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Water managers on big release down Kern River: 'We have to make room for the snow pack'

The Kern River is roaring down the canyon as of Monday. Water managers say 4,050 cubic feet a second is being released from the dam at Lake Isabella, and they're doing that to make sure there's enough space in the reservoir for whatever the weather sends down next.

"We want to essentially create a hole in the lake for the snow pack and runoff to come through," Kern River Water Master Dana Munn told Eyewitness News. "So, we're pulling the lake down, we're making room for that."

Managing the river water takes some educated guess work on what the weather will do next, and it's a balancing act between how much can go into the lake and what to do with water that's released.

Munn said they get forecasts from the state Water Resources Department, and use those projections.

They also try to make sure Isabella Lake doesn't get above about 66 percent of its capacity. That's the limit set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about ten years ago after they discovered some concerns with the two earth fill dams.

The Corps is in the middle of a "Safety Modification Project" to deal with those issues.

As of Monday, while 4,050 cfs were coming out of the lake, only about 2,650 cfs were going in.

But, Munn said there's also more water in the Kern River below the dam. He said runoff in the canyon is adding about 210 cfs.

Water managers also don't want so much water coming down the river through the canyon, that it threatens Highway 178. That did happen in 2006, when engineers ordered a large release of water from Isabella.

Right now, the river is really full. In many areas, it's bank to bank, with steep rapids, and the water's moving fast.

Munn said state water experts project the Kern River could reach 275 percent of normal this year.

"That will make this year about the fifth largest year out of 120 years of history, if that forecast holds," he said.

Munn works with the Corps and with users who have rights to Kern River water. He said so far, much of the water being released is going into "recharge" projects those users have.

"If you take a bike ride along the bike path and you go from Stockdale Highway to Enos Lane, you're going right through the heart of their water bank," Munn said. "And, there's tons of water out there."

Bakersfield City officials say water from the very full Kern has closed off one section of the bike path. Recreation and Parks Director Dianne Hoover tells Eyewitness News the area under the Calloway overpass may be closed for a few days.

Hoover said that spot has been a problem before, and the city's looking into building some sort of barrier there to prevent too much water damage. Also, there's some consideration about rerouting the bike path to avoid the problem area altogether.

It's been five years of drought and very low levels of water in the Kern River, and now there's a lot. Munn said the river interests are working with the Corps to ensure safety of the dam and Highway 178.

He said there should be more good information on how much more runoff to expect when the next state survey is done March first. Munn said that one is very accurate, since it's a physical measurement done by crews that hike up into the mountains.

Meanwhile, they hope to balance out how much river water is coming in and going out of Lake Isabella, and either use it or save it, so it doesn't end up flowing out of the county,

"Our goal right now is to avoid doing that," Munn said. "And, we're about meeting that goal."

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