Water master: Isabella Lake level 'critical,' lowest since '77

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Isabella Lake is disappearing right before their eyes, and some Kern River Valley residents are really worried.

Meanwhile, businesses hope to lure visitors to other local recreation activities while the reservoir shrinks to low levels in this very dry year.

"I think it looks terrible, I think it needs to be held to a level not any lower than it is now," Tom Schwass told Eyewitness News on Wednesday. He took photos to document how bad things are.

"It's too shallow to even put your boat in safely at a launch ramp," he complained. Schwass is a businessman in Lake Isabella, and the lake's the lowest he's seen in decades. It's down at about 13 percent of capacity.

"It hasn't really been down probably that low since 1977," Charles Williams said. He's the Kern River water master.

As water master, Williams said he's been appointed by the water rights holders to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps operates the dams at the lake, and the water rights holders are several agricultural water districts. Williams also works with the city of Bakersfield, which also has rights to river water.

Williams called the current lake level "critical," but Mother Nature didn't put much water into the reservoir, and farmers in the valley need to use what they can. And, that need continues.

"At the end of July we should be around 12 percent, instead of 13," Williams predicted. He added with the recent very hot weather, farmers needed even more water to keep their crops going. "I anticipate we'll continue withdrawing probably to the middle of August, and at that point in time alternate supplies (for the growers) should be able to take care of it."

But, some water will still come out of the lake to maintain a "fish flow" in the lower Kern River and for use by power plants, Williams said. Plus, the lake level will be affected by evaporation of water in the reservoir.

"Probably be down to 8 or 9 percent by November," Williams predicted.

At a certain point, Williams will not send more water to the rights holders.

"Conditionally, 30,000 acre/feet is the limit it can be down to," he explained. That's about 5 percent, he said. And, that's a limit established by the Kern County Board of Supervisors back in 1964 as a minimum "recreation pool," he said.

"In the '70s it was that low," Cheryl Borthick said. She's the Kernville Chamber of Commerce president and a business owner. She also remembered it was 30 years ago when there was so much water in Isabella Lake it was going over the dam spillway. It all depends on the weather.

But, Borthick said local merchants are trying to deal with this year's low water levels by encouraging visitors to come for other types of recreation.

"Look through town," she said, pointing toward Kernville's town center. "There's tubing, paddle-boarding, there's all kinds of activities."

The chamber hopes to lure tourists into the area for fun that doesn't necessarily need the lake.

"There's mountain biking, there's climbing, there's fishing," she ticked off the list.

The water going into the reservoir comes from the upper Kern River, of course, and on Wednesday families were at Riverside Park in Kernville cooling off in the river there, others floated by on inner tubes.

Still, Borthick said the dry year has hurt the local economy, especially the rafting companies.

"Their season this year has been non-existent," she said. "Three of them had just shut down the doors."

She's really disappointed that "White Water Wednesday" won't be happening this year.

Borthick said rafting companies and chamber officials met with the water master a while back and got the bad news about how the year was shaping up for river flows.

"That's definitely an economic hardship for them, but we didn't do it arbitrarily," Williams said. But, he's still hearing complaints from the public about the impacts.

The water master says if Isabella Lake gets down to that 5 percent "recreational pool" minimum, the water would be about 50 feet deep near the dam, and the lake would be about 2.7 miles in size. "You can catch a lot of fish in two to three square miles," Williams says. "And, do a lot of boating in between."

The lake is about five and half square miles right now, Williams says. There are large areas that are usually under water, now with none. Williams said the historic average for Isabella Lake at this time of year is about 35 percent of capacity. Water planners would like to see the level at 50 percent in early July.

But, it's down at 13 percent right now, and Williams said about 130 cubic feet a second of river water are going into the reservoir, while they're sending out about 400 cfs.

And that's the pet peeve Tom Schwass has. "I'd like to see a restriction on the out-flow," he said. "No greater than the flow in in-flow."

Borthick said they have to make the most of what water there is, and hope for the best. "We depend so much on the weather and whether we get a rainy, snowy season," she said. "I don't know what else to say. We just have to pray that we get snow in the lower Sierras this year."