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LOIS HENRY: Friant-Kern Canal fix gets first infusion of state money

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The state gave its first shot of cash — $29.8 million — toward fixing the sagging Friant-Kern Canal on Thursday.

The state gave its first shot of cash – $29.8 million – toward fixing the sagging Friant-Kern Canal on Thursday.

Another $7.4 million could be added to the pot once the Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal, secures federal funding it is seeking. That would bring this year's full contribution from the state Department of Water Resources up to $37.2 million. And there will likely be more coming next year.

DWR announced in November it would divvy up a $200 million fund this year and next between four of California's most critical canals, which are sinking because of groundwater over-pumping. Those canals include the Friant-Kern, Delta-Mendota, San Luis and the California Aqueduct. So far, the Friant-Kern is the only project to receive actual dollars. The others are still working on funding agreements. In its press release, DWR notes the funding is contingent on matching funds and plans to stem continued subsidence.

Another $100 million is expected to be available next year. It's unclear how much of that second pot of money will go to the Friant-Kern Canal, but Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority, has said in previous comments he expects about $80 million in state funding.

“Our partners at the state of California have invested in the San Joaquin Valley’s future at a critical time, and we are grateful to the Newsom administration and for DWR’s dedicated efforts to release these funds as quickly as possible in recognition of the urgent need to implement the project," Phillips said in a news release.

The 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal brings water from Millerton Lake just north of Fresno south to farms and towns all the way to Arvin. It supports more than a million acres of farmland and provides water to 250,000 San Joaquin Valley residents.

Among the targeted canals, the Friant-Kern is, by far, the furthest along in terms of environmental review, planning, land acquisition, funding sources and actual construction. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in January to begin the first phase, building a new concrete-lined canal alongside the existing canal where it has suffered the worst subsidence. That phase of the project is expected to cost $292 million and be completed by early 2024, according to the DWR press release.

A 33-mile section of the canal from about Pixley in Tulare County running south to just over the Kern County line has sunk as the land beneath it has collapsed due to severe groundwater over-pumping.

That "sag" has reduced the canal's ability to carry water by up to 60 percent of its historic capacity. The impact of that reduction is felt most severely in big water years, such as 2017. Water agencies try to move as much water as possible in those years to recharge depleted aquifers. But those efforts are crippled if the canal isn't functioning to its full ability.

Fixing the canal could cost up to $500 million or more, depending on how much water it is reconstructed to carry.

It is down to a maximum carrying capacity of about 1,500 cubic feet per second (CFS) through the sagging section. It had historically moved about 2,500 CFS, and getting it back to that level would cost about $250 million.

The canal was actually designed to carry 4,000 CFS but had never been able to move that much water because of a flaw in the concrete near the Kings River crossing. Getting it up to that level will cost about $500 million or more.

The Friant Water Authority is still working on funding for that full $500 million fix from a variety of sources, including: $50 million from Friant contractors; $150 million from groundwater agencies; $250 million from the Bureau of Reclamation (which owns the canal); and $80 million from the state, according to Phillips.

A proposal for private investment in the canal was floated a few years ago, but Friant contractors were concerned about how private funding might alter canal operations, which are to be for the benefit of the public.

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.