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Miles Muzio: Kern County's water fortunes are looking up

Although the winter forecast from last autumn was tepid at best with little indication of record rain and snow to come, our water fortunes have dramatically improved over the past 60s days.

Water is flowing in the Kern River again after many dry years. But surface water, such as in rivers and lakes, is only part of the Water Triad.

All plant and animal life needs water. And all water starts in the sky. Every drop in California begins as precipitation and flows into a Water Triad made up of surface water, ground water and snowpack in the Sierra.

Surface water can be clearly seen, and has been clearly rising- directly related to the excessive rain and snow we’ve enjoyed in December and January. Those two months represent 237% of normal precipitation. After enduring drought conditions since Christmas of 2011, Kern County’s fortunes are turning around. The worst category of drought, Exceptional, that had been in place since January 2014 is now over. We are only in a Moderate Drought.

Furious rainfall in mid-January over our mountains brought about flooding in several spots. Lake Isabella dam received more than 23 and a half inches of rain for December and January- more than 5 times the average. Lake Isabella has enjoyed a 140% increase in water storage in January alone. This happy turn of events is the result of 3 separate months in the rainy season of well above normal precipitation.

Warm weather caused some snowmelt in addition to the heavy rain. At its peak, the Kern River in Kernville roared to a flow of over 10,000 CFS on January 9th with all that water surging into Isabella Lake

The rain has been important, but perhaps not as critical as snow. Snowpack in the Sierra is a time-released assurance of water for the central valley in the summer. Without heavy snowfall in the winter, we would have very little surface water for much of the year.

It has been a bumper crop of snow, more than twice the average- and heavy rainfall, more than twice the average. All that water gradually finds its way to the south valley, to recharge zones and filters down through our sandy soil into the third and most important leg of the water triad- ground water.

So when all the mountain snow has melted, when the lakes and rivers have nearly gone dry- the last resource Kern County can depend upon is ground water. The past several years, surface water had largely dried up causing an increase in pumping water from below.

Art Chianelo is the water resources manager for Bakersfield and says “..we were at historic lows, in terms of ground water levels, and we hope to correct that in this wetter year.”

Ground water under Bakersfield is slowly rising, another encouraging turn of events, but also predictable. Water table levels are measured regularly at several wells in the Bakersfield recharge zone, nearly 4 and a half square miles of undisturbed wetland southwest of town into which water from the Kern River floods.

How is the ground water level measured? Chianelo says it is usually measured by going to a monitoring well. “We can measure the depth of water below the top of the well.”

Water technicians use a laser to measure distance from the top of the well to the water beneath, and then make comparisons with past readings. Most recent measurements indicate an increase in this well of 12 feet in only 19 days. That contrasts with an average rise of about 25 feet from September to mid-January in some other monitoring wells. In addition to the large recharge zone southwest of Bakersfield, you may have seen some of the hundreds of sumps around town that rainwater flows into. Once it goes into these sumps the water recharges through the sumps back down into the ground water basin. We have over 330 sumps within our city. They do a really good job of capturing the local precipitation and recharging that water back into the ground.

It is a slow process, but our sandy soil actually helps speed up the process of ground water recharging. Half of the rainy season is still ahead and several significant storms should deliver more water from the sky through April and early May. Underground aquifers rise and fall slowly, but consistently. We should see some benefits of those recharge activities that we’re doing now over the next few months up to a year from now.

It is amazing how fast a water table can recover, even after 5 years of a drought. No, the drought is not over. But you can always feel the momentum shift during a big game. And by all indications, our moderate drought is no longer an emergency as it once was.

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