Lois Henry

Saturday, May 11 2013 10:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Silt chokes the lower Kern; explanation is muddy

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Local fisherman Craig Coston walks in a shallow section of the Kern River about 10 miles inside of the canyon. Sediment releases from Southern California Edison's power plant have clogged up the river for miles and ruined the fishing, according to Coston and other local anglers. "They've killed the ecosystem, " said Coston. Sediment can be seen on both sides of the river at this point.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    About 10 miles inside of the canyon, local angler Craig Coston leaves footprints in the sediment on the bank of the Kern River.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Sediment clings to a rock on the bank of the receding Kern River.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Craig Coston shows a hand full of sediment he scooped up in the shallow waters of the Kern River.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Using a camera with a polarizing filter to reduce glare, local fisherman Craig Coston photographs sediment deposits in the Kern River, about 10 miles inside the canyon.

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By Lois Henry

Sediment releases from Southern California Edison's dam on the lower Kern River have gunked up the river for miles and ruined a once thriving fishery, according to local anglers.

"They've killed the ecosystem," said avid fly fisherman Craig Coston.

Related Info

Lois Henry hosts "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Southern California Edison has three power plants on the Kern River.

One above Kernville, one at Lake Isabella and the third on the lower river at Democrat.

On the lower Kern, Edison diverts water from the river and holds it in a pool behind Democrat dam.

When the company wants to make power, it moves that water into a canal and through its turbines then dumps the water back into the river at the mouth of the canyon.

The Democrat power plant was built in 1907 and can generate up to 25 megawatts of power.

Edison says it has released sediment according to a long established plan that is monitored by downstream river interests, two federal agencies, the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

That all may be true, but it's also true that silt has clearly built up below Edison's Democrat dam to the point that the river is no deeper than five inches in many places.

The silt has filled in pools, laid a smooth blanket over gravel and built beaches up under and around rocks. In some places the silt banks are two- to three-feet tall. All of which has eliminated habitat for bugs that fish need to eat as well as places for fish to hide from predatory birds, Coston said.

And while Mother Nature's stingy snow packs for the last two winters can be blamed for a lot of other water woes, Coston said that's not the case with the destroyed fishery.

Above Democrat dam, he said, the fishing is phenomenal. The river is robustly healthy.

Below Democrat all the way to the mouth of the canyon, 15 miles or more, is "horrible," Coston said. Other fishing experts confirmed "the river's a mess" below Democrat with hardly any fish.

"It's not an issue of naturally occurring silt, or this being a low water year," Coston said. "It's all about how Edison is managing the sediment."

To understand why naturally occurring river silt needs a management plan, you have to go back to 2001.

Edison hadn't bothered with the sediment building behind Democrat dam for about a decade.

In 2001, during a safety inspection of the dam, somehow tons of backed up silt -- 272,000 cubic yards -- were dumped into the river.

The river was a mess for miles and it wasn't just fishermen who noticed.

That's when the Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game), State Water Resources, Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service got involved.

It was a "catastrophic event," said Keven Colgate, a consultant with Cardno ENTRIX, which developed the management plan Edison now operates under.

"It took seven years to move through the river," she said of that giant sediment dump.

Meanwhile, the river continues bringing more sediment down and Edison tries to release a little at a time to prevent a repeat of 2001.

The company dumped 20,000 cubic yards of sediment into the river in 2007 and 10,000 cubic yards again in 2009. Much of that was washed downstream in the big water year of 2011.

"The releases are timed so we get enough river flow, but we also have to release before certain fish species spawn and rear their young," Colgate said. "It's a small window of time."

The company has to decide whether it's a good year to dump silt by late January and then dump by very early February so as not to interfere with the mid-March spawning of small mouth bass and hard head minnow.

"We look at the amount of sediment stored behind the dam," Colgate said of factors they consider. "And we look at the coming water year."

Hmmm.

I would think the coming water year would be a key factor. Because a low flow year means the silt is just going to sit there, clogging things up, which can't be very helpful to spawning fish.

Which makes me extremely curious as to why Edison decided to dump between 3,000 and 10,000 cubic yards of silt into the river in 2012 and again this past February.

(As an aside, yes, those ranges are ridiculously wide. An Edison spokesman said the company couldn't give me a more precise figure, which I found odd since it claims to closely monitor how the releases are affecting river health. Knowing exactly how much sediment you're dumping strikes me as a critical piece of data in that effort. But what do I know?)

Anyhow, since Colgate said the coming water year is a factor in the decision, I asked if that meant they look at snow pack in, say, January and whether it has to be at a certain percentage of normal in order to dump.

Wellllll, I was told, it's in the mix, but snow pack isn't "required" as a factor to be considered.

Since Edison decided to dump sediment after two of the worst winters we've had in years, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say snow pack doesn't mean bubkis in deciding whether to dump silt into the river.

I wondered how our state agencies, especially Fish and Wildlife, felt about the situation.

I was told it's cool for Edison to dump the sediment "under certain regulated conditions." But no one Fish and Wildlife ever said what those conditions were and whether Edison was meeting them.

Instead, I was directed to ask Edison how the program is going.

Eye roll.

Sediment moving through a river is natural, I was reminded by Edison and Fish and Wildlife. And after fires, which we've had in recent years, there's a lot more sediment than normal.

I get all that.

But it doesn't answer the question of why the river above Democrat is healthy while below the dam fisherman are seeing a virtual wasteland.

Someone ought to be able to explain that.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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