It was welcome news for Kern County farmers, but word last week that the process of fixing the Friant-Kern Canal has finally begun may have obscured the fact that a great deal of work lies ahead — including finding money to complete the job.
Federal officials say almost 30 percent of the engineering required to repair the 152-mile canal has already been done, and that has led to assessments that the entire, two-part project could be accomplished within a period of perhaps three years. There's also hope that a construction contract could be awarded as soon as late 2020.
But what the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday had less to do with actual construction than the start of a scoping process required in advance of federal and state environmental reviews that will, in turn, factor into a mandatory, four-part federal feasibility study.
In other words, many important questions remain to be answered before it becomes clear when — or, really, whether — repairs to the canal will be made.
"We’re very early in the process here," said Adam Nickels, deputy program manager for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, a five-agency organization looking at helping to fund the canal project.
But he also voiced optimism, saying that although there is little clarity on where exactly the money will come from to fix the canal, "we think we have a road map to get us there.”
Serving seven municipalities and some 18,000 family farms, the gravity-powered water conveyance is one of the most important water infrastructure projects in the southern Central Valley.
Built between 1949 and 1951, the canal initially provided water to farmers in Kern County at a rate of between 2,500 and 3,500 cubic feet per second.
But because of land subsidence caused by over-pumping of groundwater, the canal has sunk. That has limited the maximum flow to Kern County to a little less than 1,600 cubic feet per second, according to the Friant Water Authority, which operates and maintains the project.
Underscoring the value of fixing the canal, state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, asserted in a news release Wednesday that the canal plays a "key role in the economy of the Central Valley." She thanked the federal government for beginning the project's environmental review.
"Restoring the canal will support our farmers who put food on America's table, increase our water supply and benefit the environment by helping recharge our aquifers," she stated in the release.
Early this year, a bill co-authored by Grove and state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, proposed to spend $400 million from California's General Fund on making repairs to the canal. But the legislation stalled in Assembly Appropriations Committee.
On Friday, Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Fresno, announced his introduction of legislation that would provide $200 million toward the canal's repair.
Even if the bill passes, it's unclear whether it will be enough to fix the canal. The job has been estimated to cost between $200 million and $700 million. The actual price tag won't be known until the completion of the feasibility study looking at the project's technical, environmental, financial and economic aspects.
People involved in the project say the most likely solution will be a cost-sharing agreement in which the federal government contributes perhaps half the project's budget and the rest comes from a mix of state and local sources, likely including farmers and others who use the canal's water and have already pitched in at least $10 million toward the effort.
"This is going to be a blend. There’s not going to be just one bucket of money," said Alexandra Biering, the water authority's government affairs and communications manager.
If the funding remains up in the air, the engineering is somewhat less uncertain.
A preliminary federal environmental review says the latest plan for repairing the canal consists of two parts.
One would enlarge, or raise, 10 miles of the northernmost and southernmost segments of the canal's banks existing concrete liner to up to 4 feet high. Biering said that would be done as a way of making the canal resilient in case of further subsidence.
The other component would involve the construction of a new, 23-mile conveyance east of the existing canal. Most of the existing canal would be abandoned and its lining reused, wherever possible, for construction of the replacement segment.
The alternate canal segment would require construction of new infrastructure and the acquisition of 510 acres of new right-of-way, according to the preliminary review.
The review also found the repairs proposed could have potentially significant environmental impacts on prime farmland, air quality, natural habitat, greenhouse-gas emissions, historical resources and groundwater quality.
A scoping meeting to begin formally assessing the proposal's potential impacts is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at the U.S. Forest Service's Sequoia National Forest headquarters at 1839 S. Newcomb St. in Porterville.