A Path Forward to Repair the Friant-Kern Canal

On November 19, 2018, Jason Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of Friant Water Authority, sent the letter below to all Friant Division contractors regarding the organization’s plans and next steps for restoring capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal. A PDF of the letter is available here.

November 19, 2018

Dear Friant Division Contractors:

On November 6, Proposition 3 – which would have helped the San Joaquin Valley repair vital water infrastructure, achieve groundwater sustainability, and secure clean drinking water for our most vulnerable communities – did not pass in the statewide general election. In addition to fixing the Friant-Kern Canal, Proposition 3 would have provided hundreds of millions for other Valley-wide water infrastructure, $640 million to help local agencies comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), and $750 million for clean drinking water for disadvantaged communities, many of which are in the San Joaquin Valley.

The measure’s failure to pass is a major setback to the Valley and only compounds our water crisis, which will become increasingly evident in the very near future. More acutely for many Friant contractors, it means that a needed source of funding we were hoping would help address critical subsidence-driven damages on the Friant-Kern Canal and restore its as-designed conveyance capacity will be unavailable. Nonetheless, we appreciate our elected officials and civic leaders who fought for Proposition 3 and our Valley, and we are committed to working with them as we move forward to find solutions that will protect our economic and environmental future.

The Friant-Kern Canal is the largest artery for water on the eastside of the Valley. It is part of an economic engine that powers our economy and provides tremendous benefit locally, statewide, and nationally. Ballot initiatives are always a risk but failing to fix the Friant-Kern Canal is not an option for Friant Water Authority, the districts who rely on it, and the communities it supports. As such, Friant Water Authority is moving forward on several fronts regarding repairs to the canal.

Prior to the peak water season deliveries in 2019, Friant Water Authority is scheduled to complete immediate interim repairs on the areas of Friant-Kern Canal most impacted by subsidence. Completing these repairs will increase the carrying capacity of the canal Friant-Kern Canal south of Porterville from Avenue 96 through Road 80 by as much 300 cubic feet per second, which is nearly a 20% increase from the capacity seen over the last few years. Funding for these repairs will come from $7.2 million already provided by the Bureau of Reclamation for this project last year and construction should begin by the end of this year.  

Construction work necessary to restore long-term conveyance capacity in the critical areas of the Friant-Kern Canal most impacted by subsidence is scheduled to begin in 2019. These repairs could cost as much as $200 million or more, and there are several options our organization is pursuing to finance the work. The current engineering, design, and permitting efforts are being funded by the Bureau of Reclamation.  Additionally, nearly $20 million will be available in October 2019 for canal construction as a result of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement. This, however, still leaves a significant funding gap to complete the critical long-term repairs. Friant Water Authority is continuing to work with our Federal representatives and the Administration to identify funding sources and financing options, including low-interest loans for infrastructure and other opportunities for cost-sharing.

Far more work is necessary in the Valley than just on the Friant-Kern Canal to support a sustainable water balance. The $750 million from Proposition 3 for water conveyance would have only been a small down payment on the infrastructure needs throughout the Valley to make up for the millions of acre-feet each year being over drafted from groundwater aquifers. Given the stakes, now is not the time to delay action. 

Friant Water Authority recognizes the size and stature of the challenges facing all members of the Friant Division as well as districts and growers throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Today we have an opportunity to set aside our minor differences and restore the organizational structure of Friant Water Authority that can best advocate for our collective interests in both Sacramento and Washington, DC. Our members are already discussing several key partnerships with other public water agencies throughout the Valley to jointly consider infrastructure opportunities that can take advantage of storing, conveying, and recharging water whenever it is available. These partnerships will be critical to increasing our water available and reducing the amount of land that will need to be permanently retired as a result of SGMA, the new State groundwater law. 

Over the next few months, the Friant Water Authority Board of Directors will be tasked with determining the amount of work to complete on the canal and the ultimate funding sources it will rely on. This will likely require decisions about how to allocate cost among Friant contractors, no matter which path forward is selected.

Despite the disappointing result on Proposition 3, Friant contractors should feel confident that Friant Water Authority is charting a path to restoring the reliability of the Friant-Kern Canal and will continue to advocate for you, your water rights, and your future. We see the need for unity to face the challenges of the Friant Division in the years ahead. You can expect to receive updates on all of these items in the coming weeks and months.

Sincerely,

Jason Phillips
Chief Executive Officer

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.