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State sinks bill to fix Friant-Kern Canal

State sinks bill to fix Friant-Kern Canal

SB 559, a $400 million bill to fix subsidence in the Friant-Kern Canal, is extended to the 2019-2020 legislative session


SACRAMENTO – State leadership has again sunk plans to repair subsidence and eroding water quality in one of California’s most economically and financially sensitive areas – at least for now.

Senate Bill 559 was postponed until the next legislative session on Sept. 11 when it was extended into a two-year bill during its review in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The legislation would have secured $400 million in state general funds to repair subsidence in the canal caused during the historic drought. A portion of the canal, roughly 20 miles long, has subsided twelve feet below its original design elevation, including three feet of subsidence from 2014 to 2017, due to groundwater overdraft during the drought.

The bill was introduced by State Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) and co-authored by a coalition of Valley legislators including Senator Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno), Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), Senator Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), Assemblymember Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals), Assemblymember Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) and Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), many of whom stood side by side on the banks of the canal to announce the bi-partisan bill in March.

“I am beyond proud of the work that my colleagues and I have partnered on to raise awareness about the needs in the Central Valley region. The bipartisan work on SB 559 is just a glimpse of what we can accomplish if we work together,” Sen. Hurtado said. “Although the extension of the bill wasn’t the outcome that we had anticipated, it will provide stakeholders across the board with more opportunities to continue fighting for long-term investments in clean water supply. I look forward to revisiting this conversation next legislative year with my colleagues.”

The bill passed out of the State Senate in May and had unanimous support in the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in July, where it was amended after critics of the bill argued that funding should come from the federal government and/or the project users, not the state. To address these concerns, the amendments required a 35% match from user fees, local sources, federal funding or a combination of all of the above.

Unfortunately, the bill stalled in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee which failed to vote on the bill prior to the end of the 2019 legislative session on Sept. 13.

Currently, the Friant-Kern Canal’s conveyance capacity has degraded due to several factors, including severe land subsidence caused by regional groundwater overdraft. A portion of the canal, roughly 20 miles long, has subsided twelve feet below its original design elevation, including three feet of subsidence from 2014 to 2017. As a result, the canal has suffered the loss of 60 percent of its carrying capacity—constricting the delivery of water to some of California’s most vulnerable communities. The 152-mile canal, which runs from Friant Dam in Fresno to the Kern River in Bakersfield, conveys water for groundwater storage and clean drinking water for some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. Moreover, the canal provides irrigation for more than 18,000 individual family farms—almost a quarter of the Valley’s agriculture land and 22 percent of all farms in California.

“This effort is of critical importance to cities, farms, and small communities that depend on water from the Friant-Kern Canal to recharge our groundwater aquifer,” said Jason Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of Friant Water Authority. “Although delaying passage of this bill until next year was not the outcome we were hoping for, we remain committed to working towards creating a successful partnership for funding, and Senator Hurtado’s efforts will be critical toward our success.”

Phillips was among a group of executives and elected officials from seven Tulare County entities to release a joint statement on the legislature’s failure to enact the bill or a General Fund budget request to pay for the project.

“This is a disappointing outcome for everyone, including the San Joaquin Valley cities, towns, farms and disadvantaged communities whose drinking water and economic future are directly connected to the water flowing through the Friant-Kern Canal,” stated the group, which includes California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, Friant Water Authority in Lindsay, California Dairies, Inc. in Visalia as well as the Tulare County Farm Bureau and Tulare County Board of Supervisors. “This project was and is an opportunity for the State to lead a partnership for repairing a facility that benefits all of California and to achieve key policy goals related to achieving sustainable groundwater management and clean drinking water. While the specific impacts to the Friant-Kern Canal Capacity Correction Project have not been identified, there is a possibility that schedule delays will occur.”

The group goes on to state that infrastructure work on many Valley canals will continue to be a major issue for the next 20 years. Each year that California does not deal with aging infrastructure statewide, conditions only worsen and begin to resemble third-world conditions, especially in the San Joaquin Valley.

“While $400 million would have provided the necessary fix, even a small amount of State funding would have kept the Friant-Kern Canal Capacity Correction Project on schedule,” the group stated. “Additionally, it would have signaled to other partners the State’s commitment and would have encouraged optimism that the Valley’s needs were not going to be dismissed yet again.”

Money to fix all of these problems was built into Proposition 3. The $8.9 billion water bond would have provided $750 million to repair or improve water conveyance infrastructure in the valley, $640 million for projects to implement California’s groundwater regulation, and $750 million for water and wastewater treatment for lower income communities. The statewide bond was defeated with more than half of the state voting against it last November.

“It has taken decades to get to where we stand today and it will take years of dedicated leadership to remedy the crisis,” group concluded. “We will not relent in providing leadership on this issue as long as it’s needed and are committed to doing whatever is necessary to secure the Valley’s future.”

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