Since the arrival of the first farmers in the late 1860s and early 1870s, agriculture has played a central role in the Kern County economy. The combination of rich soil, a favorable climate, hard work and access to fresh water has enabled Kern to become the second top-grossing agricultural county in the entire nation. Agriculture is one of the most beneficial uses of Kern River water, and for good reason: agriculture provides 20% of all Kern County jobs, generates over $86.5 million in farmworker income and produces over 250 crop types worth $7.6 billion annually (2019).
Kern County’s thriving farm industry produces much of the nation’s food supply and provides the fruits, vegetables and nuts you would find at your local grocery store or favorite restaurant. From the expansive reach Kern farming has at dinner tables across the nation to the immense economic impact for farm workers and residents right here in our backyard, one thing is abundantly clear: Kern County agriculture is the backbone of our region’s economy.
Since the beginning, these farms—and the communities that grew up around them—have relied on water from the Kern River to sustain them.
Farmers established and have managed their businesses and communities on the basis of a stable supply of water from the Kern River. Over a century of well-established water rights laws, court decisions and agreements protect access to the water that makes their daily lives possible.
Our available Kern River water supply is a finite resource, and that means we must strike a balance between meeting the water needs of both the people and our environment. Whether it’s water for families in Shafter and Wasco, irrigation systems on farmland or through the Kern River to support a healthy ecosystem, they are all beneficial uses of Kern River water and are all key to Kern’s water security and climate resiliency.
Since the first settlers began using the Kern River in the 1800s, the river system has changed, the ecosystem has changed and our climate has changed. It is time to establish a more collaborative path forward to manage and balance our water supply in a way that honors all needs.
For decades, local water districts have managed surface water from the Kern River to benefit communities along and north of the river like Shafter and Wasco. Whether it’s drinking water for families and local businesses, or irrigation water for the farmland that provides food security and local jobs, the livelihood and prosperity of residents in small disadvantaged towns like Shafter and Wasco is directly tied to a predictable and sustainable source of water.
When you think of Kern County, you think of agriculture—and this is particularly true in Shafter and Wasco. A third of all jobs for the people of these towns comes from agriculture, and water instability in the Kern River system threatens to put these communities already struggling from a combination of economic, health and environmental burdens in greater jeopardy.
The Kern River works hard to satisfy a diverse array of human needs—from farming and the demands of urban dwellers to fishing, white water rafting and boating on Lake Isabella.
In response, laws were established to clearly identify those with legal rights to river water and to ensure this precious resource is carefully managed for its highest and best use.
The water supply in the Kern River goes through infrequent wet years followed by long periods of drought—and the droughts are only getting longer and more intense with the impacts of climate change. During dry years, there simply isn’t enough water to both meet the needs of the people, farmers and disadvantaged communities that depend on it, while also keeping the river flowing through Bakersfield for aesthetic reasons.
Let’s face it, our climate is changing. And that means the Kern River must work that much harder to meet the needs of all water users. That is why it is so important that all water users take only the amount of water they are legally entitled to.
To ensure there is enough water to go around, water users need to work together to develop solutions that can help to stretch the limited water resources we all depend on in the Kern River. No one water user’s needs are more important than anyone else’s. That is why it is so important that every water user take only the water they are entitled to.
Kern County needs “win-win” solutions that can help avoid unintended consequences for farmers and small-town residents.
To successfully confront the challenges presented by climate change and drought, all water users need to work collaboratively to sustainably manage the Kern River’s limited water supplies according to the water rights laws that we all have to follow. Through this region-wide approach, we can secure Kern County’s water future for the families, farmers and communities who are the backbone of Kern’s thriving agricultural economy and our way of life.