Canal repairs could begin this summer

Reggie Ellis

Friant Water Authority approves agreement with Bureau of Reclamation to begin selecting a contractor to repair sunken stretch of Friant-Kern Canal

LINDSAY – Work to repair the primary water source for the Valley’s east side farms and communities could begin as early as this summer.

Last week, Friant Water Authority, whose board of directors oversees water deliveries of the Friant-Kern Canal, finalized a cost-share agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal entity that operates the canal, which details funding to restore the canal’s capacity. Reaching the important milestone in the process clears the path for Reclamation to solicit construction bids with the goal of having a contractor selected sometime this summer. Construction on Phase 1 of the project is expected to be completed in 2024.

“The Friant Division began 70 years ago with a shared vision and investments in its collective future,” Friant Water Authority chairman Cliff Loeffler said. “Although challenging, it was important for Friant contractors to continue financing their portion of the Friant-Kern Canal repairs together, as a family, irrespective of being north or south of the pinch point. It’s our legacy and part of what makes the Friant Division special, unique, and solutions-oriented.”

The “pinch point” is a 33-mile stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal in Tulare and Kern Counties where subsidence has dropped the canal by three feet with estimates it could drop another three feet in the next decade. The subsidence has reduced the canal’s capacity to deliver water by 60% to contractors south of the subsidence, including the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, Kern Tulare Water District, Sausalito Irrigation District, Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District, South San Joaquin Municipal Utility District, Tea Pot Dome Water District, and Terra Bella Irrigation District.

The Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project would restore capacity in the canal near Terra Bella between Lindsay and McFarland. The project will raise the embankment and liner along 13 miles of the canal to allow 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. State and Federal environmental reviews for the project were completed in September 2020 and the project’s Record of Decision was signed on November 4, 2020.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $500 million with about half of the funding already in place. The finance plan includes:

$206 million in funding as part of the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020;

A minimum of $125 million in funding provided by a landmark agreement with the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency; and

$50 million in local funding provided by Friant-Kern Canal contractors.

The Friant-Kern Canal delivers water to more than one million acres of highly productive farmland between Fresno and Bakersfield and is the primary source of water for the communities of Orange Cove, Strathmore and Lindsay. The diminished capacity in the canal has resulted in up to 300,000 acre-feet of reduced water deliveries in certain water years with effects farmers and communities in the middle reach of the canal.

One of the Friant-Kern Canal’s primary functions is to deliver surface water to be used in lieu of groundwater or to recharge groundwater aquifers. As a result, restoring the capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal is critical to the southern San Joaquin Valley’s success in complying with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, in additional to achieving water quality and water supply goals for small, rural, or disadvantaged communities on the eastside.

More fed funding

More funds could be on the way. FWA’s announcement coincided with two pieces of legislation, one introduced at the federal and the other at the state level, to fund the remaining phases of construction for the $500 million fix.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-16) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), along with other California Congressmen John Garamendi (CA-03) and Josh Harder (CA-10), introduced the Canal Conveyance Capacity Restoration Act, a bipartisan bill to authorize more than $653 million to restore the capacity of Friant-Kern and two other San Joaquin Valley canals. About $180 million in funding would restore capacity in the Friant-Kern, another $183 million to repair damage to the Delta-Mendota Canal, which provides west side farmers with water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and $289.5 million to repair the California Aqueduct, a 444-mile long structure carrying water from the Delta to Valley farmers and Southern California cities. Similar to the Friant-Kern Canal, subsidence from a groundwater pumping has reduced the aqueduct’s capacity by 20% and the Delta-Mendota Canal by as much as 50% in some segments, according to the US. Geological Survey. Restoring these canals would improve California’s drought resilience and help farmers comply with limits on groundwater pumping under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“It’s past the time to repair our aging water infrastructure,” Congressman Costa said. “With another drought here, we must act now to repair our broken canals and develop long-term plans for future delivery of water to our communities. This bill will provide funding to restore and increase the resiliency of the Delta-Mendota Canal, Friant-Kern Canal and the California Aqueduct, all critical to deliver water to our valley farms. We know water is the lifeblood for California and the foundation of our agricultural economy. Failing to act on this issue is no longer an option.”

