California Senate passes second version of SB 559

SB 559 could yield $308 million in Friant-Kern Canal subsidence repairs if it passes State Assembly

SACRAMENTO – Capacity on the Friant-Kern Canal could get a little more funding after Senate Bill 559 passed the California State Senate last week.

The bill was spearheaded by Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) and could give $308 million to the Friant Water Authority. SB 559 has been handed over to the State Assembly for them to pick up the bill. And according to Hurtado, relief could not come soon enough with a drought bearing down on the world’s breadbasket.

“As California faces yet another drought limited water is forcing many farmers to make the hard decision to not plant crops this year,” Hurtado said. “The drought has created a looming food crisis exacerbated by the lack of adequate and reliable water delivery systems. Fixing our state’s broken water canals will help prevent and protect against future droughts, as well as ensure 31 million Californians have access to clean drinking water. This can only be accomplished by fully funding Senate Bill 559.”

According to the text of the bill, SB 559 would establish the Canal Conveyance Capacity Restoration Fund in the State Treasury to be administered by the department. The bill would require all funds deposited in the fund to be expended, upon appropriation by the Legislature, in support of subsidence repair costs, including environmental planning, permitting, design, and construction and necessary road and bridge upgrades required to accommodate capacity improvements. The bill would require the department to expend from the fund, upon appropriation by the Legislature, specified monetary amounts to restore the capacity of four specified water conveyance systems, with two of those four expenditures being in the form of a grant to the Friant Water Authority and to the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

This is the second time Hurtado has introduced the bill after it was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last September. That version of SB 559 had bipartisan support and would have dedicated $400 million in subsidence repairs. In early 2019 Senator Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno), Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), and Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), gathered along the Friant-Kern Canal in Terra Bella to announce the introduction of the bill.

“Repairing California’s water conveyance infrastructure is essential to building a more resilient water supply future—one that can withstand the long-lasting impacts of climate change while delivering on the public benefits of clean, reliable, affordable water,” Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors said. “SB 559 will address and provide these critical repairs, and we are thrilled to see this key piece of legislation approved by the State Senate today.”

The fight against the Friant Kern-Canal’s subsidence has not been without some progress. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation authorized $5 million to study and begin pre-construction work on repairing the canal. Late last December farmers represented by the Eastern Tulare Groundwater Sustainability Agency agreed to contribute at least $125 million to repair the 33-mile stretch of subsidence affecting capacity. More money would have been available had Proposition 3 passed in 2018.

The $8.9 billion Prop. 3 water bond would have provided $750 million to repair or improve water conveyance infrastructure in the valley, $640 million for projects to implement California’s groundwater regulation, and $750 million for water and wastewater treatment for lower income communities. The statewide bond was defeated with more than half of the state voting against it. It even struggled to gather significant support at home.

Currently, the Friant-Kern Canal’s conveyance capacity has degraded due to several factors, including severe land subsidence caused by regional groundwater overdraft. A portion of the canal, roughly 20 miles long, has subsided twelve feet below its original design elevation, including three feet of subsidence from 2014 to 2017. As a result, the canal has suffered the loss of 60 percent of its carrying capacity—constricting the delivery of water to some of California’s most vulnerable communities.

Jason Phillips, CEO of Friant Water Authority, which oversees the operation of the federally owned canal, said the limited capacity threatens 350,000 acres of highly productive farmland below the damaged portion of the canal, and also limit opportunities to maximize groundwater recharge projects that will be very important to helping the Valley comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The 152-mile canal, which runs from Friant Dam in Fresno to the Kern River in Bakersfield, conveys water for groundwater storage and clean drinking water for some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. Moreover, the canal provides irrigation for more than 18,000 individual family farms¬—almost a quarter of the Valley’s agriculture land and 22 percent of all farms in California.

“SB 559 is crucial to keep the Friant-Kern Canal, the largest artery for water on the eastside of the Valley, afloat. This measure is extremely important to keeping this economic engine which powers our economy and provides tremendous benefit locally, statewide and even nationally. Failing to fix the Friant-Kern Canal is not an option, simply because not having water is never an option. I am proud to coauthor this measure with Senator Hurtado and look forward to bringing this funding to the Valley,” Assemblymember Mathis said in 2019.

The canal also provides water to cities such as Fresno, Lindsay, Orange Cove, and Strathmore which do not have access to enough groundwater to supply its residents and businesses with water. Other cities may have to begin importing surface water to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Known as “sigma”, the 2014 law requires that every groundwater basin be water neutral in the next 20 years.

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