GSA, Friant Water settle on subsidence payments

Eastern Tule GSA agrees to pay up to $220 million for overdrafted aquifer’s impact on Friant-Kern Canal as Friant Water Authority, Arvin Edison agree not to sue over GSAs plan to allow future pumping

PORTERVILLE – A major portion of funding to repair subsidence in the Friant-Kern Canal was secured last week in a settlement between the canal’s operator, the groundwater agency where subsidence is taking place and the irrigation district most affected by the lack of conveyance.

Managers of the canal—the Friant Water Authority—have been working to raise $500 million to fix the problem where the land has sunk more than 12 feet since it was put into service in the 1950s.Photo courtesy of the Friant Water Authority

On Jan. 7, the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (ETGSA) Board of Directors approved an agreement with the Friant Water Authority (FWA) and Arvin Edison Water Storage District where the GSA would pay up to $220 million to repair the section of the canal between Lindsay and McFarland where overdrafting groundwater has played a significant role in the subsidence of the canal, according to hydrological studies. The board reported the vote following a closed session on the settlement.

Arvin Edison is not part of the Eastern Tule GSA but rather the White Wolf GSA, an entirely different subbasin in Kern County, and is the southern most district served by the south-flowing, gravity-fed canal. As a result of the Agreement, FWA and Arvin Edison agree to support implementation of the ETGSA’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) and forego any potential litigation against the ETGSA or its landowners.

“I’m pleased that we were able to resolve this in a way that will avoid expensive and painful litigation that itself could cause a great deal of harm to our communities,” ETGSA Chairman Eric Borba said. “Ensuring growers’ access to transitional pumping while minimizing impacts to the FKC is our key concern.”

ETGSA included transitional pumping, allowing more than 1 million acre feet of groundwater beyond sustainable allocations in 2021, as part of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) approved by the Department of Water Resources last year, a requirement of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), more commonly referred to as “sigma”. The 2014 California law requires local water agencies to create plans to reach sustainable groundwater levels by 2040.

“SGMA compliance is challenging for all involved and agencies are working together to produce viable solutions for water delivery, storage and recharge,” said ETGSA Director and Distreict 5 County Supervisor Dennis Townsend. “This agreement is the culmination of hours of planning and negotiations to address historic subsidence issues and the need for continued groundwater pumping in this transitional period. Stakeholders hope working together will insure better water delivery and sustained success for all involved.”

The Tule Subbasin, which includes the Eastern Tule and five other GSAs, already had an agreement in place to handle unsustainable groundwater pumping and its effects on the canal, but most of the subsidence is taking place in the Eastern Tule so it required more stringent mitigation measures. The problem is most pronounced in the Deer Creek region between Terra Bella and Pixley. At one point, the canal dropped five inches in five months, illustrated by canal water almost lapping up against the bottom of a bridge on Avenue 96. The more than 3 foot drop in as many years reduced the flow of the canal by 60% from an average flow of 2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 1,600 cfs, effectively cutting off supply to the lower third of the canal’s water users. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal and oversees its operations, projects groundwater pumping in the southern Tulare County district could drop the canal another 3 feet, reducing capacity of the canal to just 30% of its original design. FWA estimates the additional loss of capacity would result in $263 million in damages, but settled on the $220 million mark, if they end up using all of the allotted transitional pumping, or less if the GSA takes steps to secure funding sooner.

The settlement provides flexibility for how ETGSA will pay to fix the canal. Prior to the settlement, the board approved a plan on Oct. 1, 2020 fining farmers for pumping beyond their water allocations, based on a per acre basis. General manager Rogelio Caudillo said if farmers go beyond their allocation, they will pay a fine of $250 per acre foot for Tier 1 water, 92,087 acre feet for the entire GSA in 2021, and $500 per acre feet of Tier 2 water, anything pumped beyond the property’s allocation and the property’s share of Tier 1 water.

Caudillo said those farmers with access to surface water, such as the Friant-Kern Canal, will be better off than those without during wet years but little commercial farming can be done in that area on surface water alone in dry years.

“Anyone doing any sort of commercial farming will likely need more than their allocation,” Caudillo said.

Caudillo estimates about half of the property owners within the GSA’s boundaries do not have any access to surface water, meaning all of their water is pumped from the ground.

“A lot of farmers have started to fallow their land and the number is growing,” Caudillo said.

The settlement allows ETGSA to tackle their payments by assessing property instead of penalizing property owners. Caudillo said ETGSA will soon begin the Proposition 218 process for increasing local taxes approved by voters in November 1996. The initiative prevents local government entities from creating new or increasing existing taxes, fees or charges without a vote by the property owners within the jurisdiction. If one more than half of the property owners submit a written protest against the tax, they can block the tax from taking effect, an unlikely scenario in almost every case except for districts with a small number of property owners. If the assessment passes, the GSA could borrow against future revenues and make a lump sum payment of $125 million to FWA by Dec. 31, 2022 to satisfy their obligation at nearly half the price. Eastern Tule also has the option of making quarterly payments toward the lump sum if they begin before April 1, 2021. Those payments would be made using per acre fines from overdrafting groundwater that would be set as part of the Prop. 218 process and would be lower than those approved in October.

The agreement makes up between a quarter or up to half of the $480 million price tag of restoring capacity to Kern County. Known as the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction, the project proposes raising the embankment and liner along 13 miles of the canal allowing water to pass over the sunken section while also building a parallel canal along 20 miles of the western bank of the canal to bypass the section.

FWA spokesperson Johnny Amaral told The Sun-Gazette in December many water contractors along the 150-mile canal have contributed a total of $50 million. On Dec. 21, Congress passed a crucial spending bill including $206 million in federal funds to repair the Friant-Kern Canal, bringing the total funding for the canal to more than $380 million as possible as much as $476 million.

Amaral suggested work on the canal repair could begin by as early as this spring even though there is not yet enough money to complete all the work. Either way, Amaral said Friant will still need to borrow millions to be reimbursed later on what will be one of the biggest construction projects in the San Joaquin Valley since the canal was built in the 1940s.

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