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Commentary: For our water future, let’s fix Central Valley canals

Issue Date: October 20, 2021
By Melissa Hurtado
Melissa Hurtado
Senate Bill 559, by Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, sought upgrades for a 33-mile stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal, a critical water conveyance system for 1 million acres of Central Valley farmland.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

Water is life for us here in the Central Valley. It impacts every facet of our day-to-day lives, from our jobs to sustaining our daily needs. This summer, a few communities in my district ran dry. One town —Teviston—was without running water for a full month. The families there were unable to turn their taps on to cook, bathe their children or even flush the toilet.

Drought and water conservation is becoming a way of life for us across the state, but especially in the San Joaquin Valley. Fortunately, farmers and farmworkers are resilient and have found ways to cope. Unfortunately, some of those ways have led to fallowed farms and decreased crop yields.

I've worked to educate Californians on what we already know—less water means less food. It means fewer choices and less availability at the grocery store. It means higher costs for our vulnerable families and communities. And it doesn't just impact us here in California. California supplies about two-thirds of the nation's fruits and nuts, as well as one-third of its vegetables. This food shortage will have national and global food supply impacts.

In 2021, for the second straight year, I authored Senate Bill 559—the State Water Resiliency Act. While the version I carried in 2020 was ultimately vetoed, it started a larger conversation about how and where we should be spending money to repair much-needed water infrastructure.

The State Water Resiliency Act of 2021would have outlined a funding plan to repair our state's broken and crumbling water conveyance canals, which provide water to 31 million Californians to support and run their homes, farms and businesses.

These canals have been damaged by decades of subsidence, or the gradual sinking of land. It's estimated that on average, parts of the Friant-Kern Canal, Delta-Mendota Canal, San Luis Canal and the California Aqueduct are experiencing a 15%-60% reduction of design flow capacity. That leads to anywhere from $15 million to $30 million a year in higher operational and power costs.

Even though these damaged canals significantly reduce California's resilience to climate change, I made the hard decision to hold my bill in the Assembly because amendments taken in the Appropriations Committee would have slowed down its funding, further delaying much-needed repairs. I was able to secure $100 million toward repairs in this year's budget, but there is still more work to do.

Sacramento has largely ignored the need for repairs to these water conveyance canals for years. As someone who was born and raised in Sanger, I've seen the pain, worry and devastation first-hand that our rural agricultural communities experience without water—which is why I have fought and will continue to fight for our voices to be heard.

Part of my focus is to advocate and raise awareness of vital issues to my colleagues who represent areas outside of the Central Valley. As chairwoman of the newly formed Select Committee on Human Security, I'm working to educate myself, my colleagues and other Californians about the future of water in our state and the impact it has on our food security.

I hope to show that there is a commonality among all of us: We're all worried about how climate change impacts our daily lives and our security, where our next meal will come from and how to protect our environment for future generations.

Sometimes, I feel like I am having the same conversation over and over again with those that don't understand what we in the valley do—and the fact that climate change is here in the valley.

While we all want to work toward a future our children can enjoy, we must also learn to adapt or we will not survive. I am sure that those I talk to outside the valley sometimes feel the same way about their conversations with me.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of my job—challenging predetermined assumptions, including my own, about what the canals stand for, what they're used for and what the greater impact of their continued deterioration will be. I am working to change these assumptions by providing real information, telling the stories of farmers, farmworkers and members of the community.

The people who are impacted by these water shortages and restrictions have real faces, real families and will face real suffering. I promise you, I will not stop fighting on behalf of our community and the Central Valley.

(Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, represents California's 14th Senate District, spanning Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties. She may be contacted through her Senate office website, sd14.senate.ca.gov.)

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




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