Feds say Tule groundwater could continue to sink

Despite groundwater sustainability plans, Bureau of Reclamation says capacity of Friant-Kern Canal could fall by another 10% in the coming years; impact could be felt by rural communities as well

TULARE COUNTY – Without the construction of the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal in 1951 at the cost of $61 million, many of the best producing ag areas along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley would be out of business. That’s because farmers had pumped themselves dry by the late 1940s. Productive citrus growing areas like Orange Cove, Lindsay and Terra Bella have little groundwater available to this day.

The canal serves farms and communities from Chowchilla in the north to Arvin Edison near the Grapevine in the south. Its waters boost the area’s economy to the tune of millions of dollars.

As the Valley moves forward on sustainable groundwater monitoring plans and proposed pumping restrictions by district, the gravity-fed canal that is key to survival for 15,000 east side farms continues to be impacted by subsidence. Land near Porterville appears to be most worrisome where the land has sunk so much due to adjacent water pumping that the Friant-Kern Canal has lost 60% of its capacity to moving water south. As of July 2018, it is estimated that the canal is approximately 12 feet below the original constructed elevation.

In an effort to avoid further damage to key infrastructure, the state has mandated that groundwater sustainability agencies offer their plan of how they will manage their groundwater under the state’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014. Under the law, water users in 21 severely overdrafted basins in California submitted their sustainability plans to the state in January. The law requires those plans outline how the agencies will avoid “significant and unreasonable” impacts.

Now the Friant contractors, and a number of other affected groups, worry that some groundwater plans are not being aggressive enough to halt subsidence to zero. But that is the goal of the sustainability effort, particularly near infrastructure like the Friant-Kern Canal. Under SGMA, critically over-drafted basins should reach sustainability by 2040.

Canal capacity could drop to 30%

In December the regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commented on eight Tule area groundwater sustainability agency’s (GSA) plans to allow more subsidence over the next five years despite the canal dropping 12 feet since it went into service. The bureau predicted the plan may result in the land along the canal dropping another three feet, reducing capacity of the canal to just 30% of its original design. That’s 10% worse off than now. The pumping would come from farms on surrounding lands within the GSAs not served by the canal.

These are the so-called “white areas” in the Valley where groundwater is the only source to irrigate, lands typically not a part of an irrigation district with access to surface water from the canal. Those white areas account for thousands of acres of land in the Tule sub-basin that must join a GSA if they want to keep producing.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has estimated “nearly 20%—or 840,000 acres—of irrigated cropland in the valley has no access to surface water. Crops are similar in groundwater-only lands and lands that have at least some access to surface water: more than half are planted with permanent fruit and nut crops. These crops provide higher revenues and employment than most annual crops. With groundwater cuts looming and no other water supply to fall back on, groundwater-only areas are on the front line of the effort to bring basins into balance.”

The goal of SGMA is to bring all irrigated lands into a program to lessen the costs of implementing sustainable groundwater management, a transition that will benefit the valley over the long run, suggest advocates.

Inspiration and irony

It seems ironic that the canal is being affected this way says the bureau noting that “the very existence and inspiration of the canal was to…combat such issues as subsidence by conveying surface water to incentivize farmers to pump less groundwater.”

The bureau’s worries reflect a number of other groundwater sustainability agencies fears up and down the east side that increased subsidence in the Tule area will affect their own ability to reach sustainability since they can’t get their full contract supply of canal water. All GSAs need to come up with a final sustainability plan by 2025.

The worst subsidence is along the so-called Middle Reach of the Friant-Kern Canal, an approximately 33-mile section located within Tulare and Kern Counties that has experienced significant capacity loss. One neighbor district, Lindsay Strathmore Irrigation District, summed the problem up short and sweet. “Allowing for three additional feet of subsidence along the Friant-Kern Canal is unacceptable without adequate mitigation.”

Among the other ironies is the fact farmers are demanding the feds bring more water from out of the area but some of the same farmers can’t use the water they are already allocated or maintain the infrastructure that brings in that water. Over pumping may be both sinking the land and sinking farmers’ future.

Another twist—farmers did not like this state sponsored groundwater restriction idea but the implementation of the plan on a local level may yet save the canal that feeds them.

$500 million price tag

Working feverishly to restore the capacity to deliver water to their 15,000 family farms, Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal, is busy lobbying on the federal and state level to raise as much of the anticipated repair costs of $500 million from public monies to restore the capacity they have lost.

The project missed a chance in 2018 when Proposition 3 failed. The $8.9 billion statewide water bond would have provided $750 million specifically to repair subsidence in the Friant-Kern Canal. One newspaper editorial weighed in, perhaps unfairly, that “The bond substantially benefits billionaire stakeholders and is a bad water deal for Californians.”

