South San Joaquin Valley farmers have a reason to celebrate this week: Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives appropriated $200 million to fix the Friant-Kern Canal. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Chairwoman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, attributed the allocation to the advocacy of Rep. T.J. Cox.

The bill also includes funding to repair the Delta-Mendota Canal and for two Northern California reservoirs.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Chairwoman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, attributed the funding to the advocacy of Rep. T.J. Cox, a Democrat who represents portions of Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Kern counties, in a statement released by his office. Last year, Cox invited Rep. Raul Grijalva, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee to the Valley to view some of the region’s water challenges in person.

“This bill represents the full federal share of what’s needed to fix Friant-Kern, and it will take a big bite out of other major water problems afflicting the Valley,” said Rep. Cox.

But there’s a bigger chunk of money — $250 million — needed to fulfill the entire project.

The canal has sunk 12 feet in a 33-mile-long stretch near Porterville due to subsidence — a phenomenon where the ground literally sinks because of groundwater overdraft, accelerated during the last drought of 2012-2016 . This “kink” in the canal causes it to operate at 60% of its typical capacity, significantly reducing what water contractors get for farm irrigation.

It creates a negative feedback loop — farmers receive less river water through the canal; they then pump more groundwater to make up for the deficit, thus contributing to greater overdraft and subsidence, causing the canal to sink even further and deliver less water.

Friant-Kern history

The Friant-Kern Canal was completed in 1951 and was created in response to concerns over groundwater overdraft and subsidence in the 1930s and ‘40s. It carries San Joaquin River that’s stored behind Friant Dam to farms and a handful of communities in Madera, Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties.

Impacted water districts are located in southern Tulare and Kern counties. Lindsay and Strathmore are the only communities that rely on the Friant-Kern Canal in the southern stretch for drinking water, so they must lean more on their groundwater wells to make up when deliveries are lower than anticipated.

In December 2019, the Trump administration jump-started the repair process by having the Bureau of Reclamation examine the project’s environmental impact. Public comments on the draft environmental impact statement ended in late June; a final environmental report is expected in September.

The funding announcement comes on the heels of the release of a final feasibility study on the cost of repairs for the project.

“This is a big step, and it’s further evidence that the Friant-Kern Canal capacity correction project is viewed as a high-priority project and, thankfully, one that hasn’t been politicized in our hyper-political climate,” said Jason Philips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority which represents the majority of Friant-Kern water users and is responsible for the operations and maintenance of the canal.

Who should pay?

The feasibility study pegged the cost of the project at $500 million. Under the WIIN Act — a major water infrastructure bill passed in 2016 — up to $164 million of any federal funds provided to the project must be reimbursed by Friant Water Authority users over a 40-year period.

Approximately $40 million of the project funds could come from the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, leaving a $250 million funding gap which must be filled by the state, local governments or user fees.

Using taxpayer funds to fix the Friant-Kern Canal problems is fraught with controversy. Some say farmers, who dug deeper wells to keep their crops alive during the last drought, are directly responsible for subsidence and impacts to the canal and should pay for the repairs.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed by the California Legislature in 2014, required farmers and cities to reduce groundwater pumping over time — or put more water back into the ground. The first round of required groundwater sustainability plans were submitted to the state at the end of January of this year — but a preliminary review by researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California found that most Valley plans were far too optimistic, given current water supplies.

Essentially, if the alternative water supplies that so many local agencies are relying on to make up for lost groundwater pumping do not materialize, farmers and irrigation districts will likely continue to do what they’ve always done — keep pumping. Under the law, local water districts have until 2040 to get their groundwater supplies back to sustainable levels.

Efforts to garner state funding for the project have been unsuccessful. In 2018, California voters rejected Proposition 3 — including $750 million in bond proceeds to help finance repairs for the canal.

In 2019, state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, introduced SB 559, requesting $400 million from the state budget for repairs to the canal. The bill was passed in the Senate last year and has until Aug. 31 to pass out of the Assembly.

Will the federal support for the repairs cause California-based skeptics to change their minds?

If state or local funds can’t be secured this year, the feasibility study suggests that the repairs may still begin as early as 2021, focusing on the most urgent portions of the project.

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