Congress approved $206 million to fix the sinking Friant-Kern Canal as part of the final appropriations and COVID-19 relief package awaiting President Trump’s signature.

That’s less than half of what engineers say is needed to restore the canal, which is the main artery conveying water from the San Joaquin River, from Millerton Lake to farms and communities on the eastern side of Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties.

Near Porterville, the middle section of the Friant-Kern Canal has sunk nearly 10 feet as a result of land subsidence due to overpumping of groundwater by farmers, resulting in about a 50% reduction in the delivery of the water intended to users in southern Tulare County and Kern County.

The water shortfall 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, resulting in the canal sinking even further and delivering less water. The planned repair will fix the problems.

Who pays for the rest?

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.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, announced Tuesday on Twitter that she will re-introduce a bill for the state to pay for a share of the funds to fix the canal.

Last year, Hurtado authored SB 559, which initially proposed $400 million in state funds for the repairs of the canal. Later, the bill was amended to only require that the state Department of Water Resources propose to the Legislature, no later than March 31, 2021, how the state would pay for up to 35% of the projected costs. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Using taxpayer funds to fix the Friant-Kern Canal is fraught with controversy. Some argue that farmers, who dug deeper wells to keep their crops alive during the last drought, are directly responsible for subsidence and its impacts to the canal and should pay for the repairs. In 2018, California voters rejected Proposition 3 — including $750 million in bond proceeds to help finance repairs for the canal.

Local farmers are likely to assume a share of the repair costs. On Dec. 11, as initially reported by SJV Water, the Friant Water Authority approved a settlement agreement with the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency — representing irrigation districts and farmers in southern Tulare County — where they would pay between $125 million to $200 million to compensate for the impacts of groundwater over-pumping by their growers.

The agreement will be before the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency for approval on Jan. 7.

If approved b the board, the issue would go to Eastern Tule GSA voters to raise groundwater pumping fees on local landowners.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed by the Legislature in 2014, requires 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.

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 the San Joaquin River water that’s stored behind Friant Dam to farms and a handful of communities in Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties.

The Friant-Kern Canal in the San Joaquin Valley is sinking as parts of the San Joaquin Valley floor collapse because of subsidence, the result of excessive groundwater pumping during the drought. Bridges in this area of the canal, near Terra Bella, used to be 12 feet above the waterÆs surface. Now its one foot. Craig Kohlruss

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. The environmental documents were completed in September and received final approval on Nov. 4.

With or without state or local funds, construction is still expected to begin in 2021, according to a statement from Friant Water Authority Chairman Chris Tantau.

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