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Newsom’s veto of Friant-Kern Canal funds rankles groupsNewsom’s veto of Friant-Kern Canal funds rankles groups

The state would have committed to pay 35 percent of the cost of a federal project to fix the crumbling canal.

Tim Hearden

October 8, 2020

5 Min Read
Friant Water Authority Chief Operations Officer Doug DeFlitch
Friant Water Authority Chief Operations Officer Doug DeFlitch describes how subsidence in the region has affected the carrying capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal in Central California.Todd Fitchette

Farm and water groups are expressing disappointment after California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have committed the state to providing 35 percent of the cost of a federal project to fix the crumbling Friant-Kern Canal.

Senate Bill 559 by state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, would have required the Department of Water Resources to report to the Legislature on federal funding approved to restore the capacity of the 71-year-old canal that serves agricultural customers in the eastern San Joaquin Valley, with a proposal for the state to pay for a share of the project.

In nixing the bill, Newsom argued that it would have forced the state to focus on one specific project rather than the many infrastructure needs of the Central Valley.

“California’s major canal systems are aging and damaged by land subsidence,” the governor wrote on Sept. 28. “Local, state and federal systems all need repair. As established in the Water Resilience Portfolio, state agencies are holistically assessing the needs of all of California’s water supply systems.”

The veto was “yet another missed opportunity” for Newsom to work with rural Californians, particularly those who produce roughly half the nation’s fruit and vegetables, asserts Jason Phillips, the Friant Water Authority’s chief executive officer.

Related:Feinstein bill would fix SJ Valley canals

“The Friant Water Authority and the federal Bureau of Reclamation have worked hard for more than two years to design, plan, finance and implement needed damage repairs on the most important water delivery system on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, the Friant-Kern Canal,” Phillips said in a statement.

“These repairs are necessary due to overuse of groundwater from lands outside of the canal’s service area, an overuse that has been exacerbated by decades of compounding water regulation by the state and federal governments,” he said. “SB 559 – a bill with bipartisan support – offered the state an opportunity to define appropriate terms for becoming a partner in the project.”

Some funds approved

Newsom did sign Hurtado’s Senate Bill 974, which exempts new water projects that serve small, rural communities from some provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Last year, Hurtado secured $15 million in California’s budget to fix failing valley water systems. She won the reauthorization for that funding this year, as well as $50 million in the state budget to help farmers comply with the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Surveys by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other agencies in recent years has shown that aquifer depletion has caused land in the San Joaquin Valley to sink at historic rates. During the drought from 2012-2016, land was sinking at as much as 2 inches per month as growers denied surface water turned to groundwater to maintain their orchards.

Related:Reclamation seeks input for Friant-Kern Canal fix

Now, as provisions of SGMA take hold, growers will be significantly hampered in how much water they can pump in the future, making canal repairs even more critical.

Among the widespread damage to infrastructure was a significant drop in a section of the Friant-Kern Canal in southern Tulare County, where subsidence has reduced capacity by more than 60 percent. The Friant Water Authority pinned hopes on passage of an $8 billion state water bond on the ballot in 2018, but the measure failed.

Feinstein legislation

Legislation proposed this year by California Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would authorize $800 million in federal funding to repair critical canals in the valley damaged by subsidence. If the canals are not restored to their original capacity, 20 percent of the farmland – approximately 1 million acres – might have to be retired in a region that produces $36 billion in crops annually, including a third of the nation’s produce, the senator asserts.

“Only a fully capable conveyance system capable of moving excess precipitation runoff to groundwater storage facilities and recharge-capable farmland can provide the resiliency needed to avert an economic and social disaster under SGMA,” Western Growers president and chief executive officer Dave Puglia wrote in a letter to Feinstein in July.

The federal bill, S.3811, authorizes $600 million in federal funding for three major water projects -- $200 million each for the Friant-Kern Canal and Delta-Mendota Canal, and $100 million each for the San Luis Canal and California Aqueduct, the organization notes.

Hurtado’s state bill initially would have granted $400 million for Friant-Kern Canal repairs, but the language was changed to require the DWR to report back to the Legislature on the availability of federal funding and propose an amount representing the state’s share of the cost, according to a Senate bill analysis.

Her bill was supported by some 40 water and agricultural organizations, including American Pistachio Growers, California Citrus Mutual, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, Olive Oil Council of California, Western Growers, the state apple and blueberry commissions, and the Farm Bureaus in Fresno and Kern counties, according to the analysis.

A key facility

The proponents argued that farms, cities and rural communities that rely on the canal are losing up to 300,000 acre-feet per year in deliveries. They added the canal is a key facility for delivering clean runoff from the San Joaquin River watershed to recharge aquifers relied on by some of California’s most vulnerable communities.

But the bill’s lone opponent – the Sierra Club – countered that the Friant-Kern Canal is used nearly exclusively by 28 agricultural water agencies and irrigation districts which collectively irrigate 879,000 acres of farmland, and that they – not the taxpayers – should fund repairs. Newsom agreed.

“This bill focuses on a single piece of conveyance and directs DWR to develop a proposal for the state to help fund this specific project,” the governor wrote. “As we address California’s water needs in the coming months and years, we need to evaluate, develop and identify solutions and funding that provides water supply and conveyance for the entirety of the state, not one project at a time.”

The Friant Water Authority’s Phillips said the veto is the latest in a long history of snubs from Sacramento.

“The governor’s message of needing to step back and take a more holistic approach rings hollow in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. “The real message this veto sends to the valley is loud and clear, yet again: ‘Nope.’”

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