Acres of debris in Isabella Lake pose challenges for local businesses, government agencies

·7 min read

Mar. 25—Deb Guarienti had never seen anything like it.

The gargantuan winter storms that earlier this month hammered the Kern River Valley and the mountains that surround it delivered massive water flows to the upper Kern River and to all the smaller streams that feed into Isabella Lake.

"For 18 years I've been battling mostly drought. The irony is ... am I going to be put out of business because of too much water?" said Guarienti, the longtime owner of French Gulch Marina.

It wasn't just water the swollen mountain streams carried into the lake. The mighty Kern took out trees and telephone poles, and all the streams transported chunks of wood and debris of all sizes and carried untold tons of dirt and sediment into the fast-rising reservoir about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield.

Now parts of Isabella Lake have become zones of floating debris, with plenty more hidden just below the surface, posing hazards to boaters, users of personal watercraft, windsurfers and others, said Al Watson, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

Whose responsibility is it to clean it up, Guarienti wonders. Or is a comprehensive cleanup even possible?

Better yet, who decides if and when boaters can go back out on the water?

Go to the valley's active social media network, and you get conflicting answers. Go to the government agencies whose presence is felt daily in the valley and the answers aren't much clearer.

"The Forest Service holds the majority jurisdiction of the land around the lake," Watson told The Californian on Friday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the main and auxiliary dams and there's some private property, too, but the Forest Service oversees the majority of the land that touches the shores of Isabella Lake — including the property the agency leases to the proprietor of French Gulch Marina.

Here's where it gets nearly as murky as the lake.

"The water surface of Isabella is the jurisdiction of Kern County Parks," Watson said. "I can't close the lake to recreational use — from private land."

Geoffrey Hill, chief general services officer for the county of Kern, said in an email that the county does not own the land on which Lake Isabella sits, nor does it own the land surrounding the lake.

"The county maintains law enforcement and rescue responsibilities on the lake," Hill said. "We do not manage any maintenance of the lake, dam, USFS boat ramps, campgrounds, or roadways around the lake."

On March 10, Teresa Benson, forest supervisor for the Sequoia National Forest, signed an emergency forest closure order that prohibited nonauthorized individuals from "going into or being upon" National Forest System lands, roads or trails within the Sequoia National Forest.

Exceptions were later made for three locations on the lakeshore, the Auxiliary Dam Campground, Paradise Cove Campground and Camp 9, Watson said.

On Friday, another order was issued by the Forest Service. Effective Sunday, "Kern River Ranger District areas available for public use" will include Isabella Lake.

"The closure order is needed to ensure public safety as we determine the full extent of impacts to (the) forest's ecosystem, infrastructure, and recreation sites," Benson said in a news release.

"Please adhere to road closures and pay attention to locked gates, as they are intended for your safety. We expect to provide more detailed information about the storm damage and recovery plans in the coming weeks as conditions allow. As safety concerns are addressed, access to the forest will increase."

There is nothing specific about recreational use of the surface of the lake in this release. But it appears no agency has specifically prohibited use of the lake by boaters, kayakers or other visitors.

However, "all docks have been pulled," Watson said.

Even though there may be no explicit prohibition of boating in the lake, no one — not Guarienti, not Watson — suggests it's a good idea to take a floating vehicle out into the muck and debris that still clutters parts of the lake.

"The debris shifts around," Watson said. "That was a major concern of Kern County Parks."

It's possible, he said, to become stalled or blocked in by migrating debris, potentially trapping a boater, and requiring a helicopter rescue.

But what about a cleanup effort?

Jeremy Croft, a public affairs specialist at the Corps of Engineers' Sacramento District, said Corps staff are aware of the debris accumulating in Success Lake, Isabella Lake and other reservoirs.

"To date, we have not experienced any disruptions to dam or spillway operations as a result of this debris," he said. "We are engaged in conversations with area agencies to determine an appropriate course of action."

The county of Kern also does not appear yet to be sold on the idea of a cleanup.

"The county has not historically been involved with debris cleanup around the lake," Hill said. "I do not know what specifically would be involved with cleaning up the debris."

Despite Hill's assertion, Watson said the county is "developing a plan to mitigate some of that debris, although it looks like Mother Nature is taking care of some of it," he said.

Fred Clark, president of the board of the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the Lake Isabella Fishing Derby, one of the biggest events in the valley, which signals the beginning of the tourist season each year, has been pushed back seven weeks, from April 1 to May 20.

All due to the debris.

"It's huge for the valley," he said of the derby.

Clark said the chamber values its cooperative relationships with the multiple agencies that govern the lake and its surroundings. And he agrees that recreational use has lately carried a health and safety risk.

But he believes a massive cleanup effort is possible, and the valley's rich tradition of volunteerism could play a key role in such an effort.

"Our lake will return," he said. "If this is the worst thing that impacts us, we're going to be OK.

"Our economy revolves around tourism. But safety is key."

The only thing he has reservations about, Clark said, is the lack of clarity regarding communication from governing agencies.

"That's the part I don't fully agree with," he said.

Meanwhile, Guarienti and Grove feel they are staring down the barrel of a disaster. Not only can they not operate with the debris in the water, they worry that once the lake is filled — something that has not happened in decades — they will run out of space to anchor their floating slips and docks to dry land, as they always have.

"We operate under a Forest Service special use permit," Guarienti said. "I don't own a grain of sand. Technically, I cannot alter a grain of sand without doing an environmental impact study.

"I own everything that's floating," she said. "That's all me out there."

As the lake level continues to rise, Grove has almost continuously had to move the floating docks, which include a store and two utility and storage buildings.

They're moving once a day up the hill.

"I don't know if the Army Corps is aware of our situation," she said.

And the Forest Service also seems oblivious.

"Is the Forest Service going to waive my fees this year?" Guarienti asked. "Because they have shut us down."

Gary Ananian, founder and executive director of Kern River Conservancy, said it's become something of a pattern with government agencies during a disaster.

"They will take all our money and assume management responsibility for recreation and land use," Ananian said, "but will run away the second there is a disaster and need to cough up money for recovery."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC