Water bank project in southern San Joaquin Valley nearing approval

It’s too late for the current drought, but an ambitious water bank project in the southern San Joaquin Valley would give farmers a supplemental supply in future dry spells.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation kick-started the water bank with a $6.65 million pledge toward a 560-acre recharge basin between Earlimart and Tulare east of Highway 99.

Water from the Friant-Kern Canal would be piped to the basin and percolate into the soil, and in dry years the water would be pumped out so farmers could irrigate orchards and crops.

Two farmer-controlled irrigation districts – Pixley Irrigation District and Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District – created the South Valley Water Banking Authority to build it.

“It’s important anytime you can diversify your water supply,” said Dale Brogan, general manager of the Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District. “It’s particularly important any year when farmers don’t have adequate groundwater and surface supplies.”

The water bank proposal is nearing the end of an environmental assessment process. The public comment period, originally set to end Thursday, has been extended to May 19 at the request of a property owner, the Bureau of Reclamation said Wednesday.

No significant environmental impacts have been identified. Barring a last-minute problem, it’s expected that the environmental report would be approved in June.

It’s important anytime you can diversify your water supply.

Dale Brogan, Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District

Construction would begin next year and the water bank would be ready to accept water in 2018 and be usable the next year, Brogan said.

Brogan said he and Pixley Irrigation District General Manager Dan Vink have been envisioning the water bank for about 10 years as beneficial to farmers in both districts and elsewhere.

Additionally, the state’s new groundwater law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – which farmers expect will make groundwater less available for irrigation – makes the water bank even more useful than originally anticipated, he said.

The entire project will cost an estimated $37 million to $38 million. The bureau would put in a total of $7.5 million.

Irrigation districts would buy shares in the project, giving them the right to put water into the water bank – up to 1 acre-foot per year for each share – and get water out when they need it, up to 1 acre-foot per year per share.

An acre-foot is about 325,850 gallons.

The plan is to sink up to 90,000 acre-feet into the water bank, Brogan said.

When removed from the water bank in drought years, it would be pumped via a 4.5-mile pipeline back into the Friant-Kern for delivery to participating districts.

The soil where the basin would be constructed is well-suited for a water bank because it is relatively sandy, Brogan said.

Almond groves cover most of the area where the water recharge basin would be dug. The land must be purchased and the farmers who own it are aware of the project, Brogan said.

The bureau is helping fund it under the 2006 settlement of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and Friant Division water contractors.

The settlement requires environmental restoration water flows in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, leaving less water for east side farmers, so the water bank project helps make up for that, according to the project report.

It does not appear opposition will emerge to the water bank on environmental grounds.

Sequoia Riverlands Trust in Visalia said it does not plan to comment and is not aware of an environmental organization planning to comment.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

Public hearing

What: Public hearing by South Valley Water Banking Authority

When: 2 p.m. May 26

Where: Lower Tule River Irrigation District/Pixley Irrigation District, 357 E. Olive Ave., Tipton