Fresno Bee: Valadao, Costa, other Valley leaders rally in support of California water ballot prop

The following article appeared in the Fresno Bee on September 20, 2018. It can be accessed at https://www.fresnobee.com/news/politics-government/election/local-election/article218738990.html.

Valadao, Costa, other Valley leaders rally in support of California water ballot prop

By Rory Appleton
September 20, 2018

A coalition of local leaders gathered Thursday at the Friant-Kern Canal near Millerton Lake to formally launch the Yes on Prop 3 campaign in support of a state water bond they say would bring billions of dollars in much-needed relief to the central San Joaquin Valley.

The speakers included Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford; Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno; state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford and Fresno Mayor Lee Brand.

“For far too long, we’ve been left out of too many bonds,” Valadao said to open the news conference. “This is a direct funding source that will actually deliver dollars to the community here.”

Proposition 3 would authorize $8.9 billion in general obligation bonds for various infrastructure repair and maintenance programs, wastewater treatment upgrades, safe drinking water improvements and environmental conservancy efforts such as fishery improvements and groundwater replenishment.

The coalition praised specifically a section that would use $750 million to repair the Friant-Kern and Madera canals.

It also voiced support for a provision that would send $250 million to “disadvantaged communities,” many of which are located in the Valley, for wastewater treatment. Another $500 million would address communities that have lost access to safe drinking water, many in the Valley.

Costa, one of few Democrats in attendance, said the bipartisan Proposition 3 “goes a long way in fixing our broken water system.”

“It invests in our future, and you know – that’s the challenge living in California,” Costa said. “We’re living off the investments our parents and our grandparents made generations ago. This is an important step forward.”

Patterson noted that nearly half of the $8.9 billion would be used in the Valley one way or another, which he said is rare because Central California is often left behind in statewide initiatives.

He also foreshadowed grim times for local agriculture should the bond measure not pass.

“Absent this action, almost one-third of the land currently farmed locally could very well go out of production,” Patterson said. “It will devastate our economy. It will kill jobs, and it will put local services in deep jeopardy.”

Proposition 3 requires a simple majority to pass in November. July polling from the Public Policy Institute of California indicated 58 percent of likely voters surveyed would support the new water bond.

Fresno Bee Editorial Board: Yes to Prop. 3

The editorial board endorsement below appeared in the Fresno Bee on August 24, 2018. It can be accessed at https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/editorials/article217097890.html.

This time, a state water bond has real money intended to benefit the Valley

By the Fresno Bee Editorial Board
Aug. 24, 2018

Four years ago California voters considered a $7.5 billion water bond that Valley supporters hoped would provide money to build a new dam on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat.

That $2.83 billion dam was to provide a critical new supply of water to the Valley, both for farmers as well as cities. The water bond, Proposition 1, was on the ballot in the midst of a crushing drought, and voters passed it handily. Valley officials hoped to get $1 billion for their project.

But four years later, nothing more than a trickle of money — $171 million — has been allocated by state officials for the Temperance Flat dam. Despite strenuous lobbying by Valley officials, the state Water Resources Control Board said the dam did not offer enough public benefit to justify more bond funding. Today its future is murky.

Now voters in November will consider yet another water bond — Proposition 3, also known as the Water Supply and Water Quality Act. It has an even bigger price: $8.8 billion. Stung by the experience of Proposition 1, Valley voters would be justifiably skeptical of this new one. But there are key benefits that make Proposition 3 worth supporting.

For one thing, the author of Proposition 3, Gerald Meral of the Natural Heritage Institute, says no other previous water bond has had a focus on the Valley like this one.

To start, $750 million would be devoted to repairing and restoring the Friant-Kern and Madera canals, key parts of the federal system that delivers water from Millerton Lake to Kern and Madera counties. Along the way, the canal provides supplies to Fresno, Orange Cove and Lindsay, as well as irrigation districts that serve much of the farmers on the Valley’s eastside.

Last year the Friant Water Authority discovered that land had fallen by as much as two feet along the canal near Corcoran. That subsidence means only 40 percent of the water that some farmers have contracted for can actually be delivered. Money from Proposition 3 will allow the authority to repair subsidence damage and restore the canal’s gravity flow so deliveries can be made as designed. If the canal is not fixed? Farmers will fallow more acreage, meaning less production, reduced hiring and fewer purchases in communities whose economies depend on agriculture.

Friant water is used by 17,000 growers in Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties, which are among the top areas in the nation for agricultural production. In 2015, crops grown in those three counties were worth $19.7 billion; growers taking water from the canal account for $10 billion of that.

Another $750 million would be devoted to safe drinking water and wastewater treatment programs for small towns whose residents are mostly low income. While the funding would be allocated statewide, the Valley is home to a number of communities that cannot deliver drinking water that meets state standards. A McClatchy investigation this year found that about 360,000 Californians are customers of water systems that violate state standards for nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants.