The funding may not be used to build new surface storage or raise existing reservoirs. It may also not be used to enlarge the capacity of any canal, except for a temporary increase to mitigate anticipated future subsidence.

The bill also authorizes an additional $180 million to restore salmon runs on the San Joaquin River. The funding is for fish passage structures, levees and other improvements that will allow the threatened Central Valley Spring-run Chinook salmon to swim freely upstream from the ocean to the Friant Dam.

“A severe lack of water is causing land to sink throughout California. One harmful effect of this subsidence is the damage it has caused to canals throughout the San Joaquin Valley, significantly reducing their capacity to carry water,” said Senator Feinstein. “However, we can restore that capacity if we work together at the federal, state and local levels, ensuring that there will be more water for farmers and to combat subsidence. But our bipartisan bill isn’t just a win for farmers, it would also restore salmon runs vital to the Chinook salmon, helping protect this threatened species.”

Funds for the 559

The federal legislation would authorize one-third of the cost for restoring capacity to the canals while a state bill would authorize another third of the cost, with the remaining third from local sources, such as Friant Water contractors. Also on April 15, State Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) introduced Senate Bill 559, named after the zip code covering the south valley. The State Water Resiliency Act of 2021 would provide up to $785 million to restore the capacity of California’s critical water delivery infrastructure and repair aging roads and bridges.

“Senator Feinstein and Congressman Costa deeply understand the importance of food security and safe drinking water for farmworker communities. The introduction of the Canal Conveyance Capacity Restoration Act further proves that,” Sen. Hurtado said. “It has been an honor these past two years to work side-by-side with these longtime friends of farmers, farmworkers and the communities they live in.”

In 2019, Hurtado authored legislation (also numbered Senate Bill 559) that would have invested $400 million to restore capacity in the Friant-Kern Canal only. The bill was amended in the State Assembly to require the California Department of Water Resources to report on a proposal for the state to pay a share of the cost to fix the canal. The proposal was approved by the Legislature on a bipartisan basis, but ultimately vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom. In his veto message, the governor recognized the need for added infrastructure repair to California’s major canal systems and called for “funding that provides water supply and conveyance for the entirety of the state, not one project at a time.”

“Senator Hurtado’s bill answers this request by focusing on investments in not only the Friant-Kern Canal, but three other major water conveyance facilities that are critically important for achieving state policy objectives for groundwater sustainability and clean drinking water,” Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips said.

This year’s SB 559 responds to the governor’s veto, and would bring clean water to urban and rural communities throughout California. For example, residents and communities in Kings County rely heavily on the State Water Project (SWP) for clean, affordable drinking water.

“This critical issue has been bypassed for far too long, SB 559 will provide vital funding to ensure our communities, businesses and more importantly our children will have the opportunity to live, work and raise their families in the place we call home,” Kings County Board of Supervisors chair Craig Pedersen said.

Parts of the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) infrastructure have lost anywhere between 15-60 percent of their carrying capacity over time due to subsidence—resulting in an additional $15-30 million per year in higher operational and power costs, damaging infrastructure and threatening water supply for millions of people, farms and businesses at a time when we need it most.

“Let’s face it, our climate is changing,” said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors. “As we seek to increase our resiliency to climate change, restoring the capacity of California’s water conveyance systems will help to secure our state’s limited water resources, both now and into the future.”

SB 559 would also support critical habitat and ecosystem restoration efforts already underway to protect California’s threatened and endangered species.

“We applaud Senator Hurtado for introducing SB 559,” said Federico Barajas, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. “This bill will directly benefit nearly 3 million Californians who receive water from the Delta Mendota Canal, 1.2 million acres of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin, Santa Clara and San Benito Valleys, and nearly 200,000 acres of wetlands important to at-risk species, migratory waterfowl and the Pacific Flyway.”

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