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Political defeat of recent California water bond left Friant Water Authority with questions of how to fund necessary system repairs due to subsidence

Todd Fitchette, Associate Editor

February 12, 2019

3 Min Read
Several bridges spanning the Friant-Kern Canal in Tulare County, Calif., were sealed ahead of plans to inundate the bridges with high canal flows. This is necessary because subsidence has caused a section of the canal to sink, greatly reducing its design capacity to carry irrigation water to various districts in the San Joaquin Valley.

The political defeat of a California water bond last November left the Friant Water Authority in the position of making temporary repairs to a canal system in desperate need of a permanent fix.

“We cannot avoid addressing this,” said Friant Water Authority Spokesperson Alexandra Biering.

Friant Water Authority (FWA) had previously pinned its hope on passage of an $8 billion water bond that would have given the agency $750 million to address subsidence that reduced capacity in the canal by more than 60 percent. The remaining money would have funded a host of unrelated projects throughout the state.

Prior to the November election where the water bond failed, Friant Chief Executive Officer Jason Phillips appeared confident in its passage, assuring Friant members at an annual meeting last year that the day after the bond passed Friant would begin the arduous task of repairing the sunken canal.

That did not happen, leaving the agency that oversees operation and maintenance of the federally-owned conveyance system with unanswered funding questions to a problem that engineering surveys say is getting worse.

Surveys last year showed a significant drop in a section of the canal in southern Tulare County. It’s not just the canal, but an entire region impacted by subsidence. The low-spot created in the area is an unintended consequence of reduced surface deliveries there and elsewhere that led farmers to over-pump groundwater aquifers to produce crops. Now, as provisions of the states groundwater management act take hold, growers will be significantly hampered in how much water they can pump in the future, making canal repairs even more critical.

Canal upgrades

Biering says FWA has two immediate projects in the works that should provide short-term relief and restore about one-third of the canal’s lost capacity.

The first of two short-term upgrades to the canal involves sealing the underside of county bridges that will become inundated with canal flows as irrigation season gets under way. Canal water will be allowed to flow against the bridges, but not over the roadway. The second step involves installing temporary liners along the most-impacted section of canal that will protect the concrete liner from erosion as intermittent flows will exceed the elevation of the permanent liner until a more permanent solution can be made.

Together the two approaches are hoped to restore about 300 cubic feet per second of capacity to a canal system that lost 1,000 cfs since 2010, Biering says.

Five county bridges along a section of the canal between Porterville and Pixley were recently inspected and treated to safeguard them from damage as canal flows are raised with the start of irrigation season. Tom Fousek, a maintenance foreman for FWA says the two-part sealant crews recently applied will help achieve this.

Long-term fixes

The FWA board is expected to decide by mid-year on long-term repairs, to include funding sources, Biering says. Without going into specifics, she said the water authority continues to look to grants, federal funding and cost-share opportunities to address the long-term sustainability of the 152-mile long structure that serves as a vital source of surface water for farmers from Chowchilla to Bakersfield by conveying water from Millerton Lake near Fresno to irrigation districts south of there.


About the Author(s)

Todd Fitchette

Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

Todd Fitchette, associate editor with Western Farm Press, spent much of his journalism career covering agriculture in California and the western United States. Aside from reporting about issues related to farm production, environmental regulations and legislative matters, he has extensive experience covering the dairy industry, western water issues and politics. His journalistic experience includes local daily and weekly newspapers, where he was recognized early in his career as an award-winning news photographer.

Fitchette is US Army veteran and a graduate of California State University, Chico. 

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