About $50 million would go to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to clear out dead trees and brush and rehabilitate forest land where wildfires had burned. Another $200 million would be used by the conservancy for projects to restore watersheds. That is key to the Valley because the Sierra functions as the region’s main watershed.

The bond would allocate $640 million toward helping local water agencies implement plans to meet the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That state law requires underground aquifers to be in balance between pumping and recharge. Communities where underground basins are badly overdrafted, have water quality problems, or where subsidence is happening would get priority for funding. Many communities with overdrafts are located in the Valley.

There is opposition to the proposition. The Sierra Club believes money raised by the bond could be used to build new dams, something it has long opposed.

The Oakland-based environmental group also dislikes the allocation to fix the Friant-Kern Canal, saying a statewide bond measure should not be used to benefit users of a federal water system. The club points out that funding would be continuous for decades to come (and would ultimately cost $17 billion once interest is factored in), that legislators were not involved in drafting the proposition, and that the public does not have enough oversight going forward.

But Meral says no money is set aside for dam construction, and the Friant-Kern Canal needs repairs with or without a new dam on the San Joaquin. As for oversight, the proposition requires the state’s Natural Resources Agency to get an independent audit of spending every three years, and every six months regular updates would be posted on the agency’s website to let the public know how the projects are proceeding.

Whiskey may be for drinking and water for fighting over, as Mark Twain is famously reputed to have said. Certainly there is no more complicated topic in California than water. Prudent voters should take time to study the proposition.

The Bee strongly recommends approval because of how Proposition 3 would directly benefit the Valley. Fixing the Friant-Kern Canal, improving Sierra watersheds and getting clean water to Valley communities in a broad sweep, as this measure would do, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Fresno Bee & Sac Bee: The Valley floor is sinking, and it’s crippling California’s ability to deliver water

The following article appeared in the Sacramento Bee and Fresno Bee on July 13, 2018. It can be accessed at: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article214631455.html.

The Valley floor is sinking, and it’s crippling California’s ability to deliver water

By Dale Kasler & Phillip Reese
July 13, 2018

Terra Bella - Completed during Harry Truman’s presidency, the Friant-Kern Canal has been a workhorse in California’s elaborate man-made water-delivery network. It’s a low-tech concrete marvel that operates purely on gravity, capable of efficiently piping billions of gallons of water to cities and farms on a 152-mile journey along the east side of the fertile San Joaquin Valley.

Until now.

The Friant-Kern has been crippled by a phenomenon known as subsidence. The canal is sinking as the Valley floor beneath it slowly caves in, brought down by years of groundwater extraction by the region’s farmers.

Along a 25-mile stretch of Tulare County rich with grapevines and pistachio trees, the canal has fallen so far — a dozen feet since it opened in 1951 — that it has lost more than half of its carrying capacity downstream from the choke point. Water simply can’t get through like it’s supposed to.

“It ponds up; you lose capacity and that ability to move water through the system,” said Douglas DeFlitch, chief operating officer at the Friant Water Authority. The authority operates the canal for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project.

Although subsidence has been a problem for decades, it accelerated as groundwater pumping expanded during the recent drought. Now it’s reaching a crisis point on the Friant-Kern, and California voters are being asked to fix it.

A proposition on the November ballot would raise billions of dollars for a variety of water projects around the state, including roughly $350 million to repair the Friant-Kern.

Proposition sponsor Gerald Meral, a prominent environmentalist, said it’s in Californians’ interests to ensure the flow of water to the east side of the Valley. The Friant-Kern brings water to the city of Fresno, numerous small towns and 17,000 farmers.

“Keeping 1 million acres of land in the Friant service area (in production) is a public good,” said Meral, a former deputy secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency.

So far no organized opposition has emerged to Meral’s proposition.

The Friant-Kern’s woes illustrate the enduring nature of California’s water problems. The epic five-year drought is officially over, but not everywhere. Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2017 declaration ending the drought omitted four counties where groundwater has been severely depleted: Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Tuolumne. The stricken canal serves two of those counties, Fresno and Tulare, along with Kern County.

It’s a problem that feeds on itself. If the canal can’t do its job, farmers downstream likely will pump more groundwater during dry years. A 2014 state law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requires farmers to rein in their pumping, but the restrictions don’t fully kick in until 2040. Because farmers use some of the water from the canal to replenish groundwater, fixing the Friant-Kern would help coax the aquifers back to health.

During the drought, groundwater became a lifeline in this part of the Valley. Friant area farmers normally get water from the San Joaquin River, stored behind Friant Dam, but reservoir levels fell so low that the Central Valley Project didn’t deliver a drop of river water to Friant farmers in 2014 and 2015.

Desperate to keep their crops alive, farmers in Fresno County drilled 763 new wells in 2015 alone, according to the Department of Water Resources. In Tulare County, the number of new irrigation wells hit 1,069 that year. Overall, Valley farmers removed enough groundwater during the drought to fill Shasta Lake seven times over, according to a study last year by researchers at UCLA and the University of Houston.