Now the federal government may be the only game in town suggests Dan Vink, head of the South Valley Water Association, which is not involved directly in this controversy. “With COVID, the state is looking to cut budgets and may not be able to come up with new money for this project” suggests Vink. Project proponents had counted on at least some state funds. Senator Melissa Hurtado coauthored Senate Bill 559 last spring which would have allocated $400 million in state funding for the canal, but the bill stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last September. That was also before COVID-19 hit the fan and the state budget.

In December, Congressman T.J. Cox (CA-21) introduced legislation that would have provided $200 million in funds to repair the canal. Known as the Move Water Now Act, H.R. 5316 made it out of committee but did not make it off the House floor.

Johnny Amaral, external affairs chief for Friant Water Authority, said funding the canal would be a piece mail approach with the federal government coming up with half of the funding and the state, GSAs and water districts coming up with matching funds.

Meanwhile there is an on-going effort to include this project in bills with federal stimulus money. This would still require a local match for whatever sum they can get. “Right now, the federal government is spending money like a drunkin’ sailor,” Vink observes.

But the drama here is at the local level, as Friant CEO Jason Philips says his organization and the Tule Sub-basin agencies are “in negotiation” and “making good progress” on coming up with an agreed sum as mitigation for the extra “damage” the subsidence will mean to the project design- i.e. higher costs.

Friant Water Authority has already announced a plan to buy more land to build a parallel canal along 20 miles of the 33-mile stretch of the canal that is sinking. They vow to have a plan in place by December 2020. So, time is short.

Cooperation or litigation?

Vink says he understands Friant has proposed a damage figure of $200 million, with some estimates as high as $263 million, that Tule farmers will need to come up with. That could add up to a local match! Vink adds he is not sure if the talks will lead to “cooperation or litigation.”

Calls to several of the Tule water districts general managers were not returned.

But Delano-Earlimart General Manager Eric Quinley says his own district, while part of the Tule Sub-basin, is in a sustainable position unlike some neighbors to the south. His district includes thousands of acres of white area not served by an irrigation district before but includes farms that are now part of his GSA and «willing to pay the cost to stay in business.» Many of these white areas have permanent plantings with good revenue streams that can afford to contribute to fixing the canal.

Quinley believes any district that does not offer a sustainable plan will hear from the Department of Water Resources who continues to take comments on submitted sustainability plans. “They have not approved the plans yet.”

A letter from Friant’s Phillips says subsidence in the Tule Sub-basin has already caused “significant inability to convey water during wet years such as 2017 and 2019 where FWA estimates that upwards of 300,000 AF could have been delivered to Friant Districts but for the capacity restrictions caused by subsidence due to overdraft groundwater pumping in the Tule Sub-basin.” A major goal of the system is to convey flood waters during wet periods, water that can replenish groundwater in this overdraft basin.

With continued subsidence in the Tule Sub-basin, Friant Division deliveries will be reduced and therefore northern contractors’ prorated share of the canal’s operations and maintenance costs will also increase Friant argues. All are affected—not just the Kern basin farmers they suggest.

Subsidence due to groundwater pumping has been occurring in the San Joaquin Valley for almost a century, but it accelerated during the 2012–16 drought. On the west side of Valley, the California Aqueduct has lost a 20% of its capacity from subsidence as well. The state is paying that cost but the GSAs may have to end up paying as well. Looking at proposed plans by westside GSAs the Department of Water Resources found that an additional 2.1 feet of subsidence in some sections of the California Aqueduct could further harm downstream water users. This is roughly one-third of the maximum amount allowed in the vicinity of the aqueduct by the westside basin plan (six feet).

It’s not just farms that are impacted by sinking land. Roads, highways, bridges, freight rail and even high-speed rail are facing higher costs to engineer, maintain and build infrastructure. Total damage could reach in the billions Valley-wide by some estimates. Also, as pumping causes groundwater levels to drop, basins can draw in water from adjacent rivers and streams, reducing river flows and harming habitat, noted the Public Policy Institute of California.

Water wells affected?

Visalia-based advocacy group Community Water Center also commented in December that the Tule GSA’s plans will likely affect low income residents and other water users that the live in the Tule region. They estimate that “the usability of over 73% of domestic wells near the representative monitoring wells in the Pixley GSA area would be expected to be significantly impacted if water levels reach the proposed minimum threshold proposed by the GSA.” Water levels could fall an average of 70 feet near Pixley and Teviston along Hwy 99 they argue. They suggest a Drinking Water Well Mitigation Program could include a combination of different strategies including: replacing impacted wells with new, deeper wells, connecting domestic well users to a nearby public water system, or providing interim bottled water.

PPIC says it is only Tulare County water wells that may be affected. In “the Kings Basin—home to a dense network of well-dependent communities—where three plans acknowledge that roughly 600 domestic wells may go dry, but do not consider this a significant and unreasonable impact of continued overdraft.”

Also the Audubon Society fears the impact of over-pumping on the 900-acre Pixley Wildlife Preserve.

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