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Environmental groups sue Bakersfield over Kern River diversion

Advocates say the Kern is being sapped by agricultural businesses, rendering Bakersfield's piece of the river nearly always bone dry.

(CN) — Five environmental groups sued the city of Bakersfield on Wednesday over the diversion of the Kern River to water districts controlled by agricultural businesses growing almonds, pistachios, grapes and other crops.

"Bakersfield has created a public nuisance by diverting water from the Kern River and its tributary streams without any analysis of the impacts," reads the complaint, filed in Kern County Superior Court.

The diversion reduces the surface flow of the river to such a point where "the river flows through the city only on very rare occasions." In other words, Bakersfield is bisected by long, dry gully on nearly every day of the year.

That's led to a growing movement of local residents and environmental activists calling for the river to be restored to its former glory. An online petition, addressed to Governor Gavin Newsom and other state officials, demanding the dry river be filled, has gathered more than 9,400 signatures.

A spokesman for Bakersfield said the city does not comment on pending litigation. A lawyer for the Buena Vista Water District, named as a real party of interest, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit. An attorney for the plaintiffs declined to comment until the lawsuit had been officially processed by the court.

The Kern River runs 165 miles or so, from the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, south, making a sharp turn west at Isabella Lake, then continuing on toward Bakersfield. In the 1850s, the river flowed well past the city, but nowadays it doesn't make it that far.

According to the lawsuit, the dried out river bed has "resulted in damage and threats to the quality of the river ecosystem and the local environment, including vegetation and fish and wildlife in and around the river, aesthetic and recreational opportunities in and around the river, and air quality in the surrounding area." That is to say, the dry riverbed is an eyesore, as well as, at times, a source of dust.

The five plaintiffs, including the grassroots group Bring Back the Kern, are asking the judge to issue a preliminary injunction "halting the City from diverting water... in a fashion that will harm and jeopardize the survival and recovery of fish species in the Kern River."

The demand to restore Bakersfield's urban water shed is one seen in cities throughout Southern California. The Los Angeles River was encased in concrete in the 1930s and '40s in the name of flood control. For the last forty years, a group of artists and environmentalists have advocated a restoration of the LA River to something more natural, rather than the 50-mile open sewer (or water freeway, if you will) that it now appears.

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