Friant-Kern Canal fix approved over concerns the plan isn’t fully baked

October 28, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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The Friant Water Authority on Thursday approved the final environmental review for a massive project to fix a 33-mile segment of the Friant-Kern Canal despite continued questions about funding and other concerns expressed by some Friant contractors.

One water manager compared the plan to several bungled construction projects, including California’s High Speed Rail and a patient tower at the former Tulare Regional Medical Center that was labeled the  “tower of shame” in a 2016 Tulare County Grand Jury report for more than 700 change orders that created $17 million in additional costs.

“Delano-Earlimart (Irrigation District) is a downstream contractor. As such, we are highly impacted and want to see (the Friant-Kern Canal) project completed,” said Eric R. Quinley, General Manager of Delano-Earlimart. “But we want to make sure it’s constructed right.”

He listed several issues he and other water managers, including Dana Munn, General Manager of Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District, feel are “yellow flashing lights” that must be addressed before moving forward.
Those include a lack of secured funding, unanswered questions about certain design aspects and an “unrealistic schedule to meet political pressures.”

“We’ve been told we can’t wait, that we can figure these things out and fix them later,” Quinley said at the meeting. “History is full of examples of the impacts when you need a project so badly you don’t slow down and address the warning signs.”

In order to ease some of those concerns, the Friant Authority removed one section of its approval resolution, which had directed staff to move forward “preparation of Project plans and specification to the 100% design level and the solicitation of contractors to construct the Project.”

But that left more questions about what, exactly, was being approved as two other sections in the resolution state that the board is approving the final environmental review “as the Project to be implemented” and that staff shall file a “Notice of Determination” with the state and Tulare and Kern counties. A notice of determination is a notice of a project to be carried out.

“It seems like a real CEQA snafu,” one water manager said after the meeting. He referred to the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires all aspects of a project to be laid out in detail before the project can move forward.

One of the main design aspects concerning Quinley and others is turnouts from the canal to their districts. While the canal’s elevation will be changed under the plan, the turnouts will be left at their current levels, which would decrease head pressure. As the entire system is gravity fed, that could be a problem, but isn’t addressed in the plan’s design.

That could open the project to a legal challenge under CEQA, Quinley said.

Friant Authority’s Attorney Don Davis disagreed, saying Thursday’s action was to approve “the bigger issue of whether this is the alternative we want to pursue.”

“The comments are all fair, including about funding, but they aren’t specific to the environmental issues under consideration today,” he said.

The Friant-Kern Canal runs 152 miles along the eastern flank of the San Joaquin Valley from Millerton Lake near Fresno bringing water to farms and towns all the way down Arvin in southern Kern County.

A fix has been needed for some years as excessive groundwater pumping caused the canal to sink from about Pixley in southern Tulare County to the Kern County border. That sag reduced the amount of water the canal can carry by up to 60 percent.

The crimp to supplies has become more urgent as the the state’s new groundwater sustainability law has gone into effect. The Sustainable Groundwater Management act requires over pumped aquifers come into balance by 2040.

To do that, water managers need to bring in more water, especially in big water years, something the Friant-Kern Canal can’t handle right now.

The project, as approved Thursday, would raise the canal embankments and lining at the north and south ends of the sag and build an entirely new canal for 20 miles in the mid-section of the sag.

The goal is to bring the canal back to its originally designed carrying capacity of 4,000 cubic feet per second. Right now, it’s down to about 1,900 CFS.

Next, the environmental reviews must be approved by the Bureau of Reclamation. The federal government owns the canal, which is operated by the Friant Authority.

Once all the approvals are in, Friant Authority staff is expected to continue moving forward with land acquisition and seek construction permits by early 2021.

Cost is estimated at $400 to $500 million.

Neither the Friant Authority nor the Bureau have nearly enough money.

So far, the only “cash in hand” is about $50 million from various pots within the Bureau.

That will pay for most of the pre-construction work: Engineering, design, feasibility studies, preparation to acquire permits and preparation for land acquisition.

There is a request to the Bureau for another $70 million, for a total of $120 million, which will require matching funds from the Friant Water Authority.

That amount could be enough to rehab and rebuild the canal to be able to carry between 2,500 and 3,000 CFS.

The request for $70 million is still moving through Congress.

Meanwhile, some Friant contractors are seeking outside, private investors to help with the costs and the Friant Authority is negotiating with landowners believe to have caused the sag to pay some share of the costs.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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