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Legislation seeks $308 million for key valley canal

Issue Date: September 1, 2021
By Christine Souza
At the state Capitol last week, California Farm Bureau director of water resources Danny Merkley urged investment in water infrastructure through Senate Bill 559, authored by Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, right.
Photo/Christine Souza

Farmers and ranchers are working with key lawmakers in a push to fund repairs and upgrades to California's existing water conveyance system.

State legislation, Senate Bill 559, would pay for more than $300 million in repairs on the critical Friant-Kern Canal, California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal in the San Joaquin Valley.

The projects are included in water system upgrades being proposed after two consecutive years of severe drought—with a third dry year likely.

With surface water reservoirs depleted and groundwater aquifers drained, the State Water Resources Control Board recently adopted emergency curtailment orders for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Russian River and Klamath River watersheds.

The severe water cuts are inspiring urgent calls for investments in water infrastructure improvements.

"If California is serious about water resilience and addressing the changing climatic conditions, we must invest in our water infrastructure. We must increase our water-storage capacity to capture water when it comes," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau director of water resources. "The repairs and maintenance and the upgrades are long overdue."

Authored by Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, SB 559 would establish the Canal Conveyance Capacity Restoration Fund to pay for subsidence repair costs for the San Joaquin Valley canals.

Potential local and federal funding has been identified to help pay for those projects. The state money provided in the measure would be contingent on receiving local and federal funding.

"This is a much-needed measure to fund the repairs and maintenance for California, fish, the environment, the production of healthful food and farm products, and for drinking water for all Californians," Merkley said, as he joined Hurtado and other bill proponents at the state Capitol last Thursday.

He called the bill "a substantial down payment in repairing our aging water conveyance infrastructure."

SB 559, which now moves to the Assembly floor, passed out of the Assembly Appropriations committee with amendments. Hurtado's team, the Farm Bureau and other bill proponents are reviewing amendments, including one that ties funding to improving public benefits.

The bill would allocate $308 million for repairs spanning a 33-mile stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal, which has experienced subsidence linked to groundwater pumping. The canal is operated by the Friant Division of the federal Central Valley Project. In more plentiful water years, the canal loses the opportunity to capture water—up to 300,000 acre-feet in 2019—which is lost to the ocean.

It is this loss of water that concerns Tulare County farmer Josh Pitigliano. The fourth-generation farmer, who grows nut crops, citrus, wheat and corn, relies on CVP water from the Friant Division through the Lower Tule Irrigation District. This year, Pitigliano and other Class 1 water users received 20% of their contract supply.

"This has been a terrible year," Pitigliano said. "For the Lower Tule Irrigation District, there's not enough water to fill our system, so to keep all of our crops growing, we have relied heavily on our well water, and with (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), this is not sustainable. We need to get the Friant-Kern Canal fixed so that when we do have a wet year, we can capture this water. I mean, we're just playing with fire right now."

Repairs to California water infrastructure are long overdue, Pitigliano said.

"We're in a drought, but we know we're going to have a wet year, so for goodness sakes, we better be ready for it," said Pitigliano, a director on the Friant Water Division board. "If we do have a wet year and we can't capture this water and it gets sent out to the ocean, then we're all going to have mud on our face."

The Friant Water Authority is working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to restore part of the canal. Both agencies are identifying funding for the project. The Friant-Kern Canal delivers water to more than 1 million acres and 250,000 residents in Tulare and Kern counties.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement of a $5.1 billion plan for state investments in water facilities and climate resiliency also identified $200 million over two years for restoring capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal and other conveyance facilities.

"Where the Friant Division gets impacted heavily is in average or really wet years because of the amount of capacity that's lost in the canal," said Johnny Amaral, chief of external affairs for the Friant Water Authority. "In 2019, we lost 300,000 acre-feet of opportunity because capacity was lost in the middle reach of the canal and in a year like this, that is a dramatic amount of water."

Amaral said he is hoping repairs on the canal can begin this year.

"You hate for this to be your strategy, but we're hopeful for rain and snow, because if you thought this year was chaotic with the water supply, if it's another dry year next year, boy, it's just trouble," Amaral said.

Adam Borchard of the California Fresh Fruit Association said proposed water system improvements "will sustain our region, our state and our people for decades to come."

Hurtado said action is needed now to protect future water supplies.

"We're expecting water shortages, so we need to get serious about water, and SB 559 is a great bill that will help improve water management in the state of California," she said. "But we need to do much more."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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