- An economic stimulus bill in the House of Representatives includes $200 million for repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal
- Gaining traction: an “investor option” to build more canal capacity
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein recognizes the work done by the South Valley Water Association
Congress considering $200 million for Friant-Kern Canal fix
Legislators in Congress have proposed federal funding to repair the Friant-Kern Canal. The money would help repair a choke point near Porterville, where sinking land is causing the canal to buckle, reducing flow by 60 percent.
But the cost of repair is an eye-watering $500 million.
In May, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California submitted legislation to spend $200 million each for repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal, Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct, plus $200 million for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.
On the House side, freshman Rep. TJ Cox sponsored the Move Water Now Act. The bill proposes $200 million for the Friant-Kern Canal repair project, and $200 million for San Joaquin River restoration. It is getting support from House leadership.
Although getting $200 million through Congress for the canal fix may seem like a heavy lift, the political calculus is quickly changing in favor of action.
Speaker Pelosi wants an infrastructure bill
On June 18, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a $1.5 trillion national infrastructure bill called the Moving Forward Act. It’s an economic stimulus plan that South Valley’s team in Washington D.C. tells us will be voted on soon, perhaps by the time you read this.
The 2,000-page bill includes the entirety of Cox’s Move Water Now bill, including the $200 million.
If approved, the infrastructure bill must pass the Senate and who knows what the sausage making would do to it, but infrastructure is a big buzzword in Washington these days.
“Support for fixing the canal is bipartisan,” said Johnny Amaral, Chief of External Affairs at the Friant Water Authority, the canal operator.
So cross your fingers.
State, local sources must come up with about $300 million
But even if the $200 million materializes, where will the rest of the money come from? The answer, of course, is it must come from state and local sources. Unfortunately, the climate for state funding is decidedly poor due to the impact on state revenues from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some advocates have suggested putting a state water infrastructure bond measure on the ballot in November to include money for the Friant-Kern Canal. But enthusiasm is waning because getting voter approval would be difficult in the current economic climate.
Two years ago, going to the voters for bond money didn’t work when Proposition 3 failed. The $8.9 billion statewide water bond would have specifically allocated $750 million to the Friant Water Authority in part to repair the Friant-Kern Canal. Conventional wisdom has assumed that direct handout to Friant led to the failure of Prop 3.
A state Senate bill introduced last year by Sen. Melissa Hurtado to give $400 million for canal repairs also never cleared the Senate.
“Investor option” gains traction
A new idea gaining traction is the “investor option” in which participating irrigation districts would borrow extra money to repair the canal in a way that it carries more water than it has historically.
Those districts that put up the money would control the extra space, called “Zone 3.” If they can get water in the space, it’s theirs to use or sell.
Ideally, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies would participate because the extra water in flood years could be used for groundwater recharge. (The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 mandates that groundwater resources be sustainable by 2040.)
“I think it can be a model going forward,” Amaral said, noting that the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct are also dealing with land sinking (subsidence) issues.
But is it worth it?
“Maybe there’s a cheaper way to move surplus water in wet years than to add “effective” canal capacity,” said Dan Vink, Executive Director of the South Valley Water Association. “By using new technology to monitor snowpack, we can act early in moving water out of the reservoir and may not need the extra capacity,” he said. "I would prefer the Friant contractors look at those options and maybe have some tough discussions internally about how they can pay for the fix before bringing in outside investors. It's a slippery slope you can't come back from" he added.
Whether or not an individual district participates in a Zone 3 option, all upstream irrigation districts have been assured that once the repair is done they will still get their contracted water amounts as before.
About the Friant-Kern Canal
The 152-mile-long canal extends from Millerton Lake to Bakersfield on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Water from the San Joaquin River gets delivered to irrigation districts along the canal serving about 1 million acres.
There’s a bottleneck near Porterville where sinking land has lowered the canal by 10 to 20 feet.
As Sen. Feinstein noted in introducing her legislation, that’s a problem because in the wet year of 2017, as much as 300,000 acre-feet destined for recharge simply did not get delivered because of the choke point.
A canal fix also helps the economy, she said.
Bureau of Reclamation is doing what it can
The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal, has a plan to fix it and wants to start construction next year.
Thirty-three miles of canal from Strathmore in Tulare County to Lake Woolomes in northern Kern County would be rebuilt. The banks of the canal would be raised at the beginning and ending segments, while in the so-called “middle reach,” about 20 miles of new canal would be built next to the old one, to the East.
Some federal money is already being spent.
The WIIN Act of 2016 — the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act — has been tapped for $2.35 million to pay for the Bureau of Reclamation’s feasibility study.
Also, the Bureau said earlier this year it was getting $11 million for Friant.
The WIIN Act still has about $419 million for pre-construction and construction of multiple projects, but Congress has to approve drawdowns.
In late June of this year, the Department of the Interior requested funds for projects, of which $71 million would be for the Friant Kern Canal repairs, mostly construction dollars. That’s very encouraging because once the federal government starts a construction project, it’s not likely to stop.
That funding will be key in helping the Friant Water Authority meet its commitment to begin construction on the canal fix this year, as in 2020 this year.
It’s true that the feasibility study must be completed by year end to get the money, but it’s on schedule.
The Bureau of Reclamation has told Friant Water Authority to expect $250 million of federal funding toward the project. Of that, $95 million would be a grant that does not have to repaid, but the rest would have to be repaid, although at low interest.
The beauty of the Feinstein and Cox bills is that $200 million, although it would count against the Bureau’s $250 million, would not have to be repaid.
Congressman TJ Cox Gets Support from High Up
Cox represents the 21st District — the seat was held by Republican David Valadao of Hanford, who is trying to win it back in November— and Pelosi is seeking to maintain Democratic control of the House.
Maybe that’s why despite being a freshman, Cox in January got a subcommittee hearing on his Move Water Now bill. In February, the bill —co-sponsored by fellow Democrats Jim Costa of Fresno, Josh Harder of Merced, John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Raul Grijalva of Arizona — passed the Natural Resources Committee. Grijalva’s sign-on signifies high-level support because he’s Chairman of the committee.
The bill was ready for a vote in the House of Representatives. Now it has been folded into the big infrastructure bill.
Another House bill, the Conveyance Capacity Correction sponsored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, is also a match of Feinstein’s bill, calling for $400 million toward repairs of qualifying canals and other needs.
South Valley Projects Listed in the Congressional Record
In May, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to spend federal dollars for repairs of the Friant-Kern Canal, California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal, all damaged by sinking land.
Feinstein entered into the Congressional Record a statement that repairs to the canals will give farmers “a fighting chance” in filling underground aquifers when floodwaters come and allow water districts to invest in recharge basins and similar projects.
In addition the Senator noted that “the South Valley Water Association, which covers part of the Valley, provided my office with a list of 36 projects for its area alone,” Feinstein said.
That list of projects included many that were released earlier this year in the Friant Water Supply Portfolio.
In summary there are a number of moving parts circulating around the funding for the repair of the Friant Kern Canal and local projects. Stay tuned and we’ll continue to help you track the particular players and pieces.