A key reason the San Joaquin Valley is one of the world’s premier farming regions is a ribbon of water called the Friant-Kern Canal. Part of the federal Central Valley Project, the 152-mile-long canal carries water from Millerton Lake north of Fresno to the Kern River in Bakersfield.
Along the way 15,000 farmers use irrigation to grow $10 billion worth of crops.
But the ability of farmers south of Porterville to produce those crops has been dramatically hindered in recent years because the canal has sunk — or, more accurately, the ground on which the canal sits has fallen. That is the result of groundwater pumping during drought years. The pumping caused the sinking, also known as subsidence.
Because the canal relies on gravity to move the water, the Friant Water Authority has been able to deliver only 40 percent of the supply for which the south-end farmers have contracted.
But now state lawmakers have a chance to fix the canal and return it to its full service. Under Senate Bill 559, authored by first-term state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, $400 million would be made available to the authority for restoring the canal.
The bill enjoys bipartisan support, a rarity in today’s highly partisan politics. Joining as co-authors are Democratic Assemblymen Joaquin Arambula (Fresno) and Rudy Salas (Bakersfield); Republican Assemblymen Jim Patterson (Fresno), Frank Bigelow (O’Neals), Vince Fong (Bakersfield) and Devon Mathis (Tulare); Republican Sens. Andreas Borgeas (Fresno) and Shannon Grove (Bakersfield), and Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero (Salinas).
The canal was completed in 1949. Today the pinch point is a 30-mile stretch from Porterville to Delano. The authority plans a literal work-around: It will build a parallel canal alongside the existing one. Water will flow through the new canal because subsidence will be accounted for in the construction.
About 30 bridges are currently threatened by the existing canal in the places where the flow slows to a crawl and backs up. In the new canal’s design, engineers will send the water through culverts beneath the bridges.
Farmers are not the only ones to benefit. The Friant-Kern Canal also supplies fresh water to the cities of Fresno, Orange Cove and Lindsay.
SB 559 would accomplish what was included in Proposition 3, an $8.8 billion water bond that voters narrowly defeated last November. It included money for the fixes to the Friant-Kern Canal.
The Sierra Club opposed that measure as an inappropriate help to the federal project, and now the club does not like SB 559. It argues that the bill does not include any way to deal with future subsidence under the canal or provide for conservation.
However, state regulations governing groundwater pumping are nearly ready to take effect, and they will limit how much heavy pumping can be done in the future.
As for conservation, there is the conserving of farm land that the bill would make possible. Given the economic benefit of viable farming, that is a worthy goal.
Friant-Kern has also allowed excess water to be shipped when winter rains and snow have been abundant. This supply has been recharged back into the ground for storage and eventual use when droughts return.
With the subsidence problem, groundwater recharge at the southern end is nearly impossible to achieve now.
State and federal programs coordinate efforts frequently. One only has to look at the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. Both take supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for their respective systems.
And keeping farm employees working the job, rather than drawing assistance from the public dole for unemployment should their farm close, is laudable.
The measure cleared the Senate on a bipartisan vote, and now is moving through the Assembly. The Bee endorses SB 559, and recommends legislators support it as a good way to ensure agriculture’s vitality in the state’s economy and to help restore groundwater basins in wet winters.