Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, December 1, 2022


Elizabeth Reid-Wainscoat, Center for Biological Diversity, (831) 428-3312,
Adam Keats, Law Office of Adam Keats PC, (415) 430-9403,
Tim McNeely, Bring Back the Kern, (818) 730-2000
Rich O’Neil, Kern River Parkway Foundation, (661) 706-1096
Stephen Montgomery, Kern Kaweah Chapter Sierra Club, (661) 496-6585,
Harry Love, Kern Audubon Society, (661) 805-1420,
Bill McKinnon, Water Audit CA,

Lawsuit Challenges City of Bakersfield’s Diversions of Kern River

BAKERSFIELD, Calif.— Conservation groups have sued the city of Bakersfield for diverting water from the Kern River and ignoring the harms such diversions do to the community and wildlife. The lawsuit, filed in Kern County Superior Court on Wednesday, seeks greater protections for the river, which is completely dry near Bakersfield because of diversions for agricultural use.

“I believe that the Kern River and the people in Bakersfield and beyond deserve more than a dry riverbed. A Kern River with year-round flowing water will help create jobs and beautify the city of Bakersfield,” said Tim McNeely, a spokesperson for Bring Back the Kern. “While this current drought looks dire, people have to understand that droughts are part of life in California. It is impressive that other California waterways have found commonsense solutions to ensure their rivers are protected in both wet and dry years. The same can and should be done for the Kern River.”

“Let’s not forget that water is a public right, not a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder,” said Elizabeth Reid-Wainscoat, a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Restoring and protecting the Kern River will help the fish and other wildlife who depend on a flowing river, and it’ll allow people to enjoy cleaner air and riverside recreation once again.”

Wednesday’s lawsuit argues that the city failed to address the environmental harms caused by the water diversions and violated California’s public trust doctrine, a legal principle that requires government agencies to protect public resources like the Kern River for the public good. Since 1976 the city of Bakersfield has been the administrator and manager of all water diversions from the Kern River. Water from the river is diverted every day from several small dams on behalf of neighboring agricultural water districts, and, to a much lesser degree, for municipal use.

“The public trust doctrine holds that the state, as trustee, must not unreasonably waste or harm our shared natural resources,” said Adam Keats, a lawyer for the coalition of environmental groups. “Rivers and the public resources sustained by them, such as fish, wild ecosystems and even recreation uses, must receive protection under the doctrine. It’s an ancient doctrine, foundational to the creation of our system of government. And it applies to the Kern River and to the city of Bakersfield.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Center, Bring Back the Kern, The Kern River Parkway Foundation, Kern-Kaweah Chapter Sierra Club and Kern Audubon Society.

“The river is dry, but not because of a lack of water,” said Stephen Montgomery, president of the Kern Kaweah Chapter Sierra Club. “The river is entirely diverted into canals with no prioritization of people or the environment.”

The Kern River is one of the great rivers of California’s Sierra Nevada range, descending from its headwaters near the base of Mount Whitney to the San Joaquin Valley floor. But the river channel becomes completely dry near Bakersfield, where water is diverted into canals and conveyed to farmland across the region.

“The Kern River, starting at the mouth of the canyon, begins with vibrant riparian vegetation that soon ends with corpses of dead trees,” said Harry Love of the Kern Audubon Society. “These trees have died because of lack of water. No water provides a sterile sight. The loss of vegetation is not only a direct threat to birds and other wildlife. It is a crime against the people.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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