroots campaign. He added that North Kern and its landowners “Realize they are on the bad side of the community and history. A true collaborative solution would work from the baseline of creating a healthy ecosystem first.”

For Bring Back the Kern, this new effort was disappointing, said spokesperson Lia Mendez.

“The group is perpetuating the false narrative that we must choose between using water for agriculture and allowing a fraction of that water to flow through its natural river channel,” Mendez wrote in an email. If the group is truly interested in collaboration, she asked, why wasn’t Bring Back the Kern invited to participate?

“Nearly 7,500 people have signed a petition in support of restoring the flow of water to the Kern River. Why would Sustainable Kern River Coalition not want those voices represented?”

About SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley.

 

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