Business

Friday, Jul 19 2013 08:00 PM

Businesses fret over Isabella Lake's low water level

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Dick De Chant lets his dog, Nelson, off of the paddle board as he paddles around the Kern River where there is very little current. Paddle boarding is one of the new sports people are enjoying on the Kern River.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Historically low water levels at Isabella Lake are raising serious concerns among the area's recreation and tourism industry, where businesses are working to adapt to -- or, in some cases, resist -- what some fear could be a prolonged threat to the local economy.

Kern River rafting trips ended much earlier than normal this season because of the drought, denying local inns, restaurants and stores the summer customers they rely on to support them throughout the year.

Rather than wait quietly for the next wet year, Kernville and Lake Isabella business people have responded by shifting their emphasis to activities that don't require strong currents -- such as paddleboarding, kayaking and fishing -- and by asking local politicians and government officials for help.

The situation has focused attention on plans to shore up Isabella Dam, which will require temporarily low water levels and impact boating and camping in the area.

It has also prompted unsuccessful proposals to change the way water is released from the dam to down-river municipal and agricultural users.

While county officials have offered marketing help and directed businesses to emergency loan programs, they say there may be little that can be done to stave off the effects of two consecutive years of less-than-normal snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada, source of the lifeblood that flows into the lake and the river.

"We're going to do everything we can within our means, but there are just certain things that government just can't do," said Teresa Hitchcock, acting executive director of the Kern County Board of Trade, which as the county's tourism bureau promotes the area's continuing recreational activities at trade shows in Southern California and elsewhere.

A reminder of the drought's local impacts came Friday as the U.S. Forest Service announced the removal of boat docks around the lake because they had reached the end of their anchor wires.

The agency said it hopes to re-anchor the docks further from shore Monday, and that in the meantime, boaters should be careful using the lake's South Fork ramp.

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

Meanwhile, Kern River Valley businesses individually and as a group are trying to make the best of the situation.

The Kernville Chamber of Commerce recently spent about $5,000 on Bakersfield television commercials spotlighting non-rafting activities such as tubing, kayaking and fishing.

"We're doing everything we can to get the word out that there still is water up here," said the chamber's office manager, Arianna Rogers.

Tom Moore, owner of Sierra South Paddle Sports in Kernville, has long taken visitors from around the state on rafting tours down the Kern. He said the rafting season normally extends from about mid-March until as late as September.

But this year the rafting season barely made it to the Fourth of July, he said, greatly limiting employment opportunities for local young people he hires to captain rafts.

"For a rural area, for jobs, you know, it's kind of hard to come by for areas like this," he said. "They're coveted jobs and kids like them."

To cope, Moore said he has invested in high-quality innertubes and paddleboards, which are fun and work well in stiller water but bring in only about half the revenue rafting does.

Louise Whitworth has not been so lucky. Owner of Whispering Pines Lodge - Bed and Breakfast in Kernville, she has seen bookings drop off drastically this year despite her efforts to promote horseback riding and visits to local museums and antique shops.

"They want to go rafting," she said.

OFFERS OF HELP

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Mick Gleason, the area's representative on the county Board of Supervisors, have listened to local businesses' concerns and investigated possible solutions.

But to this point, their help has been mostly limited to supporting the promotion of the area's outdoor recreation and directing local small businesses to economic injury disaster loans available through the California Emergency Management Agency.

McCarthy wrote in a statement Friday that he is also encouraging the agencies responsible for the dam construction project -- the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers -- to "find ways to work with local business owners."

The Army Corps' dam project manager, John Menniti, said the agency is doing just that even as it expects the construction work to close some nearby campgrounds and boat docks.

"We realize that the local community is definitely dependent on recreation for their livelihood," he said."We're sensitive to that and everything we do is going to work around that."

The dam project originated with findings of seepage beneath the structure, which in turn led to the discovery that an earthquake fault under the dam is active. To reduce the risk of a flood in Bakersfield should the dam falter, the Army Corps proposes to raise the structure and build a new spillway that can accommodate large amounts of water if necessary. This work is expected to begin in 2017 and take eight years to complete.

Until the job is finished, Isabella Lake is expected to contain less water than normal, as a precautionary measure. On Thursday, the lake was only at 13 percent of capacity, half of normal for this time of year.

The current low level, however, is a natural phenomenon. According to the city of Bakersfield's Water Resources Department, the Kern River watershed is at its third or fourth lowest level since at least 1893.

SUGGESTING CHANGES

Some Kernville-area residents and business owners have suggested "ramping" the river flow so that, instead of releasing water around the clock, it would be let go in heavy, 12-hour spurts that could support rafting.

"It would help us out tremendously, because we could get a season in," Moore said.

There have also been calls to limit the amount of water that goes down river.

Marsha Smith, vice president of the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce and publisher of the Kern Valley Sun newspaper, said, "We would like to see less water going out to maintain what we have."

Unfortunately, these actions would disrupt what needs to be a steady flow of water to the city of Bakersfield and the farmers who are entitled to the water, said city Water Resources Manager Art Chianello, who called the ramping proposal impractical.

"Our objective is to try to keep the water as steady as possible," Chianello said. He added that the lake will "never be dried up completely" because of a promise by the city that it will maintain a minimum water level for the sake of recreational users.

Supervisor Gleason's senior district advisor, Dave Freeland, a former district ranger at the Sequoia National Forest who still lives in the area, looks at the bright side.

He said the lake still has plenty of water for the use of personal watercraft, wind sailing and activities like fishing and rock climbing.

"I don't know of a geographical spot that has that much to offer even when the water's down," he said.

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