Statewide proposition would have provided billions to address subsidence, drinking water contamination, and water supply in the Valley
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – Voters statewide sent a clear message to the San Joaquin Valley on election night: Fix it yourself.
Fifty-one percent of Californians voted no on Proposition 3, the $8.9 billion statewide water bond that would have solved key problems statewide but most of which was earmarked for issues specific to Tulare County and the Valley. It’s hard to blame the rest of the state when Tulare County voters barely passed the measure themselves. As of press time, Prop. 3 was only passing by 6,000 votes in county, despite unanimous support from elected officials across the county.
Prop. 3 would have provided $750 million specifically to repair subsidence in the Friant-Kern Canal, which delivers surface water to 15,000 small farms and four communities on the Valley’s eastside. The Friant-Kern Canal is operated by the Friant Water Authority (FWA) to carry water 152 miles from Friant Dam northeast of Fresno south to Bakersfield. Communications director Alex Biering says FWA pay for improvements without Prop. 3 as subsidence has already reduced the canal’s capacity by 60%.
“There’s no way we can’t address the issue,” Biering said.
Friant Water Authority will begin moving dirt as early as next month to repair collapsed portions of the canal in southwestern Tulare County due to subsidence. The problem is most pronounced in the Deer Creek region between Terra Bella and Pixley, where the bottom of the canal has sunk 3 feet since it was built in the 1940s and at a rate of an inch per month in 2017.
The gravity-fed canal uses a six-inch grad to flow water from Friant Dam near Fresno south to Bakersfield. FWA must slow the flow of water down the canal to ensure the water doesn’t overflow onto the banks. Subsidence has reduced the flow of the canal by an average of 60% from a max capacity of 4,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 1,700 cfs, effectively cutting off supply to the lower third of the canal’s water users. Biering said FWA officials are still mulling over two plans: 1) raise the sides of the canal; 2) design a separate, parallel canal in southwestern Tulare County that will bypass the areas most affected to restore its full-flow of water.
“We need to capture and convey more flood water and excess runoff to recharge our aquifers,” Biering said.
Biering’s comments sound like a strong suggestion but it is really a state mandate. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) calls the San Joaquin Valley “ground zero” for the implementation of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Known as SiGMA (pronounced sig-muh), the law requires California’s groundwater users to develop and implement plans to bring their basins into long-term balance. In the San Joaquin Valley, 11 groundwater basins are considered to be critically overdrafted and must launch their groundwater sustainability plans by 2020. More than 120 groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs)—which can include water suppliers, city and county governments, and other stakeholders—have been formed in the valley to develop and implement these plans. A March 2017 study by the PPIC’s Water Policy Center estimated that the valley’s average groundwater overdraft has been about 2 million acre feet of water per year since the mid-1980s.
“We can narrow but we can’t fully close that gap,” Biering said.
Biering said Prop. 3 would have provided $750 million toward repairing and adding water conveyance infrastructure that would have improved surface water deliveries by 300,000 acre feet per year. Building a dam at Temperance Flat on the Upper San Joaquin River could generate up to 185,000 acre feet of additional water storage. Beiring said other plans of the various water related agencies could offset another 200,000 acre feet of groundwater pumping by adding water recharge basins, water recycling efforts and better conveyance through the network of smaller canals and ditches crisscrossing the Valley.
“Best case scenario, we can probably cut the overdraft in half,” Biering said. “But at some point the region will have to start looking at fallowing land.”
A key player in managing the Kaweah Basin’s water supply is the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District (KDWCD). The district’s mission is to “protect, conserve and maintain the basin’s water resources through actively pursuing a comprehensive understanding of the region’s water resources and through the management of those resources to their fullest potential.” The district oversees about 75% of Tulare County’s water. KDWCD General Manager Mark Larsen said Prop. 3 would have played a vital role in fixing the short-term problem of conveyance and also needed funds to addressing the long-term problem of sustainability with $640 million to help implement SiGMA.
“Without bond money for a fix, that money will now come out of local pockets,” Larsen said.
That’s a significant financial hurdle for one of the country’s most impoverished regions. Already facing ballooning pensions, stagnant tax revenue, and increased construction costs, municipal and county governments are also being asked to fund fixes for disadvantaged communities. Prop. 3 also included $750 million for disadvantaged communities, including $250 million for wastewater treatment improvements and $500 million for safe drinking water projects. Fifty-five percent of drinking water violations statewide occurred in Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties alone. The two most prevalent contaminants found in California drinking water are nitrates and arsenic. Nitrite changes the normal form of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body, into a form called methemoglobin that cannot carry oxygen. At high enough concentrations nitrate can result in a temporary blood disorder in infants called “blue baby syndrome.” In severe, untreated cases, brain damage and eventually death can result from suffocation due to lack of oxygen, according to the National Institute for Health. Drinking water with high levels of arsenic can cause diabetes, cancer, as well as heart, lung, liver, immune, nervous or reproductive system disorders.
The state legislature has failed to address these issues on at least three occasions, passing a silent, unfunded mandate on local cities and counties to solve the problem.
The good news, Larsen said, is that the drought has already forced the Valley to overcome the biggest hurdles in finding a long-term solution: awareness and acceptance. Larsen said he was encouraged by the more proactive operation of local water agencies, farmers and residents last year. He noted that some cities, irrigation districts, and ditch companies were recharging groundwater heading into irrigation season when water use is low instead of waiting until after it was over when groundwater use was high.
“Water was being appropriately utilized for a longer period of time,” Larsen said. “Knowledge and awareness gets you halfway toward the objective.”
The next step is collaboration. Larsen said the agriculture community will have the biggest impact on creating a sustainable groundwater basin. Representatives from irrigation districts, cities, farmers, water experts and county officials must now come together on local GSA boards to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) for each of the Kaweah and Tule sub-basins. The plans are due by Jan. 31, 2020 but Larsen said the plans will have to be drafted by next summer in order to meet all of the noticing and comment requirements for approval before submitting to the California Department of Water Resources. The plans have to define the problem in each sub-basin and then outline solutions to sustainability with milestone goals every five years.
“We can’t reach the number without the cooperation from farmers and residents,” Larsen said.