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LOIS HENRY: State money for canal fixes set to start flowing

FKC kern county jan 2020

The Friant-Kern Canal is the furthest along in the repair phase with most of the environmental and design work already done and land acquisition to shift a 33-mile section already begun. 

The state Department of Water Resources opened the spigot Tuesday on the first $100 million of $200 million budgeted over the next two fiscal years to fix several key canals that have sunk because of groundwater pumping.

Subsidence has reduced carrying capacity in the canals from 15 percent up to 60 percent in the Friant-Kern Canal, which brings water from Millerton Lake near Fresno to farms and towns along the eastern flank of the San Joaquin Valley all the way to Arvin in southern Kern County.

Reduced capacity is acutely problematic in heavy water years. Without the ability to bring more water into the valley in those wet years, water districts and towns lose out on the chance to sock away groundwater to prepare for dry years.

The initial $100 million from the state will be divvied up between the Friant-Kern Canal, $39.2 million; Delta-Mendota Canal, $23.8 million; and the San Luis Canal and California Aqueduct, $37 million. It’s unclear how the next $100 million will be divided. Total repair costs for all the canals is estimated at $2.35 billion.

The Friant-Kern Canal is the furthest along in the repair phase with most of the environmental and design work already done and land acquisition to shift a 33-mile section already begun. Land subsidence due to groundwater pumping in that 33-mile section, from about Pixley in Tulare County to the Kern County line, had choked the canal’s flow down to 1,400 cubic feet per second.

Costs to bring it back up to 2,500 to 2,750 CFS were estimated to be $245 million. The Friant-Kern was actually designed to carry 4,000 CFS but has never been able to move that much water because of a flaw in the concrete near the Kings River crossing. Costs to bring it up to 4,000 CFS are estimated at $500 million.

The Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal and is overseeing repairs, has been cobbling together funding from a variety of sources. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal, has kicked in about $120 million and contractors who get water from the Friant-Kern have already begun making payments toward another $50 million.

Another large chunk of funding will come from farmers in the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which last year agreed to pay between $125 and $220 million toward canal repairs. The Eastern Tule agency covers lands that rely almost exclusively on groundwater pumping, which is blamed for sinking the canal. The Pixley Groundwater Sustainability Agency has likewise agreed to pay between $10 million and $13 million.

The addition of that state money will help, but it also comes with a matching requirement.

That may be one of the reasons that private investment is still up for consideration, said Jeevan Muhar, general manager of the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District.

“We’re still pushing for it,” he said.

Money from private investors could be used to bring the Friant-Kern Canal up to its original design capacity of 4,000 CFS. That idea had been temporarily shelved after other Friant contractors objected.

If private companies pay for added space in the canal, they would control that space and be able to move their own water through the system.

“That’s something we absolutely don’t want to happen,” Fergus Morrisey, general manager of the Orange Cove Irrigation District, said previously. “This canal is a public facility that was built to bring water to the valley. Not for a private company to profit from without regard to where that water ends up. That’s what I’m guarding against.”

After the idea of private investment was first floated by the Friant Water Authority, Renewable Resource Group, a private company that’s been buying and selling water in the valley for several years, quickly pledged $130 million last July through several Tulare County water districts to build and own extra capacity in the canal.

Muhar said Arvin-Edison hasn’t had any discussions with outside investors but that private money shouldn’t be ruled out.

“We are going to need help. We don’t want to close that door.”

Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at lois.henry@sjvwater.org. The website is sjvwater.org.