Proposed agreement could boost funds to fix Friant-Kern Canal

December 16, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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In what was hailed as a “landmark agreement,” farmers in an area of southern Tulare County blamed for sinking the Friant-Kern Canal from excessive groundwater pumping will chip in a hefty amount to help pay for a fix.

How hefty could be decided by their payment choice.

A longer term payment option would be $200 million.

But a lump sum option could cost only $125 million, a 37.5 percent discount, according to a proposed settlement agreement between the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency and the Friant Water Authority.

The agreement was approved by Friant Dec. 11.

It is expected to go to the Eastern Tule GSA board for final consideration on Jan. 7, 2021, according to Rogelio Caudillo, General Manager of Eastern Tule GSA.

Jason Phillips, General Manager of Friant Water Authority, declined to discuss the meat of the document as it has yet to be signed by Eastern Tule GSA.

The agreement was not made public but SJV Water obtained a copy.

In a press release, Phillips said the agreement “…shows that win-win solutions are possible, even in the difficult environment the San Joaquin Valley is facing with SGMA.”

He referred to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires over drafted groundwater basins come into balance by 2040.

One of the issues SGMA aims to halt is land subsidence caused by over pumping.

That’s exactly what damaged the Friant-Kern Canal from about Pixley in southern Tulare County to just below the Kern County border.

The 33-mile long “sag” has reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by more than 60 percent.

Fixing it will be pricey and efforts to get help from the public through a state bond and legislation failed.

Friant contractors, even those not impacted by the sag, have had to pitch in themselves and cobble together money from other sources.

Those other sources include non Friant contractors farming near the canal who rely heavily on groundwater, an area covered by the Eastern Tule GSA.

“These were very challenging discussions for us because we were negotiating with friends, family, neighbors, and even one another, each of whom has their own needs for water, Friant Water Authority Chair Chris Tantau was quoted in the press release.

Ultimately, there aren’t a lot of teeth enforcing sections of the proposed agreement, which one observer said is built on “a lot of trust.”

And it appears to provide a lot of flexibility.

For instance, Eastern Tule GSA agrees it will try to raise money for a lump sum payment through what’s known as a 218 election, a tax assessment landowners must approve by a simple majority vote.

If the 218 fails, Eastern Tule GSA will pay Friant Water Authority over time using a portion of pumping fees it plans to charge its landowners, according to the proposed agreement.

As part of its groundwater sustainability plan, Eastern Tule GSA had already approved a fee of $245 per acre foot pumped out of a set amount allotted to each landowner under a “transitional pumping” plan.

Fees go up to $500 an acre foot if landowners go over their allotment, Eastern Tule GSA’s Caudillo explained.

“Say, you’re allotted 1,000 acre feet per year. The cost to pump that amount is $245 per acre foot. But if you go over that amount, 1,001 acre feet, that 1 acre foot costs $500,” he said.

The plan is transitional because the allotments get smaller into the future to reduce the overdraft.

Even under those strict measures, Eastern Tule GSA’s plan predicts another three feet of subsidence beneath the Friant-Kern Canal.

That wasn’t acceptable for the Friant Water Authority, which operates the federally-owned canal that supplies water to towns and farms from Millerton Lake down the Arvin.

It began negotiating with Eastern Tule GSA earlier this year.

In exchange for the payments outlined in the proposed agreement, Friant Water Authority has agreed to support Eastern Tule’s groundwater sustainability plan.

Even if Eastern Tule ends up kicking in $125 million rather than $200 million, that could still be a significant boost to repair efforts.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal, has already contributed $50 million for the preconstruction environmental and planning work.

A request for another $70 million is moving through Congress, which would bring the federal contribution to $120 million.

Federal dollars have to be matched by the Friant contractors, so $125 million from Eastern Tule GSA would cover that amount.

A total of $245 million could get the canal back up to its historic carrying capacity of 2,500 with a little bump to 2,750 CFS, according to previous estimates.

The canal was actually designed to carry 4,000 CFS but has never been able to move that much water because of a flaw in the concrete near the Kings River crossing.

Correcting that flaw and constructing the new section to that larger capacity would jump costs to $500 million.

Raising that kind of money could require bringing in outside “investors,” according to a proposal floated by Friant Water Authority earlier this year.

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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