Friant lawsuit over sinking canal altered but moving forward

May 7, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Construction on the Friant-Kern Canal shows a new canal being laid out next to the existing canal, which has sunk due to overpumping groundwater in the region. SOURCE: Friant Water Authority
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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One of multiple charges in a lawsuit that pins blame for the perpetually sinking Friant-Kern Canal on a single Tulare County groundwater agency was recently removed.

The Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (ETGSA) hailed the move as vindication. But plaintiffs, the Friant Water Authority and Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, said the change was simply meant to narrow the complaint in order to get faster action against Eastern Tule.

The stakes could not be higher as the entire Tule subbasin, which covers the southern half of Tulare’s valley portion, is looking down the barrel of a possible pumping takeover by the state Water Resources Control Board. 

The Water Board, the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, has scheduled a “probationary hearing” for the subbasin Sept. 17. If it’s put on probation, that could be the first step toward state bureaucrats, not local water managers, setting pumping limits, requiring well meters and issuing new fees and fines.

The neighboring Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County, was put on probation by the Water Board April 16. Four other San Joaquin Valley subbasins are also scheduled for hearings. The Kaweah subbasin will be heard Nov. 5. Then the Kern subbasin will come before the board in January 2025 and the Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins will be heard later in 2025.

A major focus for the Water Board will likely continue to be whether subbasins have done enough to stem subsidence, land sinking, caused by over pumping.

Continued – and more rapid – sinking along the canal could be a major red flag for the Tule subbasin. Friant’s lawsuit alleges Eastern Tule is at fault.

For its part, Eastern Tule said the removal of Arvin-Edison’s charge of “interference with contractual relations” showed the claim was “frail.”

Not so, said Arvin-Edison General Manager Jeevan Muhar. 

“We can always bring it back at another time,” he said. “We want to keep the focus on the other causes of action because we can’t afford further delay. Every day that passes leads to an unsustainable world for all of us.”

Arvin-Edison is at the end of the Friant-Kern Canal so when subsidence through Eastern Tule’s boundaries caused a sag that reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by 60%, that created major problems for Arvin-Edison.

Subsidence caused a 33-mile section of the Friant-Kern Canal to sink.

The main crux of Friant’s lawsuit remains intact. 

It alleges that Eastern Tule’s water accounting system has allowed growers to continue over pumping near the canal causing further subsidence and the GSA hasn’t issued high enough pumping fees, which were supposed to help Friant pay to rebuild the canal, per a 2021 agreement between the entities.

Eastern Tule General Manager Rogelio Caudillo said he is glad Arvin-Edison recognized the “frailty” of the dropped claim and that the lawsuit stretches the terms of that 2021 agreement. He added the action is an attempt to control Eastern Tule’s management and finances.

The lawsuit also directs how Eastern Tule “carries out its mission to help the Tule Subbasin achieve sustainability by 2040 and requires ETGSA to collect more groundwater pumping penalty revenue for canal projects,” Caudillo wrote in an email. 

Subsidence has been an issue in the region for decades, and is one of the reasons the canal was built in 1951.

“While SGMA empowers ETGSA to manage its portion of the subbasin and take regulatory actions to reduce groundwater pumping and subsidence, SGMA does not make ETGSA responsible to pay for subsidence,” Caudillo wrote. 

New subsidence data included in the lawsuit, however, show Eastern Tule hasn’t been adequately managing its share of the subbasin, said Johnny Amaral, Chief Operating Officer for Friant. In fact, subsidence has increased, leading to further damage, he added. 

Since the 2021 agreement was inked, large areas along the newly built portion of the canal have subsided in excess of 1.8 feet, the lawsuit alleges. It also alleges that Eastern Tule is predicting other areas around the canal may reach two feet of subsidence as early as September 2024.

Arvin-Edison’s Muhar predicted the lawsuit would play a role in the Water Board’s consideration of probation. 

“I don’t see how the board could ignore the lawsuit,” Muhar said. “Eastern Tule is causing havoc, and I can only hope they wake up and do something different.” 

Caudillo disagreed about the lawsuit’s likely impact on the possibility of probation.

“But if the board decides to intervene, doing so would likely take away authority for managing subsidence from ETGSA, making the future of the ETGSA agreement and the lawsuit more uncertain,” he wrote in an email.

A case management conference is scheduled for June 26.

Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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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