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LOIS HENRY: State ponies up $200 million toward $2.35 billion repair bill for major canals

Several of the state’s key canals will get a sprinkle of state money this year and next toward fixing more than $2 billion in damage caused by sinking land from excessive groundwater pumping.

Last Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a massive budget “trailer” bill, which authorizes actual funding for programs and services outlined in the state budget that was passed June 15.

The trailer bill included $200 million for the Department of Water Resources to spend over the next two years on the California Aqueduct, Delta-Mendota Canal and Friant-Kern Canal. Together, repairs for those canals are estimated at $2.35 billion.

It’s unclear how the $200 million will be split between the projects or when it’ll be paid out. But the money does come with a requirement for matching funds and the project that appears furthest along in terms of planning and in-hand funding is the Friant-Kern Canal. The planning and environmental phases are complete and the Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal, expects to award construction contracts some time this summer.

The Friant Authority has been working for several years to cobble together funding to fix a 33-mile section of the canal that has sunk so badly it has reduced the amount of water that can be moved in the canal from southern Tulare County into Kern County by 60 percent.

That limitation is most acutely felt in big water years, such as 2017. With less water able to move through the canal, farmers, water districts and towns can’t bring in as much water to recharge badly depleted groundwater.

Fixing just that 33-mile section is estimated to cost $500 million.

Friant water users have agreed to chip in $50 million, the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal, has paid $120 million for planning and design costs, and is offering another $130 million in low-interest loans to be repaid by canal users, and a groundwater agency whose farmers contributed to sinking the land beneath the canal from over pumping agreed to pay about $125 million.

Even with all those sources, the Friant Water Authority is up to $75 million short. Whether the $200 million in state funding will cover that gap is unclear as it will be split among multiple projects.

“Everyone is looking at it (the state funding) to reflect the original intent and proportions of SB 559,” said Alexandra Biering, government affairs manager for Friant Water Authority.

She referred to the bill by Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, that originally sought $785 million to be split between the canals with the Friant-Kern receiving the largest chunk, $308 million. Hurtado’s bill passed, but only as a policy bill, meaning it didn’t include any money.

If the state’s $200 million doesn’t plug the Friant-Kern Canal funding gap on that 33-mile portion of the canal it’s unclear if Friant Water Authority officials or some of its members would revive what became a highly contentious potential funding source — private investment.

The Friant Water Authority had floated the idea of allowing private investors to pay for added capacity in the canal. Money from water users, the feds and state would be used to rebuild the canal to its previous long-time flow volume. Then private companies would be allowed to pay to have it built to an even greater flow capacity.

Those private companies would then control that added space in the canal and be able to move their own water through the system. 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 the canal.

But several Friant contractors said no.

“That’s something we absolutely don’t want to happen,” said Fergus Morrisey, general manager of the Orange Cove Irrigation District. The other Friant contractors were concerned about how private investors with ownership in the canal would affect operations that are based on long-held contracts.

“It’s not good public policy,” Morrisey said. “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.”

Late this spring, private investment was declared “off the table” but Morrisey said there is still pressure from some Friant contractors to allow it and if the Friant Water Authority can’t find another way to fill the funding gap, he worried it could be resurrected.

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.