Feds double water supply for Valley farms, cities

Friant-Kern Canal users will get 30% of their normal water supply this year, double the initial 15% allocation announced in February

TULARE COUNTY – More water will flow into farms and cities on the Valley’s east side after a decision by the federal government to increase the supply streaming down canals.

On July 20, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) announced it will increase the water supply delivered to contractors along the eastern side of the Valley to 30%, doubling the original allocation of 15% announced in February. The amount of Class 1 water, for contractors with first rights for water deliveries, was confirmed by Friant Water Authority, which operates the Friant-Kern Canal, in a July 22 update on its website. It was the second time this month Reclamation has increased its allocation for water contractors along the 152-mile canal stretching from Fresno to Bakersfield. On July 8, USBR announced Friant contractors would receive 20% of its 2022 water allocation.

“We are still in a drought, one of the worst on record; however, late season precipitation in parts of northern California was a welcomed surprise and provided the potential for marginal operational flexibility this summer,” the USBR stated. “It is our practice to continually assess system conditions throughout the year and adjust Friant Dam operations based on the best available information. Accordingly, the Central Valley Project water supply allocation for Friant Class 1 contractors increased from 15 to 20 percent on July 8, and from 20 to 30 percent on July 20. “

USBR is the federal agency which oversees the Central Valley Project, a network of dams, reservoirs, canals, hydroelectric power plants and other facilities which supply water to the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley and parts of the Bay Area. Millerton Lake, the lake east of Fresno which holds water released down the Friant-Kern Canal, was at 58% capacity as of July 24. FWA all but predicted the increase in a July 8 statement released following the first allocation increase.

“Based on current reservoir levels and forecasts, it appears that there may be an opportunity to increase the Class 1 allocation to 30% if no additional water in Millerton is required by the Exchange Contractors. FWA is optimistic that today’s revised allocation is the first step towards achieving that number,” Friant wrote in the statement.

FWA communications manager Alex Biering said it is not uncommon for USBR to revise its allocations throughout the year, especially during a drought. In 2020, USBR revised its numbers several times. Biering said USBR has become increasingly conservative with its initial allocation numbers to ensure there is enough water in Millerton Lake to supply San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, farmers on the Valley’s west side who sold a portion of their historic riparian rights to USBR in order to create Friant Dam and store San Joaquin River water behind it. In exchange, those water rights holders are guaranteed water before surface water right holders supplied by the Friant-Kern Canal. This year, Biering said USBR has released more than 200,000 acre feet to exchange contractors. 

“That didn’t really happen in the first 70 years of the agreement,” Biering siad.

Better snow and rainfall in the Sacramento area late in the spring has allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to budget more water to be delivered to the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors through the Jones Pumping Plant moving it south of the Delta – relieving Friant of that obligation and allowing that much more water to be delivered to its members along the 150-mile Friant-Kern Canal.

The new allocation sends an extra 40,000 acre feet down the canal from Madera to Bakersfield at a time of extreme drought in the hottest part of the summer. That water is in addition to 120,000 acre feet included in the initial 15% allocation. In a wet year, like 2019, FWA contractors get a full allocation of Class 1 water, or 800,000 acre feet. Class 1 contractors are those who receive water before anyone else while Class 2 contractors only receive water when there is more than enough to supply Class 1. 

“Based on our analysis from Reclamation, we calculated there should be up to 40% of Class 1 water,” Biering said, “but still nothing for Class 2. This gets us a little closer to that so we are thankful for Reclamation’s decision to continually revise the number.”

FWA’s Class 2 contractors did not receive any allocation, meaning the 2022 water year is projected to be very dry. Water years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year. This is the third straight year Class 2 contractors have not received water from the canal.

There is also more water supply for sale. On July 15, the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, a settlement with state water users to restore salmon runs along the San Joaquin River to the ocean, notified FWA of the availability of an additional 31,450 acre feet of Tier 2 water available to Class 1 contractors. The water is priced at $188.87, which goes into the SJRRP Reclamation Fund and must be paid at the time of scheduling.

Canal construction update

Construction continues on FWA’s massive project to restore capacity in the canal. FWA has lost more than 60% of the canal’s capacity below Lindsay and into Kern County, where the canal has sunk by as much as 6 feet in some areas due to subsidence.

Phase 1 of the $500 million project includes constructing 10 miles of new concrete-lined canal to replace one of the worst pinch points of the canal’s subsiding middle reach between Lindsay and McFarland. Phase also includes increasing the height of embankments along the current canal to allow water to flow over the sunken areas. The project is funded by Reclamation, Friant Water Authority, and DWR. Phase 1 of the project is anticipated to be completed and fully operational by January 2024.

In the July edition of its newsletter Waterline, FWA said excavation of the new canal and constructed embankments between Avenue 112 and Deer Creek, and between Avenue 92 and the project’s south end were ongoing last month. Most of the trees in the path of the project have been removed and the ground between Earlimart and Ducor has been prepared for the new canal’s foundation.

Future phases of the project include raising the sides of the original canal, widening sections of the canal and improving roads and bridges along the canal. 

As with any major construction project, team biologists have been monitoring active construction areas and consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure construction activities do not affect wildlife in the area.

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