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Recent visitors at Isabella Lake find water levels low. / Laura Austin Photo

Atmospheric river’s rain, benefits Isabella Lake

  By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer– Heavy rains from the atmospheric river wreaked havoc in some parts of California; however, the heavy rainfall has been beneficial to Isabella Lake. The rainfall has been “a big help,” says Kern River Watermaster Mark Mulkay. “We’ve had several drought years in a row and so the reservoir was very, very low through this winter period. So these last several storms have helped bring precipitation and a lot of snow into the basin. The snowfall was good because it stays there and melts in the spring and comes out slower than a big rain event would but these last few storms have significantly improved the condition and position that we’re in compared to the last three or four years. We’re well over 100% of average snowpack for the April 1 number so we’re in very good shape this year compared to the past several years, which is kind of nice to be the Watermaster and be able to actually manage some water.”

   Watermasters have similar roles in all watersheds. Mulkay works with the Kern River interests, which include several irrigation districts and the City of Bakersfield who own water rights on the Kern River. “ I work as a liaison essentially between the river interests and the Army Corps of Engineers on the releases from Isabella reservoir during the winter period, the Corps of Engineers wants to make sure that there’s plenty of space available for large precipitation events.

   “The level of the reservoir has to be brought down back at this time of the year. That’s called flood control space. The maximum storage in Isabella is 170,000 acre-feet. Now, because we’re coming off of a significantly dry year, we’re well below that number. We’re at about 105,000 acre feet. My responsibility is to work with the river interests; make sure that their requests are made to the Corps of Engineers and vice versa when the Corps of Engineers has information and request that comes through me back to the group so that I can get it to the right person, get the right information back to the corps in a timely fashion. And there are several agreements and programs that I work within and make sure that water is being diverted properly and being accounted for properly once it leaves Isabella.”

   So that we can understand why precious water is released from the reservoir, Mulkay explains, “Isabella reservoir has two purposes. One is flood control on the Kern River to keep the City of Bakersfield and San Joaquin Valley from flooding. The secondary purpose of the reservoir is for conservation space, and that’s through spring and summer that is allowed to fill so that the water can be kept and then used in a timely fashion through the rest of the season for irrigation and urban demands. 

  “It’s always less expensive to be able to use water that stored on the surface and then bring it down and use it for the demands in the Valley rather than bring it down, recharge it and re-pump it. Right now it’s controlled, there are no flood release requirements. So most of the water that’s coming into the reservoir has been stored for future use in the summertime. 

   “I understand people complaining about not wanting to let the water out because they want it for later use but we also need to remember that the major purpose of this reservoir was flood control and protecting the properties and land here in the San Joaquin valley floor from damage.

   “Right now, with current conditions, we’re in very good shape to have a season, both recreationally and for the water users. A better position that we’ve been in for several years. I’m excited for the area for recreation folks, for our farmers, for the City. Everybody who uses that water is going to have a lot more water to be able to use this year than we have in the past and that always brings excitement and happiness in the region. People love seeing water in the river and that just brings fishing and brings boating and brings camping, and excursions on the river. All those things are positive for the area.”

   Eagle Rafting Owner Joe Chesney tells us he may able to lead rafting tours through the 4th of July this year. Last year he led rafting tours through June 5th, but that was only because he had scheduled them in advance. In 2019 he was able to lead tours through October. He tells us, “Right now down the river people are out there rafting and kayaking. The river is becoming busy. You can go to my website, And see a water flow page that shows the actual flow of the Upper Kern River and you can see these storms that are coming in on a graph that shows the hourly rate of the water coming down.”

   Hal Chiprin, one of leaders of Hot Springs Angels, says about the water levels at Lake Isabella, “ I’ve lived here about 12 years and I’ve never seen it all the way full.  I’ve heard it is the way it used to be and it used to be really wonderful. I heard that a lot more people came up here for the recreational opportunities when the lake was up. So the local economy was doing better when the lake was up. So I would think that now that the dam has been modified, and they’re going to build the lake up all the way, I think it’s going to be really good for the area and hopefully more people come to recreate and and the economy improves. I think it will make the area more desirable and I think property values are going to go up even higher when the Lake is full and they can maintain it in the state of pretty much full.”

   The snow melt will help the water tables in the San Joaquin Valley. For the people of Indian Wells Valley, we can enjoy the beauty and recreation of the Kern River Valley. And our hearts won’t have to break every time we drive by Lake Isabella.