A few inches a year

Depletion of groundwater causes subterranean layers of clay and gravel to gradually compress. The earth’s surface drops, usually a few inches a year.

Over time, that translates into serious troubles, especially for gravity-fed systems. The Friant-Kern has no pumps; its concrete chute is supposed to ride a gentle slope that runs downhill 6 inches every mile, just steep enough to deliver water the full 152 miles from behind the Friant Dam near Fresno to a spot just north of Bakersfield.

The canal already had sunk several feet since the 1950s. The drought simply made the problem that much worse. At a point 100 miles south of the dam, just west of the tiny community of Terra Bella, the canal dropped about 2 feet between 2015 and 2017. That created a choke point that has left canal operators unable to deliver 60 percent of the water to farms and cities along the last 50 miles or so of the canal’s low spot.

The Valley’s well-drilling frenzy has abated as overall water conditions in the state have improved. Farmers drilled a total of 366 wells in Tulare and Fresno combined last year. Subsidence, however, persists. The ground continues to sink in some spots beneath the Friant-Kern, worsening the canal’s troubles.

“We’re still seeing some degradation,” DeFlitch said.

NASA scientist Tom Farr, who has used satellite imagery to study subsidence, said a wet season can bring the land back to where it was — but recovery isn’t always 100 percent. Too much pumping can compact the layers of soil and gravel and permanently reduce underground water storage capacity.

In some cases, “you can’t restore it,” said Farr, who works at NASA’s Joint Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Over the past two decades, Farr said, some Valley aquifers have lost nearly 10 percent of their ability to store water.

Subsidence is hardly limited to the Friant region. In one infamous example, an area around Mendota, west of Fresno, sank 28 feet over a 50-year span beginning in 1925. NASA scientists last year reported finding “subsidence bowls” in parts of the Valley, and depressions as far north as Woodland and areas north of Lake Tahoe.

Other segments of California’s water-delivery network have suffered from sinking ground.

A portion of the State Water Project’s California Aqueduct in Kings County lost 20 percent of its delivery capacity because of subsidence, the NASA researchers reported. The Department of Water Resources has spent $2 million on preliminary repairs, including the raising of the aqueduct’s sidewalls, but still is “in the early stages of developing alternatives to determine a long-term solution,” said spokeswoman Maggie Macias.

Subsidence often doesn’t look like much. The low point of the Friant-Kern Canal, near Terra Bella, doesn’t resemble a crevice or even a shallow bowl. It appears flat to the naked eye. The only visible sign of trouble is a bridge, part of Avenue 96, that crosses the canal near Terra Bella. It sits barely a foot above the water. It used to be 12 feet.

The canal has been fixed once before to deal with subsidence, in 1979. The sides of the canal were raised so water cascading through the system wouldn’t lap over the sides at the point where the canal had lost elevation. It was a partial fix.

“It’s not a new problem,” DeFlitch said.

It became obvious in early 2017 that subsidence had become an urgent issue. Record rainfalls that winter had raised reservoir levels at Millerton Lake behind the dam, and canal operators prepared to release a generous slug of water into the canal. Because of the choke point, however, they realized they couldn’t ship as much water as they planned. Roughly 300,000 acre-feet of water had to be released directly into the San Joaquin River instead of going to farmers downstream of the low spot near Terra Bella.

An opportunity lost

The shortfall didn’t kill anyone’s crops that year; it represented just 14 percent of the total available supply along the Friant-Kern system. But it was a big opportunity lost for those at the southern end of the canal. DeFlitch said much of that water was going to be “banked” in Valley aquifers for use in the inevitable dry years — a crucial strategy in a region where water supply is notoriously unpredictable.

“We live and die by banking water,” said Friant Authority board member Edwin Camp, a Kern County farmer who grows almonds, oranges and other crops south of the canal’s choke point.

Friant officials still are wrestling with how to fix the canal. They might raise the sidewalls several feet, augmenting the work that was done in 1979. They also would have to elevate bridges that pass over the sunken canal.

Another strategy under consideration is installing a pumping plant at the choke point to move water through, although DeFlitch said the costs of operating the pumps would be substantial.

In any event, California taxpayers might foot the bill.

If voters approve Proposition 3 in November, the state would borrow $8.9 billion for various water projects, including $750 million to improve conservation and groundwater-recharge efforts in the Friant area. That sum would include an estimated $350 million to repair the Friant-Kern and a smaller canal, also operated by the Friant Authority, that suffers from subsidence.

Why shouldn’t Friant farmers pay for this? Didn’t they cause the problem by pumping groundwater?

Not exactly. Meral and independent experts say Friant’s farmers are only partly to blame. Much of the subsidence has been caused by farmers just outside Friant’s territory, they say.

If Proposition 3 fails in November, the funding question goes back to square one. Jason Phillips, the Friant Authority’s chief executive, said hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland would risk going out of production if their water supply remains constricted.

Farmers say repairs are needed — soon.

“We’re still dropping an inch a month in that pinch point,” Camp said. “When does that stop?”